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McMahon Developing Systems For Future Mars Missions

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Jay McMahon. Picture Credit score: College of Colorado Boulder

April 24, 2019 – Jay McMahon has earned a NASA early profession fellowship to assist guarantee future missions to Mars can land safely.

McMahon, an assistant professor within the Ann and H.J. Smead Division of Aerospace Engineering Sciences on the College of Colorado Boulder, has obtained a 3 12 months, $600,000 NASA House Expertise Analysis Early Profession School fellowship. The program offers excellent researchers sources to superior expertise in NASA-designated excessive precedence areas. McMahon’s work is in Entry Steering Strategies for Precision Planetary Lenders, notably specializing in Mars.

Whereas there have been practically a dozen profitable landings on the Purple
Planet, all have been with comparatively mild payloads. The heaviest,
2011‘s Curiosity Rover, tipped the scales at simply 899 kg (1,982 kilos,
roughly the burden of a traditional Volkswagen Beetle. As we transfer towards
manned missions to Mars, mass will improve dramatically, since
astronauts have to carry meals, water and dwelling quarters with them.

That makes touchdown an issue.

A ship coming into the Martian ambiance will probably be touring at
speeds in extra of 21,000 kilometers per hour (13,000 mph). As a result of
earlier Mars missions have had pretty low weights, they’ve been in a position
to rely virtually completely on passive expertise to decelerate – an
ablative warmth defend within the higher ambiance after which parachutes or
airbags nearer to the bottom.

“If we wish to ship bigger payloads, we now have to make use of rockets within the
higher ambiance to decelerate sufficient to land safely,” McMahon stated.

The problem is it has by no means been executed earlier than. Just a few missions have
used rockets, however solely in the course of the closing few thousand toes earlier than
landing. That have sadly is not going to translate nicely to
firing rockets at excessive altitudes, as wind and different atmospheric
situations are very completely different in comparison with near the bottom.

“We all know methods to use propulsion; that’s not the issue. What we don’t
know is when you’re at 100,000 toes and also you thrust to the left, by the
time you get nearer to the bottom, how far off track will which have
despatched you? Are you able to get again to the place it is advisable be?” McMahon stated.

His group is working to reply these questions by growing steerage
algorithms for computer systems aboard future spacecraft. Their software program will
present the system with the decision-making capabilities info it
wants and decide sturdy options to achieve the bottom safely and

“We have now to construct algorithms that may account for uncertainty. Mars
is just not Earth. We don’t know precisely what the climate would be the day of
the touchdown. The algorithm has to sense and adapt to that,” McMahon
stated. “It additionally has to have the ability to make predictions, so when it’s
descending it might probably draw on earlier information — if the ambiance has
been like X up to now, it’ll in all probability be like Y additional down under.”

If it sounds complicated, it’s. Computer systems have all the time executed heavy lifting
in the course of the entry, descent, and touchdown (EDL) part of missions, even
courting again to the Apollo period. There are just too many variables for
people to make the mandatory calculations in actual time. Including rockets
solely will increase the complexity.

“There may be such a time crunch throughout entry, descent and touchdown. When
you’re nonetheless in house orbiting a planet, there are many conditions
the place if one thing goes unsuitable you may get well. If that occurs throughout
EDL, you don’t get a second likelihood. It’s over,” he stated.

McMahon’s group is one among three from throughout the nation engaged on
this problem for NASA. On the conclusion of the grant, NASA intends to
carry all three groups collectively for side-by-side assessments using the
house company’s excessive constancy simulator.

“The entire cause I’m an engineer versus a scientist or mathematician
is I wish to use my abilities to resolve actual issues,” McMahon stated.
“We’re nearer than we’ve ever been to a manned Mars mission. That’s what
NASA is planning for, and these are the sorts of questions that should
be answered to get there.”

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