NASA scientists have built a dynamic little spacecraft in record time. It may someday rendezvous with asteroids, orbit Earth or Mars, and land on the moon -- for roughly one tenth the price of a conventional unmanned mission.
"This spacecraft will allow NASA to launch more missions, for less money," says William Marshall, a member of the team that built the satellite. "In the 1960's landing on the Moon took a team of thousands of people. Today that same task can be done with 30."
The new vehicle is designed around what Marshall's team calls a Modular Common Spacecraft Bus. It has a versatile octagonal box shape that can carry up to fifty kilograms of instruments so long as they can fit within the space sits atop the engine.
Reusable spacecraft architecture is a bit of a novelty for NASA, which has traditionally built spacecraft from the ground up for each new mission -- at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. By using a modular platform, NASA will no longer need to to reinvent the wheel again and again -- further reducing design costs.
Right now, the fourteen researchers are testing a prototype that is propelled by compressed air cylinders -- actually repurposed SCUBA tanks -- instead of a classic fuel and oxygen rocket. By using cold gas, the team can perform an indoor flight test every forty minutes, instead of having to wait several weeks or months between tests, as they would with rocket fueled engines. The compressed air propulsion system only allows the craft to hover for six or seven seconds, but that is more than enough time for the scientists to work out kinks in the design. When they switch to a conventional engine, most the flight control software will be nearly flawless.
Marshall says that it was not easy to get NASA headquarters to believe in their project. His supervisor, Alan Weston, turned to General Pete Worden, the director of Ames Research Center, who offered them $4 million in internal funding to get the project started. Using that money, the small team designed and built a working prototype in fifteen months.
When high-ranking NASA officials saw a flight test, they were impressed enough to include the team in an $80 million dollar mission to the moon. In that role, it will be called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
"The progress that the NASA team is making on fast-development, low-cost planetary spacecraft shows we still have the right stuff," says Worden.
See below for exclusive videos of the spacecraft testing provided to Wired.com by NASA.
The first order of business was to test the compressed-air engine.
To avoid damaging the prototype, the team began by tethering the hover test vehicle with a bungee cord. Alan Weston, the project director, happens to have invented bungee jumping, so he had plenty of the elastic material lying around in his garage. This piece was actually used for the extreme sport before it became part of a flight testing rig.
Eventually, the team took the training wheels off. This is one of the first free flight tests.
This is a high pressure 'pop up' test.
As the hover vehicle dangles from a string and slowly rotates with lights blinking on the side, it reminds me of a flying saucer.
Photo Credit: William Marshall / NASA