NIAC Phase I Awards Focused on Advanced Remote Sensing & Orbital Debris


The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently awarded 25 grants for the development of visionary new technologies. Here we’re going to take a closer look at two Phase I awards focused on advanced remote sensing and orbital debris.

Rotary Motion Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS)
John Kendra
Leidos, Inc.

On-Orbit, Collision-Free Mapping of Small Orbital Debris
Christine Hartzell
University of Maryland, College Park

Each award is worth up to $125,000 for a nine-month study. Descriptions of the awards are below.

Graphic depiction of Rotary Motion Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS) (Credit: J. Kendra)

Rotary Motion Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS)

John Kendra
Leidos, Inc.

A large virtual RF aperture is established via a rotating tether affording capability leaps in space-based imaging 1-D sparse real array on a rigid tether and a tethered rotating antenna element continuously create a very large 2-D virtual array. Ultimate array size is limited only by feasibility constraints on length of rigid tether.

Potential mission applications include:

  • Persistent (GEO-based) RF earth imaging (for soil moisture, ocean salinity, surface temp., sea surface wind, etc.)
  • Mapping coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from a solar polar orbit
  • Any RF remote sensing applications requiring an extra-large aperture

Major tasks

  • Concept Validation and Performance Modeling
  • Alternative Approaches Evaluation
  • Mission Analysis for Technology Application
Graphic depiction of On-Orbit, Collision-Free Mapping of Small Orbital Debris (Credits: C. Hartzell)

On-Orbit, Collision-Free Mapping of Small Orbital Debris

Christine Hartzell
University of Maryland, College Park

We propose to evaluate the feasibility of mapping small (micron to sub-cm scale) orbital debris in LEO using a fleet of cubesats equipped with sensors to detect the plasma signature of the debris. Small debris is currently undetectable and poses a hazard to spacecraft. Recently discovered precursor plasma solitons excited by fast-moving charged debris in a plasma could enable mapping of small orbital debris by simple sensors on a fleet of cubesats.

The proposed technology would revolutionize our interaction with small orbital debris by enabling spacecraft placement in less hazardous orbits as well as quantitative evaluation of mitigation efforts. Additionally, the proposed technology may be applicable to dust detection efforts near other planetary targets.

Preliminary calculations indicate that small debris in orbits from 400-1600km altitude could be mapped in less than 1 year using fewer than 100 cubesats. We propose to assess the feasibility of this concept by modeling the precursor solitons produced by sample debris objects of varying velocity and charge, as well as the long-distance propagation of solitons through spatially varying plasma environments. Additionally, we will develop preliminary designs of the cubesat fleet required to map small debris by detecting plasma solitons.