August 27, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

NASA's Mighty Eagle Preparing Way For New Generation of Robotic Spacecraft

Mighty Eagle
NASA Mighty Eagle team members Logan Kennedy, left, and Greg Chavers check the robotic lander after a test at Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA photo)

HUNTSVILLE -- Mars Curiosity is NASA's superstar lander, but a little robot flyer in Huntsville is pointing the way to something Curiosity can't do: land almost anywhere. 

Unlike the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity, Marshall's Mighty Eagle is only 4 feet tall and 450 pounds. It is built with off-the-shelf hardware and, compared to Curiosity, you'd call it cheap.

What excites Marshall engineers isn't the Mighty Eagle itself, but the computer programs they've written to get it off the ground and back again.

Future generations of those same algorithms could guide robot spacecraft to safe docking with space debris in need of clearing, rockets in need of refueling, and even landers lifting off the moon with samples.

The latest leap toward that goal came this summer when Mighty Eagle " opened its eye," project manager Greg Chavers said last week. (See video below) Chavers' tongue-in-cheek characterization represents the "have fun with it" attitude that marks the Mighty Eagle team. They know they are testing on "hallowed ground" at Marshall, where Wernher von Braun roamed and Saturn Vs roared, and they are serious about their calculations and safety procedures. But flying the Eagle 30 feet in the air is a blast, and they show it.

Last summer's goal was proving the Mighty Eagle could take off, fly and land on a programmed flight path -- up so many feet, over so many feet, then safely down. It was tricky enough coordinating guidance and navigation systems with the pulsed hydrogen peroxide thrusters that keep the Eagle aloft. It all worked. The Mighty Eagle made numerous successful flights last year, Chavers said.

This summer, controls engineer Mike Hannan explained at the test area, the challenge was installing a camera so the Mighty Eagle could find its landing site and guide itself safely down.

This is preparation for the kind of autonomous landing Curiosity made on Mars. But the idea is to develop the systems to do it in multiple locations, not just one landing site. The systems in development are "guidance, navigation and control (GNC)." Guidance is where the Mighty Eagle wants to be, navigation is where it is, and control is getting where it wants to be. The ultimate goal is called "autonomous rendezvous and capture."

Once the algorithms are proven on Mighty Eagle, Marshall engineers will begin scaling up to include tools like laser guidance. Eventually, the goal is to fly a mission in space. "We are planning a mission," Chavers said. "This simulates the kind of vehicle that might be used."

Hannan said the Mighty Eagle lets young engineers experience the value -- and the fun -- of flying their designs. "We're pretty good at our modeling," Hannan said, "but in the real world, something's always a little different."

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