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NEWS | Dec. 6, 2019

Airmen aid NASA with “The laser” for lunar mission

By Airman 1st Class Sarah Dowe 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. –  The NASA Langley Research Center is developing and testing new technology that will be used on the next space shuttle to the Moon, Mars, helicopters landing in the desert, and possibly in self-driving cars.

Individuals from the NASA LaRC tested a laser on the flight line at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia Nov. 26, 2019. The laser will be used on future missions to send information to the space module of the distance and velocity to where they need to land because GPS signals won’t work in space.

“The relationship between NASA and Langley is super close because we share the same property, it forces us to work together on a daily basis,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Matthew Kinney, 1st Operations Support Squadron deputy airfield manager. “We are trying to gel our two missions and synchronize them, to make the most effective use of time in this constrained environment.”

The idea of the laser was started by a couple of people in a small lab because of the need for a sensor that can precisely measure vector, velocity and altitude. The Navigation Doppler Lidar went from a basic prototype concept to a miniature flight instrument for terrestrial use, explained Dr. Farzin Amzajerdian, principal investigator for the Navigation Doppler Lidar at the NASA LaRC.

Copies of the unit will be mounted on the landing gear of vehicles that will go to outer space, taking advantage of technology that didn’t exist in 1969. The lenses work by shooting laser beams to help the vehicle navigate to land precisely and softly where it is supposed to.

“The system uses lasers to image the ground with a frequency modulated continuous wave system to get high accuracy and precision,” said Dr. Glenn Hines, chief engineer for the Navigation Doppler Lidar at the NASA LaRC. “Each beam produces a very small footprint on the ground.”

The team has been testing the laser on helicopters and small rockets that take off from the ground and hover before landing. The unit primarily measures velocity and range information in a package that is significantly smaller than the conventional way of measuring velocity and range in radar systems.

 “Although this is a test unit the consumers can’t wait for us to build the next version, because two copies of this are going to be flying to the moon in 2021,” said Amzajerdian.

The precision of the unit is also vital to safety. By using this technology the NASA LaRC hopes to improve the accuracy of landing vehicles thus improving the safety of the astronauts.

“Putting our people and assets down safely is a very important part of this,” Amzajerdian said. “If you are building up a lunar habitat you want to put your supplies close to where the astronauts will land and close to where the imaging sources are.”

The team has put years of blood, sweat and tears into the production of this new technology, Hines explained.

“To see something go from a concept to real hardware that you see being tested in the field, on helicopters, airplanes and rocket landers, going to the Moon is a once in a lifetime opportunity that very few people on the planet can say they helped with,” Hines said.

NASA LaRC team members are excited to finally begin to see the outcome of a project well done and completely in use with the potential for a huge benefit to humanity.

Kinney talked about the mission of the Department of Defense and how having the chance to work with NASA has been a very unique opportunity.

“This specific mission is part of research, development and exploration which I think is exceptionally unique because it is the only mission I’ve ever been a part of where we’re involved in exploration,” Kinney said. “It isn’t generally one of our mission sets here; I think that is what is most unique about it.”

By using the flight line at Langley, the test was able to take place, putting NASA one step closer to the 21st century Moon program which is dubbed Artemis, after the Greek god Apollo.

“Hopefully in the future every landing vehicle that goes up to any asteroid, the Moon or Mars will be using this technology to help land safely and precisely,” Amzajerdian said. “There’s a huge sense of pride in this.”

The team plans on continuing research and perfecting the test unit so it will be able to make the largest positive impact when it is put into use.