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Posted on October 6th, 2015

Reaching Orbit – Technology Updates

Aircraft Efficiency

As more planes grace our skies, NASA is developing software solutions to reduce emissions and increase efficiency. Over the next three years Alaska Airlines and Virgin Airlines will implement a new software called TAP, short for Traffic Aware Planner. The system assesses the current conditions of the plane, including route, position and altitude, to make flight change suggestions to the pilot and crew. It can also track potential conflicts in flight path changes with other flights. Whether a change in altitude or flight path, the intent is to shorten flight time and conserve fuel. In planes with internet connectivity, the software can access weather information and other external factors to inform its flight suggestions. While this may only shave a few minutes off of flight times, the accumulated minutes will result in huge overall fuel savings when implemented on a global level.

Green Propellants Move Forward

Presently, satellites and spacecraft in orbit around Earth use hydrazine as a propellant to adjust the craft’s position and keep it from falling towards the planet. Hydrazine is a highly corrosive and toxic chemical that is difficult to store and handle. NASA is on a quest to find an alternative propellant that is more environmentally friendly which will in turn reduces costs. A less toxic alternative will reduce the need for special handling procedures, processing time and infrastructure for storing the material. This cost reduction will make it easier to launch both commercial and NASA spacecraft. Two different fuel alternatives are in the test phase. One is a hydroxylammonium nitrate-based propellant and will be tested on a small satellite as part of NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM). The propellant will be used in two different sized thrusters to maneuver the satellite and change the altitude in the next year. The second propellant is an oxidizer ammonium dinitramide-based fuel that completed testing on 5-Newton and 22-Newton thrusters under varying conditions and performed well.

A Roaming Rubics Cube

Rovers have looked relatively the same since the dawn of astrological time. They are skeletal cars with wheels and cameras rolling around the surface of the moon or Mars. A new rover prototype is being tested, called the Hedgehog, with asteroids in mind. Instead of a testing platform on wheels, the Hedgehog is a cube that tumbles, turns and hops across any kind of surface using eight spikes and three flywheels. It can even execute a tornado-like maneuver where it launches itself upwards by spinning very quickly. The quick spin will help launch it from any sticky spots it finds itself stuck in, whether a sinkhole or rocky terrain. Asteroids provide a unique challenge to rover design, as a large rover would likely jettison itself away from the surface due to the low gravity. What we learned from Rosetta is that asteroids can have a layer of dust covering its surface making travel with wheels extremely difficult. The surface of asteroids are variable, with sinkholes and unknown surface stability, so if the Hedgehog starts to sink or get snagged, it can rescue itself with the tornado spin. This unique design will breed new kinds of rovers that can handle atypical terrain.

See the Hedgehog rover in action! (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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