NASA Selects Astrobotic for Two SBIR Awards

Polaris rover (Credit: Astrobotic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Astrobotic Technologies will develop a compact ground penetrating radar antenna to peer below the surfaces of other worlds and a low-power navigation system for use on CubeSats with the help of NASA funding.

The space agency selected the Pittsburgh-based company for two awards under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Each award is worth up to $125,000 over six months.

Astrobotic is teaming with Ohio State University to develop a low size, weight and power, performance, and cost (SWaP) ground penetrating radar antenna with the following characteristics:

  • extremely wide operating frequency range from 120 MHz to 2000 MHz (bandwidth of 16:1);
  • effect ground coupling from clearance of 10 cm to 20 cm;
  • very low profile for ease of mounting under a mobile platform;
  • low antenna ringing with good radiation efficiency;
  • ground-independent antenna impedance matching condition;
  • low sidelobe and backlobe above ground to minimize impacts from different platforms;
  • compact size (less than 50cm x 50cm); and,
  • simple light weight structure using only materials compatible with space environments.

NASA also selected Astrobotic’s low size, weight and power, performance, and cost (SWaP-PC) visual navigation system for SBIR funding. The system will be approximately 1U (10 x 10 x 10 cm) in size, 2 kg in weight, and use less than 5W of  power.

“The system’s interfacing would be designed to allow for flexibility of usage as either a part of a larger navigation solution or a standalone sensor on a small exploration spacecraft. A Xilinx Zynq 7020 System-on-Chip will be integrated into a larger system that includes a camera and IMU,” Astrobotic said in its proposal summary.

“This system will be used to test a version of Astrobotic’s Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) algorithm modified to utilize Xilinx Zynq 7020 processing capabilities and balance performance with the computational limits of the low SWaP system,” the company added.

Summaries of the two proposals follow.

Under-Rover Ultra-Wide Band Non-Contact Ground Penetrating Radar Antenna
Subtopic Title: Technologies for Active Microwave Remote Sensing

Principal Investigator
Andrew Horchler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 2

Technical Abstract

Creating a ground penetrating radar (GPR) antenna for both Earth and planetary science applications requires high efficiency, robust operational frequency, as well as low size, weight, and power (SWaP) features. Furthermore, the value of an antenna that provides these core competencies and that is versatile enough to be integrated on numerous platforms is of high value to NASA and the commercial space industry.

The benefits of such technology could enable the characterization of lunar lava tubes, subsurface water-ice, and the location of planetary ore deposits in a manner that is both affordable and simple to integrate with larger systems.

The challenge is that this solution does not currently exist in the market. Choosing a solution that meets the aforementioned criteria often requires combining multiple antennas, thereby increasing SWaP and complexity.

The proposed antenna solution intends to resolve this challenge, and the proposing team of Astrobotic Technology, Inc. (Astrobotic) and the Ohio State University (OSU) have the expertise and technological development to do so. The performance and operational requirements of the proposed antenna are summarized as follows:

  • extremely wide operating frequency range from 120 MHz to 2000 MHz (bandwidth of 16:1)
  • effect ground coupling from clearance of 10 cm to 20 cm
  • very low profile for ease of mounting under a mobile platform
  • low antenna ringing with good radiation efficiency
  • ground-independent antenna impedance matching condition
  • low sidelobe and backlobe above ground to minimize impacts from different platforms
  • compact size (less than 50cm x 50cm)
  • simple light weight structure using only materials compatible with space environments

Potential NASA Applications

The success of Phase I research will lead to a novel under-rover ultra-wide band GPR antenna design. Manufacturability will be assessed and real performance will be validated during Phase II and will culminate with an engineering model of the antenna that can be easily infused into future missions through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program or a Phase III SBIR opportunity that leverages any of Astrobotic’s existing Phase I and Phase II related contracts.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

In addition to surveying the planetary subsurfaces, there are numerous applications on Earth that demand mobile GPR. These applications include construction, land surveying, mapping building integrity, characterizing hazardous waste leakage, and identifying archaeological artifacts. Furthermore, Astrobotic would be a user of this antenna for future rovers that require GPR capabilities.

Duration: 6 months

Ultra Low SWaP Relative Navigation
Subtopic Title: Guidance, Navigation and Control

Principal Investigator
Andrew Horchler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Astrobotic proposes the development and prototyping of a low Size, Weight and Power, Performance, and Cost (SWaP-PC) visual navigation system capable of implementing industry standard visual navigation methods such as Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) or visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM).

The system components will provide a compact form factor fitting within approximately 1U (10 x 10 x 10 cm), weight less than 2 kg, and require less than 5W to power, enabling its use in power constrained applications such as CubeSats and SmallSats.

The system’s interfacing would be designed to allow for flexibility of usage as either a part of a larger navigation solution or a standalone sensor on a small exploration spacecraft. A Xilinx Zynq 7020 System-on-Chip will be integrated into a larger system that includes a camera and IMU.

This system will be used to test a version of Astrobotic’s Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) algorithm modified to utilize Xilinx Zynq 7020 processing capabilities and balance performance with the computational limits of the low SWaP system.

Potential NASA Applications

  • CubeSat and SmallSat applications
  • Mission infusion for low SWaP exploration missions

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Landing of reusable launch vehicles
  • Satellite maintenance and refueling
  • Commercial lunar landing vehicles

Duration: 6 months