|volume 7, number 1: SPRING 2009
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The recent SM4 included in its payload an advanced new reconfigurable processor for high-rate data systems called SpaceCube. Part of SM4’s Relative Navigation Sensors (RNS) system, SpaceCube recorded imagery of HST as it came in for docking and as it was released. Controlling three cameras, a GPS receiver, a command and telemetry module, and 500 GB of memory, SpaceCube is the brain of the RNS. SpaceCube also hosted two real-time image processing and tracking algorithms capable of determining the exact position and attitude of HST.
According to David Petrick, processor lead engineer in the development of SpaceCube, capturing positional data with a high-speed processor is important because it helps NASA get closer to the goal of robotic servicing missions and makes better use of the available data coming into the system. “One big issue with current satellites is that they have lots of data coming in, but current processors can only make use of 1020 percent of an instrument’s bandwidth capability,” said Petrick. “With SpaceCube, we can get closer to 100 percent usage of data because we can process it in real time, compress it, and send it back to Earth, increasing the amount of data we could be utilizing to make scientific breakthroughs. Current systems are just too slow to do that.”
SM4 provided an opportunity to test this new processor, which is inexpensive to construct, small in size, and lightweight. “It’s actually the most powerful, lightest piece of equipment in the shuttle bay,” said Petrick. “So to have something that small and efficient demonstrate the capability to track HST during docking and deploy with great accuracy is a big step forward. So much of what we did with the RNS required a high-speed processor like SpaceCube. Other existing space processors wouldn’t have gotten the job done.”
In fact, Petrick said that SM4 was the first time a processor has been carried on board a servicing mission that would give engineers this type of data about where HST was located at a given time. “SM4 was an opportunity for a proof of concept, and we proved that SpaceCube is capable of handing a flight system with extreme data processing requirements. SpaceCube enabled RNS to complete all on-orbit objectives.”
What’s next for the technology? First, all of the data RNS recorded will be downloaded, analyzed, and processed over the next year to see what worked well and what areas need improvement. Petrick suggested the addition of a new sensor to give a better range estimation as well as optimizing the software algorithms. Then, making its second flight, SpaceCube will launch later this year to the International Space Station for a 2- to 5-year mission that will evaluate new radiation hardened by software mitigation techniques. These efforts will lead to SpaceCube 2.0, a new development under the charge of Goddard innovator Tom Flatley. According to Petrick, the next version of the processor will target longer-term missions, such as the Earth Science Decadal Survey missions, rather than shorter missions like SM4.
Further development of the processing technology should also lead to exciting commercial opportunities as well. Petrick said that the technology could be used in applications where there is a high quantity of data coming into a system and real-time on-board processing or data reduction is required. Although the system is not yet ready for mission-critical applications, it could be used in various high throughput data systems, UAVs, quick-launch sounding rockets, and commercial mini-satellites. Another advantage of the SpaceCubethat it is reconfigurablemay lead to humanitarian benefits as well. “We can quickly reprogram it to be an entirely different computer,” said Petrick. “For example, we can reconfigure it to process data from surveys of Earth for ice or forest fires, or disaster-related events.” And because SpaceCube makes better, faster use of more data in real time, scientists and other personnel will be better able to pinpoint locations to make life-enhancing and life-saving decisions. As the technology is further developed, the innovation team expects these commercial and humanitarian opportunities and benefits to increase as well.
Contributions from Across the Nation
Companies and organizations in nearly every state in our nation have contributed to the Hubble Space Telescope Program through government research and development, contractor and supplier relationships, and other partnerships. This map shows some of the most significant contributions.
As Deputy Associate Director for the HST Development Project at Goddard, Frank Cepollina has become known as the “Father of On-Orbit Servicing” for his decades of leadership in repairing and upgrading satellites in orbit. On the eve of the final HST servicing mission, Cepollina talked to Goddard Tech Transfer News about his decades of work on Hubble and plans for the future.
The Hubbleand your work on ithas quite a legacy. Can you share some of your most memorable experiences over the course of your many years working on HST?
The work toward on-orbit servicing of HST has really been memorable and rewarding since the very beginning. I’ve been working on HST since the early seventies. Back then, it was formally called the “large space telescope.” I was involved from the beginning, in the first architectural concept whereby a telescope the size of HST could take advantage of the new capabilities of the shuttle system in terms of being able to take hardware up, repair on orbit, and bring hardware back down. The idea of fixing something in space excited me like nothing else. I grew up on a farm, and my job as a farm boy was fixing tractors and keeping machinery running. And I enjoyed it. So, in a sense, I’ve been “Mr. Fix-It” for quite some time. I still have a whole model railroad in the basement of my house and I belong to the Train Collector’s Association. Tinkering around, fixing the trains with my kids… I’ve always enjoyed that. So, when the opportunity for something this challenging (on-orbit fixing) knocked, it took about ten seconds for me to say yes.
But this radical idea of on-orbit servicing was just a concept study in the seventies. In fact, most people thought it couldn’t be done. Servicing a satellite in space seemed like a long shot and not too many people would listen to us. But we’re a science center, and we hold fast to the proposition that we will use all possible tools to fly technology and capture new science and new discoveries of the universe. We had this golden opportunity to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the space shuttleand we simply weren’t going to be told we couldn’t do it. And lo and behold, it happened. On-orbit serviceability became a reality.
What did you need to achieve from a technology perspective to make on-orbit servicing viable?
Well, the most important thing is that the spacecraft being serviced must be modular. This is what lets us go up, fix some parts on-orbit, replace parts with new technology, and take some sick parts homerather than having to bring the whole spacecraft back to Earth. So developing the architecture for a serviceable Multimission Modular Spacecraft was key. And we proved how this could work with Solar Max [the Solar Maximum Repair Mission] in the early eighties. The servicing worked beautifully. That mission was certainly a highlight because it signified the capability of the space program to be able to support science in orbit. It represented significant support of human exploration and human endeavor. If it hadn’t been for the repair of Solar Max, we would not be repairing HST in space today, or any of the other telescopes we repaired before HST. The realization of humans working in space with brand new systems, and repairing and replacing older systems was momentous. It changed the course of science and the course of my life.
Do any of the previous HST servicing missions stand out?
Certainly the most notorious was the first repair mission of HST. This stands out in my mind because of the timing. We had lost the Challenger the year before. The press was questioning the agency. Our reputation was at stake. So that first repair mission required extreme ingenuity, persistence, and an insistence on getting it done right. At times, we were working in an arena of incredibility that we couldn’t imagine tackling. That was the first step in dealing with the difficulty of on-orbit repair and maintenancegetting through the fear. Once we saw what we could do on orbit with SM1, the fear of failure disappeared and we employed more and more opportunities and technologies to solve problems. And here we are today, having launched SM4, which is above all the most complicated missionfrom a servicing perspectivethat the agency has ever flown. Astronauts are performing delicate, intrinsic tasks that are difficult to do even on the ground. It’s an eye-opening mission. We should make new discoveries like none HST has ever seen before.
How do you and your team approach the challenges that go hand in hand with HST servicing?
First, you have to acknowledge that this work is not sugar and gravy. Every mission that we’ve done has progressed technologicallybut it’s progressed with gut-wrenching failures. You have to pick yourself and your team up with solid determination so that you don’t let the failures bear down on you psychologically. You have to remember that disappointment is part of invention and part of discovery. Only through these challenges can you arrive at success.
So what is your work with the HST team like on a day-to-day basis?
Being a project manager is a great lesson in psychology. The key is learning how to keep your team motivated through tough challenges and to keep everyone moving forward. You have to walk around. You have to get out of your office. You have to keep visibility with your workers so they know you’re there, they know you’re behind them. Being a walk-around manager is the way I like to operate. I do paperwork, but I do it at home. I want to keep interfacing with my team. But sometimes, they lead me. The intelligence of the people on this team is remarkable and has really been the miracle of HST. They are motivated by the challenges we face, just as much as I am.
And what about working beyond your own team? How has technology transfer or infusion played a role in your work on HST?
It plays a huge role. First of all, HST servicing is all about technology. The technologies we’ve flown on the servicing missions so far have increased HST’s power generation by 50%, and it has made the telescope about 30% more efficient. And SM4 is adding more power and huge increases in imaging sensitivity. Scientific discovery is synonymous with innovation and persistence, and the freshness of the technology you take to orbit. HST is not the same telescope it was in 1990. It’s a new telescope every 3 to 5 years because every servicing mission, one after the other, deals with brand new, fresh technology. To make this happen, we have to take what’s on the ground and adapt it for orbit. This often involves collaboration beyond our team. For example, for SM4, we wanted to fly so much technology that we would have exceeded the capacity of the carrier by about 2,000 pounds. Rather than accept that fact, we designed a super lightweight carrier, using all composite and struts made of Titanium Matrix Composite (TMC). The new carrier saved us over 1,500 pounds, and it was made possible through collaboration with Robert C. Byrd Institute in West Virginia and FMW Composite Systems, the company that manufactures the TMC. And that technology also is making its way into commercial applications. FMW is taking it to Boeing, and it will be flown on Boeing 787 aircraft. We’ve also had some HST technologies make their way into medical applications and other uses. So, often, it comes full circle.
SM4 was the last scheduled mission to service Hubble. So, what are your plans for the future?
If NASA has a challenge as great as HST, I’ll be on board with solving it. It’s the technological challenge. It’s the ability to get in there and do the impossible. But if something on the order of HST doesn’t come up, it will be time for something new. Am I going to retire? Well, I don’t think I’ll ever really retire until I start looking up at the daisies. But I will do something else. I’m not sure what just yet, but I have some ideas. As long as I’m staring down a big challenge, I’ll be just fine.
Editor’s Note: More information about these HST technology spinoffs, see story below.
SBIR and STTR Programs Contribute to HST Technologies
Over the years, NASA’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs have produced contracts resulting in mission-ready technologies for HST servicing missions. The examples thats follow illustrate another way in which collaboration beyond NASA is helping to make textbook-changing scientific discovery possible.
Miniature Cryogenic Turboalternator
In 1992, a Phase 2 SBIR contract awarded to Creare, Inc. of Hanover, NH resulted in the Miniature Cryogenic Turboalternator*. The technology enables construction of a small, efficient, vibration-free cryocooler that can be tailored to various missions’ cooling requirements. A subsequent $13 million, multi-year Phase 3 contract resulted in the successful installation and operation of a 75 K cooler on HST’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) instrument.
High-Gain, Sheared MCPs
A Phase 2 SBIR contract awarded to Pegasus Glassworks of Sturbridge, MA in 1990 yielded high-gain, sheared microchannel plates (MCPs). The technology is an imaging intensifier plate with low ion feedback, low dark counts, and high gain in a single MCP. It also features uniformity of response and gain across the plate. The innovation was used in the Multi-Anode Microchannel Array detectors* in HST’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), and also is being used in other HST instruments, including the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS).
Space Portable SpectroReflectometer
NASA awarded a Phase 2 SBIR contract in 1989 to AZ Technology, Inc. of Huntsville, AL, resulting in the development of a Space Portable SpectroReflectometer (SPSR)*. This handheld instrument measures key thermal control properties of material surfaces during extra-vehicular activities. The company subsequently was awarded a Phase 3 contract by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to deliver a flight-qualified SPSR, compatible with Extravehicular Activity operations on the MIR space station, HST, and the International Space Station.
The SBIR/STTR programs* at Goddard are administered by the Innovative Partnerships Program Office.
HST Spinoffs Past and Present
The innovative technologies developed for the HST servicing missions have resulted in spinoffs beyond NASA, demonstrating uses in critical applications here on Earth. The following are just a few examples.
Robotics have been deployed and widely used on the space shuttle since the early eighties, supporting a variety of missions including Hubble servicing. Extra Vehicular Activities, supported by shuttle robotics, have continued to provide new leases on life to HST in orbit by replacing and upgrading key components and instruments on a regular basis.
One of the most notable new robotics technologies is the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (nicknamed “Dextre”)a two-arm, “human-like” robot with a sense of touch that can perform many maintenance tasks. Only astronauts previously performed many of these, such as the removal and replacement of avionics and battery boxes. Dextre was launched in early 2008 and is planned to be fully operational via remote control from the ground in 2009. Dextre, selected in 2005 to become part of a robotic rescue mission for HST, also has serviced the International Space Station (ISS).
These advanced robotics and remote control capabilities have recently made their way into life here on Earth. Building on more than 30 years of shuttle/ISS robotics heritage, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) recently completed the development of NeuroArm, the world’s first MRI-compatible surgical robot, capable of both microsurgery and image-guided biopsy. Based on the technology that powers Dextre, the surgical robotic system is controlled by a surgeon from a computer workstation, working in conjunction with intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The technology allows a high-field MRI scanner to move into the operating room on demand, providing imaging during surgical procedures without compromising patient safety. Initial human clinical trials for the NeuroArm began in May 2008 and have been highly successful to date, underlining a successful transfer of technology from Space to Earth.
SM4 Technologies Flying Today May Be the Spinoffs of the Future
The fourth servicing mission (SM4) for HST, recently completed, offered an impressive set of advanced technologies that may yield remarkable discoveries and never before seen images of Earth, the solar system, and beyond. The technology list for SM4 included nearly 50 technologies, of which more than 20 are now being employed in orbit for the first time. Accomplishing SM4 goals will result in a complete rejuvenation of the 18-year-old HST, enhancing its capabilities with cutting-edge instruments as well as two intricate repairs. Many of the key technologies flown on SM4 for the first time also offer potential for spinoffs to Earth-based applications.
New technology lowers weight to make room for more innovation
Achieving a lighter payload to accommodate more instruments on SM4 was the goal behind the shuttle’s new super lightweight interchangeable carrier (SLIC), composed in part by another new technologyTitanium Matrix Composite (TMC). Offering nearly double the carrying capacity of previous carriers, SLIC’s load included the new Wide Field Camera 3, new batteries, and other hardware and instruments, in excess of 3,000 pounds. Two of the six struts on SLIC are composed of TMC, which also was flown in space for the first time on SM4.
Spinoff potential: TMC already has been used on military jets and Boeing commercial aircraft. It is highly valued for offering greater stiffness, resistance against fracture, and lighter weight compared with alternative materials. In fact, the replacement of regular titanium with TMC resulted in a 20% reduction in weight and a 20% increase in strength for SLIC. In addition, the flight qualification of TMC on SM4 should enable use of the technology by other satellites and spacecraft in future NASA missions.
Advanced power tool aids repair
Repair of HST’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) were highly intricate operations for astronauts to attempt on SM4. NASA’s new Mini Power Tool (MPT), developed through a contract with ATK Space Systems and Jackson & Tull, aided the repairs. The MPT is a small, self-contained, battery-powered, hand-held device that also can be used as a non-powered manual wrench. Astronauts used the MPT to apply torque to various mechanical interfaces and fasteners. Detailed analyses of prior tools resulted in significant improvements over previous art. The design is highly ergonomic, to maximize in-hand comfort, reduce finger fatigue, and achieve precision positioningall crucial concerns for highly intricate repair sessions that can last longer than four hours at a stretch. In addition, the design helps to ensure that the astronaut’s “down the nose” view is free of obstruction, and an LED array delivers illumination, both helping to maximize worksite visibility. The MPT also delivers unprecedented motorized torque capability for its size, thanks to its custom-designed, high-performance brushless DC motor in a 1-inch diameter housing. In addition, the MPT’s unique modular design simplifies testing and assembly as well as on-orbit troubleshooting, because problems can be isolated to individual modules. The precise nature of this tool helped significantly to improve the likelihood that the critical repairs of STIS and ACS would be successful.
New IR detectors help catapult imaging to new levels of sensitivity
In addition to HST’s new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) will enable a new era of discovery for HST. Compared with the previous imager, WFC3 is significantly more sensitive and boasts a much larger field of view, yielding infrared (IR) survey efficiencies 1030 times greater than previously achieved. These advancements are made possible in part by new, cutting-edge Mercury-Cadmium-Telluride (HgCdTe) IR detectors. The technology is the result of a newly tailored composition of previously existing HgCdTe IR arrays to achieve a 1.7-micron wavelength cutoff.
The new composition eliminates the need for expendable cryogen or a complex mechanical refrigerator, because the detectors are able to run with very low, dark current at a temperature of 145K, achievable with a passive radiator and thermoelectric cooling. The detectors also are relatively insensitive to thermal radiation from HST’s warm optics. These advantages result in better sensitivity for seeing very faint astronomical targets. The improvements to sensitivity and survey efficiency open the door to even more detailed studies of distant galaxies, mysterious dark energy, star formation, and detection of small bodies at the furthest reaches of our solar system.
Relative navigation tested for new rendezvous capabilities
A new Relative Navigation System (RNS) also was tested on SM4, including three cameras and an avionics package to record images, and to estimate real-time attitude and positioning of HST relative to the shuttle during capture and deployment of the telescope. RNS’s SpaceCube technology provided an advanced, new, reconfigurable space flight processor that can host all RNS pose, command, and data handling, as well as camera control software. Also key to RNS is GSFC’s Navigatoran autonomous, real-time, fully space flight-qualified GPS receiver, with exceptional capabilities for fast signal acquisition and weak signal tracking. The technology gathered and forwarded composite raw data, processed data, and telemetry information, including inertial position and velocity, channel tracking, and estimated range from HST to the shuttle. The RNS system has completed extensive testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and may revolutionize rendezvous and docking operations in future NASA missions.
Spinoff potential: The Navigator is applicable to many high-altitude spacecraft (e.g., Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, Magneto Multiscale Science, other geostationary orbit satellites) as well as low Earth orbit spacecraft through enhanced GPS navigation. In addition, the relative navigation system as a whole may find application in commercial and military aircraft navigation.
SAA = Space Act Agreement
Bringing HST to the Apex of its Capabilities for Science
Indeed, the in-orbit maintenance and technology upgrades that have been the cornerstones for all HST servicing missions have enabled remarkable scientific discoveries that changed the content of science textbooks and the course of astrophysical and astronomical research. The key HST discoveries most often cited to date include:
According to HST Senior Project Scientist David Leckrone, half of these discoveries were unanticipated. Leckrone attributes this to the broadly capable technologies applied to HST via the servicing missions. “The more robust the technology, the more likely surprises will accompany anticipated discovery,” Leckrone said. He noted that the SM4 technologies and the recent repairs to the telescope will bring Hubble to the apex of its scientific capabilities, resulting in the most influential scientific discoveries to dateboth expected and unknown. Among the most notable areas of anticipated discovery are the following.
The Life Story of Galaxies
WFC3, ACS, and COS combined will enable deeper study and understanding of how galaxies formed and have changed over time, according to Leckrone. The course of galaxy evolution over the last 13 billion years will help NASA scientists understand more about how we arrived where we are and what evolution has in store for our galaxy and others. Infrared detectors currently flying on SM4 will enable IR ultra-deep fields of imaging, helping to provide information about the universe when it was less than a billion years old. In addition, COS is expected to provide more information about the chemical evolution of galaxies, while the critical repair of STIS will enable the study of super massive black holes at the centers of galaxies and what impact they have on galaxy structure and evolution.
The Architecture of the Universe
NASA scientists know that the architecture of the universe, or the Cosmic Web, is not smooth, but rather made of areas of density and areas of void. But the distribution of matter is not well understood today. Leckrone noted that the advancements made to HST through the recent servicing mission promise to change that. COS will study this architecture on both a large scale (measuring how the gravity of dark matter has assembled the intergalactic gas into the web-like structure we see today) and a small scale (detecting the interactions between individual galaxies or clusters of galaxies and the intergalactic medium). In just a few weeks of observation, COS will probe more of the Cosmic Web than all previous HST spectrographs combined.
Birth and Death of Stars
The birth, formation, and death of stars and what this information means for the overall evolution of galaxies is another area of great interest with expected advances in discovery following SM4, Leckrone said. “Scientists know that as a star dies, the material in its nucleus is given off and becomes a part of the next generation of stars,” Leckrone said. “After this servicing mission, WFC3, ACS, and COS will further study how that material contributes to star formation and how the evolution of stars has varied over time and over different galaxies.” The technologies will also enable the study of supernovae and their remnants, and the origin of the elements composing stars and other objects.
The Mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy
The optical and IR capabilities of WFC3 and ACS working in parallel will increase HST’s discovery rate by about 2.5 times. Surveying the sky to find exploding stars (supernovae) used to measure distances to the galaxies in which the supernovae occur will enable scientists to measure more accurately how rapidly the universe was expanding at various points in time. This will provide additional clues about the nature of the “Dark Energy” that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating pace. For example, is Dark Energy constant or has it changed in strength over time? “The structure of the universe is dictated by the gravity of dark matter, which we can’t see,” said Leckrone. “But we can detect its presence and distribution in space because the gravitational tug of dark matter bends and distorts the light coming from distant galaxies. These distortions can be observed in images taken with WFC3 and ACS. They allow scientists to map the distribution of “Dark Matter” in three dimensions.”
Recipes for Building Planets
“Once STIS is repaired during the current servicing mission,” Leckrone said, “scientists will once again use it to study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of extra-solar planets. The atmospheres of transiting planets (those that pass in front of their mother star) absorb light from the star, which can then be measured by STIS. The COS will also be used to attempt these difficult observations in ultraviolet light. “Ultimately, this may help us better understand the composition and structure of the atmospheres of distant planets,” said Leckrone. “This is a great example of surprises yielded by Hubble. We never expected to be able to make these kinds of extra-solar planet observations with this telescope.”
And as for other unknown areas of discovery, and other questions to explore? According to Leckrone, they are certainly possibleand par for the course. “One thing HST has taught us is that we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re surprised,” Leckrone said. “Hubble has answered questions that we didn’t even know to ask when we were just getting started.”
Staff from IPP Office attended several events in Winter 2008/2009 and Spring 2009
Licensing Executive Society (LES) Annual Meeting (October 19, Orlando, FL):
American Evaluation Association (November 5-6, Denver, CO)
2008 SBIR National Conference (November 12, Hartford, CT)
Nanotech Briefs Conference (November 12, Boston, MA)
Mid-Atlantic Innovation Showcase (November 14, Tysons Corner, VA)
Maryland Licensing Executive Society (LES) Chapter Meeting (November 19, Greenbelt, MD)
American Intellectual Property Law Association (January 28, Miami, FL)
Business Opportunities through Tech Transfer (January 29, Salisbury, MD)
Annapolis Space Day (February 12, Annapolis, MD)
Project Management Challenge (February 24, Daytona Beach, FL)
47th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium (March 10, Greenbelt, MD)
NASA Inventions and Contributions Board Awards
The following awards were issued by ICB during the first and second quarters of FY09.
Tech Briefs Awards
Software Release Awards
Space Act Awards
Innovators: Remember to report your new technologies through the online eNTRe system. eNTRe makes it convenient to file your New Technology Reports (NTRs) quickly, easily, and securely. Filing your NTRs enables the Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) Office to support you by:
Goddard Tech Transfer News is the quarterly magazine of the Innovative Partnerships Program Office (Code 504) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. This magazine seeks to inform and educate civil servant and contractor personnel at Goddard*, as well as at Wallops Flight Facility* and the Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility*, about actively participating in achieving NASA’s technology transfer goals:
Please send suggestions or feedback about Goddard Tech Transfer News to the editor.