Exploring Space: Aerospace Conference Preview

This year’s conference covers COTS for applications such as onboard processing and avionics

8 January 2010

Long gone are the post-Sputnik days when no cost was too high for aerospace engineers working on the myriad technologies destined for ever more ambitious missions. Space researchers on a budget continue to look for new applications in which they feel comfortable using commercial off-the-shelf systems (COTS) instead of specialized one-off components. According to one of the organizers of the IEEE Aerospace Conference, to be held 6–13 March in Big Sky, Mont., industry insiders are always interested in seeing what new systems have been pulled from a catalog and made to handle the exacting instrumentation, sensing, and processing demands of space missions.

At this year’s conference, COTS for applications such as onboard processing and avionics are on the agenda.

Buying commercial components is but one of dozens of topics to be discussed at the conference, which covers the broad spectrum of technologies related to space exploration. “Antenna Systems and Technologies,” “Electro-Optic Sensors and Observation Systems,” “Diagnostics, Prognostics, and Health Management,” and “Government Plans, Policies, and Education,” are just four of the 14 tracks the conference organizers have arranged.

“I consider it to be a blue-collar conference,” says John Samson Jr., an IEEE senior member and co-organizer of the “Spacecraft Avionics Systems and Technologies” track. “That is to say, there are no theoretical treatises here. All of the presenters have done something significant in the past year and want to share it with the rest of the aerospace community.”

COTS technologies, including a computer that has been tested in orbit and avionics that are designed to take much of the tedium out of readying satellites for launch, are expected to be addressed several times in Samson’s track.

Samson, a principal engineering fellow at Honeywell Defense and Space Systems in Clearwater, Fla., says he tends to hop from one track to another, “because there’s such a wealth of information” that can benefit his business.

He says another hot technology this year is phase-change memory, which provides more storage while demanding less room—an important consideration in space, where every extra gram adds to the cost of a mission. Several presentations are aimed at the topic, including one in Samson’s track called “Characterization and Qualification of a Radiation Hardened, Nonvolatile Phase-Change Memory Technology for Space Applications."

The news media likely will be drawn to the “Space Missions, Systems, and Architectures” track, because several of the invited papers focus on a topic—entry, descent, and landing on planets and smaller celestial bodies—that generally sparks the public’s imagination.

“We’ve received a nice complement of papers on landing autonomous rover vehicles on the moon and Mars,” says Christopher Stevens, the track’s co-organizer. He notes that the Mars rovers that touched down there in January 2004 are “still doing excellent science.”

Conference attendees can expect to be updated on the progress of the planned 2011 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, Stevens says. The SUV-size rover, five times as large as the ones currently relaying data from the Red Planet, are designed to carry out more sophisticated analyses—hopefully so scientists can determine if Mars ever had the capacity to support life.

Improving mobility and robotics on planet surfaces also will be covered at the conference, says Stevens, who is the program manager for space flight technology validation at NASA’s New Millennium Program. The NMP tests new technologies for space exploration.

Samson and Stevens note that attendees may want to hear the plenary talks on topics that might, at first blush, seem tangential to space researchers’ work but could affect the way they approach their jobs. Although tailored to be of interest to a technical crowd, they’re usually accessible to a broader audience.

“One year they brought in the guy who discovered that dinosaurs are birds, and they’ve also had people from Disney talking about the complexity of animation,” Samson says. Stevens recalled a recent plenary meeting that focused on how studying the way birds fly could help designers build flying robots.

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