NASA wants to visit celestial bodies we've never been to before, so it has started testing a precise landing system that will first be used for future trips to Mars. The engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory used a rocket by Masten Space Systems called XA-0.1B "Xombie" (a reusable test rocket that launches and lands vertically) to perform two test flights back in December. They integrated the Autonomous Descent and Ascent Powered-flight Testbed (ADAPT) computer onto the rocket, which is then loaded with the new landing system. In both instances, Xombie had to reach an altitude of 1,066 feet before it started its descent and the two-part landing system kicked in.
The first part is Terrain Relative Navigation technology, which has a sensor named the Lander Vision System (LVS). It can maneuver a spacecraft to a precise location even without GPS by taking pictures of the terrain while descending. The system can then compare those photos to images it's saved onboard to determine where it is and touch down as close to the planned landing site as possible. This works in conjunction with the second part of the landing system, which is an algorithm called G-FOLD. That one does onboard calculations to determine which trajectories "obtain the maximum performance from every kilogram of propellant." And yes, the system can do all these by itself, with no human input.
This landing system is necessary if NASA plans to visit new planets, moons, asteroids or comets. See, for a spacecraft to be able to land on unfamiliar territory without touching down on rocky or dangerous terrain, it has to be able to find a good location on its own. The agency is hoping that this technology's the solution to that issue, though two successful tests probably aren't enough for NASA to start using it on actual missions just yet.
[Image credit: NASA Photo / Tom Tschida]
Update: We've corrected the first part of the posts to clarify that ADAPT is a computer payload instead of being the rocket itself.