May 12, 2006
Wallops Flight Facility, Va.
NASA AUTOMATED ROCKET SAFETY SYSTEM PASSES KEY TEST
NASA has successfully demonstrated a new automated system which may
enhance launch safety and reduce costs for access to space.
The autonomous flight safety system detects when a rocket is flying
off course and directs itself to end the flight. The new
“self-destruct” system, tested on April 5 during a suborbital flight
from White Sands Missile Range, N.M., has the potential to
dramatically reduce downrange radar, telemetry and command uplink
requirements while enhancing reaction time.
“The safety system was able to detect the rocket’s position and
compare it to the projected flight path," said Barton Bull,
technology development manager at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,
Wallops Island, Va. “It was a very successful test of the
“In an operational system, if the onboard computers had detected
that the rocket was flying off course and there was the potential of
it flying outside the launch range, the vehicle would
self-destruct,” he said.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., joins Wallops in supporting the
project, designed to let errant vehicles use onboard software to end
a flight based on self-contained position and attitude sensors. The
system will be able to replicate all mission rules available to range
safety officers without relying on any commands from the ground.
The test incorporated redundant Global Positioning System sensors and
used two on-board computer processors. One was loaded with a nominal
trajectory and the other was programmed so that a nominal flight
would violate safety rules and prompt a self-destruct.
The system was not connected to a termination system during the test
flight. The safety system functioned and reacted correctly during the
entire flight from launch to parachute deployment. The two stage
sounding rocket flew to an altitude of 47.5 miles, and the experiment
package was safely recovered.
The next goal of the project is to complete the design and demonstrate
a system compliant with the strict reliability and redundancy rules
required by range safety organizations at NASA and Department of
Defense launch ranges. The next test flight of the system is
tentatively scheduled for fall.
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