ASC’s 3D Flash LIDAR camera selected for OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission

by Chris Bergin

The Advanced Scientific Concepts (ASC) 3D Flash LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) range cameras have been selected for the OSIRIS-REx planetary science mission that will return a sample of the carbonaceous asteroid 1999 RQ36. The mission – launching in 2016 – is aiming to return the asteroid sample to Earth in 2023.


Created under the New Frontiers programme – an effort that calls for the use of medium-class spacecraft for planetary exploration – OSIRIS-Rex will be the third such mission to be carried out, following the already-launched NASA’s Juno mission, currently on its way to Jupiter, and NASA’s New Horizons, currently on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and expected to fly past Pluto and its four moons in July 2015.

The mission’s full name “Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer”, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first US mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

“This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “It’s robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations.”

Currently, no asteroid destinations have been selected for human missions – past case studies in documentation in the 2009 Flexible Path presentation (L2 Link), while the official line continues to only reference the ambiguous “sometime in the 2025 range” as the timeframe for such a mission.

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However, the ambitious OSIRIS-Rex mission will be a step forward, not least because of the complicated mission profile of launch, rendezvous, “landing” and returning of a spacecraft from such a deep space target.

A key element of the mission will be the rendezvous, with ASC’s 3D Flash LIDAR cameras tasked with determining the spacecraft range to the asteroid surface, as well as evaluating the approach to potential sample sites.

The 3D Flash LIDAR cameras are small form-factor, lightweight 3D depth cameras capable of capturing a full array of 128×128 independently triggered 3D range pixels with co-registered intensity per frame, up to 30 frames per second, allowing 3D range data streams to be generated in real-time, feeding the spacecraft guidance navigation and control systems.  The cameras will be able to operate in the harsh deep space environments.

This exciting technology has multiple applications, ranging from domestic to military – including Automotive, Defense, Surveillance, Robotics and Aviation – with ASC expanding its space-based applications since 2005.

As the first 3D Flash LIDAR camera in space, ASC’s DragonEye has already shown it is capable of real-time images without motion distortion, via its a non-mechanical camera and its eye-safe laser. 

The camera was tested by NASA Johnson Space Center under the Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program on both STS-127 and STS-133 and is used by SpaceX Corporation’s Dragon vehicle for autonomous guidance, navigation and control (GNC).

ASC’s 3D sensor engines are used by NASA Langley Research Center as the core 3D sensor for Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance (ALHAT) efforts and by NASA JPL for its on-going development of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) solutions.

“The DragonEye 3D Flash LIDAR camera opens many  doors for 3D FLC in space, making both manned and unmanned AR&D possible,” said Dr. Roger Stettner, President and CEO of ASC in 2011.

“We are pleased with what we’ve already been able to achieve with the DragonEye, and look forward to this next phase of product development which sets the stage for long term space use.”

Following launch – on a vehicle yet to be selected – the 3D Flash LIDAR will get to prove its value four years into the mission, as OSIRIS-REx approaches the primitive, near Earth asteroid. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping.

The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft’s arm will take a sample, allowing the spacecraft to gradually move closer to the site for the arm to extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

“The OSIRIS-REx sample return mission is of major importance in revealing the origin of volatiles and organics that led to life on Earth,” said Dr. Dante Lauretta, the Principal Investigator overseeing the mission. 

“Being able to accurately range to the asteroid surface during the ‘touch and go’ maneuver allows us to monitor the target profile and ensure that we are on a safe approach trajectory, with the possibility of multiple approaches if necessary.  We welcome ASC’s support to our project.”

OSIRIS-Rex’s principal investigator is located at the University of Arizona. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft.

“ASC has worked with commercial companies and NASA’s Langley, Johnson, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory for many years creating and enhancing a non-scanning 3D capture technology for space. We are confident this deep space version of a 3D Flash LIDAR camera will support the success of the OSIRIS-REx mission and assist this important project to deepen man’s understanding of solar system origins,” add Dr. Stettner.

“The high quality team assembled for this effort greatly increases the probability of success, making safe, deep-space vehicle operations a reality.”

On the return journey, the sample will be stored in a capsule for the long trip back to Earth, ahead of re-entry and a landing at Utah’s Test and Training Range – where the Orion parachute testing is currently taking place – in 2023.

The capsule’s design will be similar to that used by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which returned the world’s first comet particles from comet Wild 2 in 2006.

The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule will be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The material will be removed and delivered to a dedicated research facility following stringent planetary protection protocol. Precise analysis will be performed that cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments.

RQ36 is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of five football fields. The asteroid, little altered over time, is likely to represent a snapshot of our solar system’s infancy. The asteroid also is likely rich in carbon, a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life.

Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating some of life’s ingredients can be created in space. Scientists want to see if they also are present on RQ36.

“This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration,” said Jim Green, director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington. “The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids.”

The mission will accurately measure the “Yarkovsky effect” for the first time. The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid, as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. The small push adds up over time, but it is uneven due to an asteroid’s shape, wobble, surface composition and rotation.

For scientists to predict an Earth-approaching asteroid’s path, they must understand how the effect will change its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will help refine RQ36’s orbit to ascertain its trajectory and devise future strategies to mitigate possible Earth impacts from celestial objects.

The OSIRIS-REx payload includes instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Langley Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also are involved. The science team is composed of numerous researchers from universities, private and government agencies.

Images: Via L2, NASA, and ASC). 

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