NASA announces Technology Demonstration Missions

Three space missions have been selected by NASA to demonstrate new technologies in communications, deep space navigation and in-space propulsion.

NASA said these Technology Demonstration Missions are a vital element of the technology maturation pipeline — proving feasibility in a real space environment and helping to take innovations from concept to full-scale missions.

To reduce cost, the technology demonstrations will ride to space with other payloads aboard commercially provided launch vehicles scheduled for 2015 and 2016.

The Laser Communications Relay mission will aim to validate a reliable and cost-effective communications technology that promises data rates up to 100-times higher than current space systems. After the demonstration, the developed space and ground assets will be qualified for use by near-Earth and deep space missions requiring high bandwidth and a small ground station reception area.

‘Optical communication will enable rapid return of the voluminous data associated with sending spacecraft and humans to new frontiers,’ explained Bobby Braun, NASA chief technologist.

Meanwhile, the Deep Space Atomic Clock mission will validate a miniaturised mercury-ion atomic clock to demonstrate ultra-precision timing in space and its benefits for one-way radio navigation. The investigation will make use of GPS signals to demonstrate precision orbit determination and confirm the clock’s performance.

Lastly, the Solar Sail mission will deploy and operate a sail area seven times larger than ever flown in space. It is potentially applicable to a wide range of future space missions, including an advanced space weather warning system to provide more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity or economical orbital debris removal.

The clock and solar sail will be ready for flight in three years. The optical communications team anticipates it will take four years to mature the technology for flight. NASA plans to make a total investment in these three missions of approximately $175m (£106m).