Science and Exploration

NASA’s LADEE – Testing a Multi-Use Spacecraft Design

By Marc Boucher
Status Report
September 6, 2013
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NASA’s LADEE – Testing a Multi-Use Spacecraft Design
An Ames developed component of the LADEE spacecraft, called the Modular Common Spacecraft Bus architecture, will demonstrate how to build a first class spacecraft at reduced cost. Image Credit: NASA.

On Friday, Sept. 6, NASA is scheduled to launch a small satellite mission, called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about its atmosphere and the role of dust in the lunar sky.
LADEE is the first spacecraft designed, developed, built, integrated and tested at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Using a Modular Common Spacecraft Bus architecture, also developed by Ames, LADEE will demonstrate how to build a first class spacecraft at reduced cost. The LADEE spacecraft makes use of general purpose spacecraft modules that allow for a plug-and-play approach to manufacturing and assembly. This approach along with commercial off-the-shelf products allows mission designers to develop, assemble and test multiple spacecraft modules at the same time – essentially giving them the versatility to get the biggest bang for NASA’s buck.

“LADEE’s common bus is an innovative concept that brings NASA a step closer to multi-use designs and assembly line production, while moving away from custom design,” said Ames Director S. Pete Worden. “This mission will put the common bus design to the test. This same common bus can be used on future missions to explore other destinations, including voyages to orbit and land on the moon, low-Earth orbit, and near-Earth objects.”

The space agency has adopted a “more with less” approach to robotic missions. It also is about using NASA’s small satellite missions to test cutting-edge space technologies for rapid development. These technology demonstrations allow NASA the opportunities to test in space emerging science and engineering technologies, and economical commercial off-the-shelf technologies on a smaller scale. These demonstrations also help researchers better understand how hardware will survive the harsh radiation, temperature and vacuum conditions encountered in space. All while being faster, more efficient and less expensive than traditional missions.

Findings could reap untold benefits for science and industry here on Earth. Rapid technology developments will allow future NASA missions to pursue bolder and more sophisticated science, enable safe and rewarding human missions beyond low-Earth orbit and enable entirely new approaches to U.S. space operations.

“NASA is looking for affordable ways to launch often and inexpensively,” said David Korsmeyer, Director of Engineering at NASA Ames. “We can use off-the-shelf components because customized components are expensive to continually develop and improve. If these systems work successfully, NASA will be looking for other commercial technologies to use for space exploration.”

Instead of building increasingly large and complex exploratory missions, these low-cost accelerated missions could open the door for creativity, clever problem solving, and inspired missions with simple goals. Mission planners expect the next decade could see amazing developments as NASA continues to fund missions using this innovative concept.

“Simplicity was not a necessary aspect of this mission, but is clearly a driver for successful missions,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames. “The important thing is to maximize the success per dollar.”

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington funds the LADEE mission. In addition to designing the spacecraft, Ames manages the overall mission, operates the spacecraft, and hosts the project scientist. Goddard manages the science instruments and technology demonstration payload, the science operations center and provides overall mission support. Wallops is responsible for launch vehicle integration, launch services and operations. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages LADEE within the Lunar Quest Program Office.

For more information about the LADEE mission, visit:

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