Astrobotic’s Future Missions and Technology (FM&T) Team is building the space robotics technology of tomorrow. From surface and subsurface robotics platforms for planetary exploration, to GPS-denied visual inertial navigation, to mission planning software, we deliver cutting edge technology that pushes the envelope of the possible in space missions. Our team has a track record of technology delivery and has completed more than 20 distinct development contracts to date. A sample of current and recent developments is included below.
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In 2014, Astrobotic became the first commercial company to use visual terrain relative navigation (TRN) and LIDAR hazard detection to guide a rocket propelled suborbital reusable launch vehicle, Masten’s Xombie, to a safe landing site in flight. Since that time, we have continued to refine this TRN system to minimize size, weight, power, and cost by leveraging space-tested COTS components and hardware accelerated vision processing. With a footprint of 1U (10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm), the combined sensing and computing system can bolt-on to any spacecraft and provide precise landing capability.
The Astrobotic Virtual Orbital Imager (AVOI) is a physically accurate planetary renderer to assist in precision landing and path planning missions. Using topography and ephemeris data, AVOI can determine the lighting conditions at any prior or future date and location, and produce a high-quality rendering of the scene.
AVOI can be used to simulate data for Terrain Relative Navigation by producing a properly illuminated and georeferenced map as would be seen by the target spacecraft during landing. This capability is applicable to airless bodies, such as the Moon and asteroids. Future development will pursue realistic lighting for planets with atmospheres.
The tool can also produce a time-lapse of images to provide mission planners an understanding of lighting conditions over time, or choose landing locations that receive a continuous amount of sunlight. The simulation environment also includes Earth’s location such that line-of-sight and Earth elevation maps may be produced for telecommunication planning.
The video shows an example time-lapse of the lunar South Pole, centered at -90°S and extending out to -75°S. The left side shows actual imagery captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, while the middle of the video shows an AVOI-rendered time-lapse. The right side shows an AVOI map of areas within line-of-sight to the Earth. The shadows in the left and middle videos match spatially and temporally, demonstrating AVOI’s ability to accurately predict illumination conditions.
Astrobotic has developed software to plan safe rover missions at the poles of the Moon, where low sun angles produce long sweeping shadows. The software extends mission durations, provides safety margins, and maximizes science gain. Our robust route planning optimization algorithms efficiently take into account time varying conditions, rover capabilities (e.g., slope climbing ability and energy requirements), risk specifications, and sequencing of science objectives.
A graphical user interface enables Mission Planners and Scientists to interactively explore potential scenarios. Applications include planning for prospecting and regolith mining, landing site selection, NASA missions such as Resource Prospector (link), and future lunar science missions. The optimization techniques are applicable to a range of spatiotemporal planning tasks on Earth in fields such as mining, agriculture, and aerial surveying.
Astrobotic has developed custom designs, sensing, and rovers for planetary surface activities such as exploration, site preparation, and resource extraction. Astrobotic developed Polaris as an excavation vehicle that could serve as a robotic precursor to future human planetary colonization efforts by preparing terrain and mining ice and other volatiles.
We are currently exploring the use of ultra-efficient drivetrain components to enable improved mobility in the rigorous space environment and are experimenting with sensing packages and software algorithms to enable safe and rapid traverse.
Astrobotic’s Polaris rover is a test and demonstration platform for planetary exploration, mobility, and regolith manipulation. This image shows an early morning test with Polaris carrying a variety of sensors to aid in traverse risk reduction and resource detection.