Advanced Moon Navigation Tech Picked for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program Initiative

May 18, 2020
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image of nasa small satellite
Image courtesy NASA

Under NASA’s Artemis program, the agency plans to send humans back to the moon by 2024 — and small spacecraft will help blaze the trail.

A partnership between The University of Texas at Austin and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was one of nine university-led groups selected by NASA to advance these spacecraft, which can be as small as a shoebox or as large as a refrigerator.

The UT team is focused on advancing navigation technology for these small spacecraft. The research aims to shift how small spacecraft navigate when close to the moon, from tracking stars to identifying lunar craters.

"Just like an airline pilot would use cities and roads, we would use the craters as a target to navigate," said Brandon Jones, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

Jones explains that spacecraft close to Earth, such as the resupply spacecraft that navigate to and from the International Space Station, can use GPS for navigation. But as spacecraft get farther away, the signal weakens, and alternative navigation techniques become necessary. That limits how effective small vessels can be in providing navigation and timing information to other spacecraft. By taking advantage of small cameras already on these ships, Jones' team aims to not only improve navigation technology but shrink the form factor, so the devices can better fit on the smaller vessels.

While the moon crater navigation tech's math checks out, Jones said, it's never been demonstrated in orbit. Mastering it first with small spacecraft before it can be considered for crewed missions is an important goal of Jones' research.

The UT team will spend the next two years building and testing the technology. The researchers will also detail the kinds of materials they would need to build a spacecraft and the types of missions best suited for their technology, to potentially launch.

"At the end of the two years, we plan to have the lab testing done and the spacecraft designed," Jones said. "Then, ideally, we’ll be able to buy the hardware we've already selected to build and launch."

Small spacecraft could prove an integral part of future exploration missions by relaying communications and navigation near the moon. This capability could play an important role in helping the agency build a sustainable presence on the moon.

“As we prepare for the next robotic and crewed missions to the moon, we expect small spacecraft to help forge the path ahead by scouting terrain, prospecting for resources and establishing communications and navigation capabilities in cislunar space,” said Christopher Baker, program executive for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, in NASA’s announcement of the selections. “Taking advantage of their small size and shorter development timelines, small spacecraft are increasingly capable as both rapid precursor missions and as cost-effective, in-space infrastructure.”

Jones is leading the UT Austin team, and other members include Renato Zanetti, assistant professor in aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics; Christopher D’Souza, of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, who is also an alumnus (Ph.D. ASE 1991); two graduate student assistants and two undergraduate researchers. Jones is the director of the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory (TSL), a student-driven research group comprising volunteer graduate and undergraduate students from multiple engineering and science disciplines. Jones and Zanetti will work with the two undergraduate researchers to lead a team of TSL students in the development of the CubeSat mission concept and spacecraft design.