Astrobotic Technology and Masten Space Systems say a computer vision and navigation system developed by Astrobotic successfully landed Masten’s Xombie vertical-takeoff vertical-landing suborbital rocket at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
In this June 20 technology demonstration, the Astrobotic Autolanding System (AAS) scanned the landscape, selected a landing spot, and directed a rocket-powered lander to a safe landing point, all without a human operator and without terrestrial aids such as GPS.
The flight test was funded by the Flight Opportunities Program of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. Astrobotic is a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University founded by William “Red” Whittaker, professor of robotics.
The capability demonstrated by the AAS will be critical for Astrobotic’s plans to land payloads on the Moon, as well as for future NASA missions to unmapped asteroids, Mars and other sites where the terrain is hazardous and communications are limited.
"Conceptually, this is like the Apollo missions where the astronauts navigated to a safe landing by looking out the window of the LEM,” said Kevin Peterson, Astrobotic’s chief technology officer and a Robotics Institute alumnus. “In this case, we have an onboard computer instead of an astronaut, and the cameras, IMU (inertial measurement unit), and software are so precise that they can track the craft's location to within a few meters."
Developing navigation and hazard avoidance for a self-landing, rocket-powered spacecraft on Earth is challenging because of the need to test in the same operating conditions that the system will encounter in a planetary landing. Astrobotic and Masten collaborated on a framework that enabled the test flight without prior knowledge of exactly where the rocket would choose to land. The successful flight was the capstone of only a few months of work together.