When Xombies Attack

Xombie in FlightCredit :  NASA

Xombie in Flight
Credit : NASA

While SpaceX has been getting the lion’s share of RLV publicity lately with an increasingly ambitious set of tests for the Grasshopper test vehicle, (and a posthumous nod from Johnny Cash) it is by no means the only company pushing the envelope of closed loop control.  Working with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and Draper Labs,  Masten Space System’s Xombie  technology demonstration rocket recently completed an ambitious test flight designed to simulate atmospheric entry and landing on planetary bodies.

Closed loop testing,  described in detail in the Dryden news release below, is a critical component in effectively and affordably simulating on Earth, techniques which supports NASA’s goals for future exploration, but even beyond the flight vehicle supplied by Masten Space Systems,  there is a clear NewSpace component as well.

In what is gradually emerging as the foundation of a permanently expanding off world economy,  re-writing all the programming for every landing site contemplated is not an economically sustainable alternative. This work, carried out under NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program is an important precursor step in developing the type of robust automated landing capability on the Moon, Mars and beyond which can open the doors for a flood of missions, both commercial and scientific to be launched by a growing number of ventures.  The key impediment for the moment, as always, is launch costs, a barrier which is finally being addressed in a serious manner by the Xombie’s much larger cousin, the SpaceX Grasshopper.

Dryden News Release:

MOJAVE, Calif. – A rocket-powered, vertical-landing space-access technology demonstrator reached its highest altitude and furthest distance to date March 25 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., using a developmental navigation system designed to land a space vehicle on other celestial bodies.

Masten Space Systems’ XA-0.1B “Xombie” suborbital rocket lifted off the launch pad for an 80-second flight while being controlled by Charles Stark Draper Laboratory’s Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE) system developed under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

This combined capability of a rocket-powered demonstrator and a closed-loop planetary Guidance, Navigation and Control system allows NASA to begin testing prototype landing instruments for future missions to the Moon or Mars under realistic conditions without leaving Earth.

“Two hundred meters above the Martian or lunar surface is not the place you want to be using an innovative new sensor or landing algorithm for the first time,” explained Christopher Baker of the Flight Opportunities Program at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. “We are working to create an environment that provides opportunities to test these systems a little closer to home.”

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie space-access technology demonstrator lifts off on its highest and longest flight to date, guided by Draper Lab’s GENIE navigation and control system. › View Larger Image  Xombie rose 1,626 feet, or nearly 500 meters – higher than New York’s Empire State Building – moving in a trajectory that replicated the speed and angle of a planetary approach. It landed 984 feet, nearly 300 meters, away from the take off site. The flight established a test-bed capability that will allow for landing demonstrations that start at much higher altitudes—several miles above the ground.

“While computer simulations provide some value as systems are developed, testing that system in a relevant flight environment is invaluable,” said Colin Ake, Masten’s director of business development. “We want our vehicles to facilitate innovation and lower the current barriers to space access. We hope this is just the beginning of many more landing tests for NASA and Draper.”

With a growing interest in using commercial suborbital launch vehicles to demonstrate planetary landing technology applications for future space missions, the Flight Opportunities Program funded the development of precision landing technology demonstrations.

The Xombie technology demonstration rocket soars aloft, ascending more than 1,600 feet above ground and moving almost 1,000 feet laterally, guided by Draper Lab’s GENIE navigation and control system. › View Larger Image  Draper, based in Cambridge, Mass., was selected to lead this engineering and integration demonstration effort. Draper subsequently teamed with Masten, based in Mojave, to provide the vertical takeoff and landing flight vehicle to demonstrate this new landing technology. Flight safety and assurance monitoring was performed by Masten’s Sensei™ software during flight.

“Draper is excited to be a part of a team that demonstrated such a unique capability, combining our guidance, navigation and control technology with a proven test flight platform like Xombie,” said Doug Zimpfer, Draper’s associate director for human space exploration. “We believe the GENIE and Xombie system provide NASA with the platform necessary to demonstrate a wide range of exciting planetary landing technologies including advanced guidance technology.”

Flight Opportunities initiated the test efforts in December 2011. The flights built incrementally on ground simulations, tethered flights and closed-loop flight demonstrations. The most recent flight demonstrated an expanded Xombie and GENIE envelope for precision planetary landing that includes enough margin to integrate additional landing sensor technologies in the future.

Masten’s Xombie space-access technology demonstrator descends for landing after its highest and longest flight to date, guided by Draper Lab’s GENIE navigation and control system. › View Larger Image  The Flight Opportunities Program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, is enabling demonstration and maturation of new technology payloads using suborbital reusable launch vehicles, high-altitude balloons and parabolic aircraft to expose technology payloads to space-relevant environments of reduced gravity or near-space flights.

The program facilitates low-cost access to suborbital environments for a broad range of innovators as a means of advancing space technology development and supporting the evolving entrepreneurial commercial space industry.

The Space Technology Mission Directorate will develop the cross-cutting, advanced and pioneering new technologies needed for NASA’s current and future missions, many of which also benefit America’s aerospace industries, other government agencies, and address national needs.

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spacetech

For more about NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden

ryden News Release

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