Astrobotic Technology contracts to develop autonomous landing capability for sample return

May 13, 2014

PITTSBURGH, PA – Future NASA and commercial missions will increasingly target destinations with challenging topography and limited communication, such as unmapped asteroids, surface rendezvous sites for sample return, and terrain features like polar peaks, crater rims, and skylights on Mars and the Moon. “These are worthy but unexplored destinations,” said William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic’s Chairman. “Smaller, less expensive robotic landers will precede human missions to such destinations, but they are less tolerant – even a small hazard such as a rock or slope could be fatal for a small lander. This class of missions demands precise autonomous hazard detection and landing.”

The work under this SBIR will innovate safe, precise navigation for autolanding for sample return missions to distant asteroids, planets, or moons. The technology suite developed will be packaged as a product – the Astrobotic Autolanding System (AAS) – and will include sensors, computing, and software.

The work under this contract will demonstrate two navigation techniques: processing imagery from cameras to generate a map of the landing area and autonomous navigation using the generated map.

According to Astrobotic CTO Kevin Peterson, “Current spacecraft use radio from Earth or maps of the surface to land. Small bodies like asteroids and moons are too distant for radio-based control and lack high-resolution map data. The AAS builds these maps with its onboard cameras as it flies so spacecraft can autonomously approach and land anywhere.” Astrobotic will demonstrate the AAS on its first mission to a suspected skylight, or lava tube cave entrance, in the Moon’s Lacus Mortis region.

Astrobotic was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, and is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.