Some of the most interesting places to study in our solar system are found in the most inhospitable environments–but landing on any planetary body is already a risky proposition. With NASA planning robotic and crewed missions to new locations on the Moon and Mars, avoiding landing on the steep slope of a crater or in a boulder field is critical to helping ensure a safe touch down for surface exploration of other worlds. In order to improve landing safety, NASA is developing and testing a suite of precise landing and hazard-avoidance technologies.
A combination of laser sensors, a camera, a high-speed computer, and sophisticated algorithms will give spacecraft the artificial eyes and analytical capability to find a designated landing area, identify potential hazards, and adjust course to the safest touchdown site. The technologies developed under the Safe and Precise Landing–Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project within the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program will eventually make it possible for spacecraft to avoid boulders, craters, and more within landing areas half the size of a football field already targeted as relatively safe.
Three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems will have their first integrated test flight on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket during an upcoming mission. As the rocket’s booster returns to the ground, after reaching the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, SPLICE’s terrain relative navigation, navigation Doppler lidar, and descent and landing computer will run onboard the booster. Each will operate in the same way they will when approaching the surface of the Moon.