Over 50 years after developing the technology and computers that guided NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, Draper is working on new technologies that will assist the upcoming robotic and human missions to the Moon, and further.
Seamus Tuohy, one of the world's leading experts on space exploration and navigation, and Principal Director of Space Systems at Draper gave an exclusive interview to Interesting Engineering going into detail about the technical and engineering challenges these missions will face, and what comes next.
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What are the main technical challenges these missions will face in order to be successful?
"Communication is one of the main challenges. Uncrewed, or autonomous systems, still require communication between beacons and navigation systems, as well as with controllers on the ground. When you get to low Earth orbit, that communication takes a second, when you get to the Moon that becomes just a couple of seconds, when you get to Mars it's 90 minutes round trip, and when you go to further bodies it's even longer. Imagine holding a conversation with someone and you would wait, and wait, and wait, then you get an answer, but by then they've already gone beyond what you've told them to look out for.
Then, another big challenge is that, by necessity, these autonomous probes need to have a high level of automation. They need to be able to react to the environment, to what their sensors are telling them is there, and to be able to either proceed with the mission or to divert the mission to something different, or to go into safe mode and wait for help from home. So you need to design a system now that it alone can sense its environment, it alone can have contingency operations. It has to be able to understand what its sensors are telling it and proceed with the mission."
And in terms of engineering challenges, what are the top ones for these missions?
"Navigation systems are another big focus in order for these missions to move forward smoothly. These systems have to be robust enough to take on the environment presented to them without having to go into safe mode and potentially losing the mission. A robust system can do a little more, it knows it will be presented with things that aren't known as it goes into the mission. If you design a system correctly, in a robust manner, it can still accomplish the mission."
How is Draper involved in these missions?
"Draper specializes in navigation, guidance, and control, and we've done this since Apollo. The best way to explain that is: navigation tells you where you are, guidance says where you want to go, and control is how you get there. So we put all that together, which is a collection of sensors, software, intelligence and onto flight computers that Draper develops that can survive in deep space, even though radiation and temperature.
We also provide very high-reliability robust systems. So, precision navigation and hazard detection and avoidance is what Draper is developing now by using cameras, radar, lidar, and different sensors in order for these landings to happen safely and successfully, on the Moon and other planetary bodies."
What do you believe makes these missions so important, what will we gain from them?
"If you would like to find the Rosetta Stone of our Solar System, it's in the Moon and these asteroids. The Earth's geology changes over time, but the Earth's Moon hasn't changed at all. It is what it was billions of years ago, similar to the asteroids. They provide a touchdown to how the Solar System is formed."
What are the next steps once these missions are successful?
"Usually the way you think of the next stage is that you have robotic systems that bring back very small samples. Then, we can get into the laboratories on Earth and then we can really really apply every instrument we can ever think of to study them and make a discovery on the samples.
Then the steps after that are when humans go and cover more ground, selecting high-value and high-interest experiments there, then also returning with the samples. Hopefully, humans will stay and be part of a community on these planetary bodies that are not only investigating the science available to them but also eventually going to work and doing things as we do on Earth, like manufacturing and development."
After the Moon and Mars, what's next?
"That's actually very interesting. So we like Earth because we can live on Earth, we like the Moon because it's close and it's reachable, it's just a couple of days away and we can survive there, we like Mars because it's the closest to Earth in being able to live, it's not too cold or too hot to live on. So I would say that future missions after the Moon and Mars would be to the moons of Saturn, where you have an atmosphere. One such NASA mission is called Dragonfly and is due to send probes to one of Saturn's Moons called Titan. That's where I would say we may go next, the moons around Saturn."