NASA contracts with Astrobotic to develop software for icy moon landings
NASA has contracted with Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a company that develops space robotics for planetary missions, for the design of navigation software capable of guiding robotic landers on future missions to the solar system’s icy moons, which could harbor microbial life in subsurface oceans.
The software will be geared toward landing spacecraft on worlds such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus without the need for a precursor orbiter to image these worlds’ surfaces and choose a landing site.
Over a 15-month period, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will work with Astrobotic to design navigation software specifically geared to icy moons and to safely landing a probe on their surfaces without a need for advance mapping missions. The agreement is a Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) Phase II-X contract.
Both Europa and Enceladus are top candidates in the search for microbial life beyond Earth, as they contain liquid water, chemical ingredients, and energy sources, all of which are necessary for life to get started. Enceladus’s chemical ingredients and energy sources exist in hydrothermal vents similar to those on Earth’s ocean floors, where some scientists think life on our planet got its start.
NASA’s Cassini mission detected water and organics erupting from Enceladus’s south pole, suggesting these could be present on the moon’s surface as well as within its underground oceans. This finding has pushed Enceladus ahead of Europa in terms of priorities for a landing mission.
While a lander that touches down close to Enceladus’s geysers might be able to detect life in the subsurface ocean with scientific instruments, such a site might prove hazardous to the probe if ices are in the process of breaking up. Without the detailed surface images an orbiter would acquire, the selection of landing sites is challenging, as those that are most safe may not be the most scientifically interesting.
Sending an orbiter to map Enceladus prior to a landing mission would prove expensive and could delay the latter by decades. There is also a possibility that images captured by an orbiter may not have high enough resolution to find the most scientifically interesting landing sites.
Astrobotic hopes to address these issues by developing software that could map the surface of an icy moon as a lander descends onto it. The company already has landing simulation software, known as the Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) program AstroNav, which researchers will attempt to adapt to enable landings on icy moons as well as worlds covered by thick atmospheres, such as Saturn’s largest moon Titan and even on dark areas on Earth’s Moon.
“In prior work, we demonstrated that AstroNav could provide precise navigation to free-flying platforms in GPS-denied,unmapped underground environments. Our software has been designed to be adaptable, and we believe that it can be extended to applications such as orbit determination and landings on unmapped, planetary surfaces,” Astrobotic Principal Investigator and Senior Research Engineer Kerry Snyder emphasized.
Existing software geared toward exploring the Moon’s subsurface and toward detecting hazards from orbit was developed through a similar, prior Phase II STTR contract with NASA. It will function as a starting point in the development of SLAM-directed landings on small distant objects like Enceladus, significantly reducing the cost of these landings.
“The potential implications of this research are thrilling, and we are honored to get the chance to work with JPL on this contract. JPL has delivered the most advanced planetary landings in history, and this research contract gives us a chance to work with the best in-space navigation researchers in the world,” said Astrobotic’s Director of Future Missions and Technology Fraser Kitchell.
In late 2019, Astrobotic plans to demonstrate use of the software in an Alaska ice field.
Other solar system worlds that may have subsurface oceans that could host life and therefore benefit from this technology include Ceres; Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto; Saturn’s moon Titan; Neptune’s moon Triton, and Pluto.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.