Uncrewed Systems Technology 046

62 Insight | Space vehicles NASA’s interest,” says Skypersonic’s CEO Giuseppe Santangelo. “The core of our programming, with very streamlined algorithms and high- quality compression, is what enables latencies as low as 70 ms over distances of 7000 km. That is the kind of speed with which Mars colonists would be able to see visual, audio and health data feeds from their UAV or UGV, as well as navigating using fusions of inertial and optical flow telemetry, assuming an orbiter is available to create a BVLOS link.” The tests are using Skypersonic’s Skycopter caged UAV as well as a four-wheeled rover UGV it has built for the simulation. Skypersonic has also developed a Stratocopter UAV capable of flying at extremely high, low-pressure altitudes, which could theoretically be used to simulate flights in the thin Martian atmosphere, sometime between now and the end of the contract in 2026. Venus Although crewed and uncrewed mission planners alike have their eyes fixed on Mars and have made a myriad of preparations, it is not the only body beyond Earth’s orbit that beckons astronomers and space engineers. For example, US-based Rocket Lab is funding an uncrewed flyby of a small spacecraft through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes at an altitude of 48 to 60 km (with design assistance from MIT), to study the make-up and properties of the Venusian clouds as well as search for signs of organic life among them. Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle will deliver the 20 kg probe into a 165 km orbit above Earth, at which point the Photon upper-stage vehicle will carry out several burns to reach escape velocity, and eventually deploy the probe into Venus’ atmosphere. The journey is expected to take roughly 5 months, with the mission launch being aimed for May next year, meaning the Photon would reach Venus in the October. The probe will contain a 1 kg scientific payload with an autofluorescing nephelometer to detect suspended particles in the clouds, to search for organic chemicals and investigate the clouds’ habitability. It is hoped that the probe will transmit this data during and after the 5 minutes and 30 seconds it spends falling through the upper section of the atmosphere. While exact configurations of the Photon vary depending on parameters of each mission, it uses hull-mounted solar arrays and lithium-polymer batteries to power an attitude control system consisting of star trackers, sun sensors, an IMU, reaction wheels and a cold-gas reaction control system. Also, onboard S-band and X-band RF ranging transponders enable comms with NASA’s Deep Space Network and commercial networks, as well as deep space radiometric navigation, while a GNSS receiver is used for navigation near Earth. A bi-propellant propulsion system called Hyper Curie uses electric pumps to supply pressurised propellant to a thrust vector-controlled engine. Summary We have seen a glimpse here of humanity beginning to prevent some key issues that space exploration poses to our future in the Solar System. By deflecting asteroids and taking better care of uncrewed systems in orbit, we might prevent the kinds of harm posed by the Kessler Syndrome or surface impacts. By gaining a better understanding of the different environments on the other planets, and in the space between them, insights are being gained into how human life could be better protected or adapted for long- term space travel or living. Every lengthy space voyage yields critical data on making spacecraft more robust, increasing the chances that autonomous systems and humans alike can one day be ferried to the furthest regions of the Solar System. Anyone designing uncrewed systems to work in our terrestrial atmosphere would do well to watch the progress and technical developments of these missions. Autonomously handling the least understood and most dangerous environments currently reachable by human means is an impressive achievement, to put it mildly. Just as the NASA missions of decades ago gave us countless innovations that are now critical to our day-to-day lives – including water purification systems, home insulation and CAT scanners – the many unique computers, payloads, power systems and more being used in uncrewed spacecraft could be game- changers for terrestrial uncrewed vehicles as commercial, civil and defence markets all request ever-longer endurances and tolerances of more extreme environments and mission parameters. October/November 2022 | Uncrewed Systems Technology The Electron and Photon craft are to be used for delivering a research probe to the upper atmosphere of Venus (Courtesy of Rocket Lab)