How To Hit A Landing Target On Mars … Potentially, Precisely and Perfectly!

It’s frustrating to make it all the way to Mars, only to land in the wrong spot. So as Masten Space Systems tests its Xombie vertical-launch-vertical-landing rocket prototype on Earth, engineers are also examining a software solution to make Red Planet landings even more precise.

The software is called G-FOLD (for Fuel Optimal Large Divert Guidance algorithm) and is a product of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other NASA departments. The agency is using techniques for spacecraft landings that have origins from the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s, which have some limitations.

“These algorithms do not optimize fuel usage and significantly limit how far the landing craft can be diverted during descent,” JPL stated, adding that the new algorithm can figure out the best fuel-conserving paths in real time, along with a “key new technology required for planetary pinpoint landing.”

An artist's concept of Curiosity landing with the skycrane system. Credit: NASA/JPL
An artist’s concept of Curiosity landing with the skycrane system — demonstrating one recently used technique for landing on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Hitting the target exactly is an exciting feat for researchers, JPL explained, because robotic missions can be steered to difficult-to-reach science targets and crewed missions could bring more cargo to their landing site rather than carrying extra fuel.

Xombie first tested out this technique on July 30 and nailed the landing — about half a mile away — when it received the commands while 90 feet in the air. A second flight is planned for August, providing the data analysis goes as planned.

The technology is still new, of course, and there are other concepts out there for pinpoint systems. In May, the European Space Agency released information on a concept it is funding. That system, which is also still being developed, uses a database of landmarks to assist a spacecraft with making landings.

Source: NASA

Masten’s Xombie Tests a Mars EDL-type Trajectory

Could one of the next landings on Mars be led by a commercial company? Masten Space Systems vertical take-off and landing vehicle, Xombie, recently tested powered descent and landing trajectory algorithms that could be used for future Mars Entry Descent & Landing (EDL) applications.

“You may have noticed we’ve been flying Xombie a lot lately doing some interesting things,” wrote the Masten team on their website. “We just finished the third leg of a flight campaign on Xombie that expands the boundaries of what we believe to be the nation’s leading terrestrial landing testbed.”

These very fun-to-watch test flights were completed by Masten for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to test its powered descent and landing trajectory optimization algorithms for future EDL applications.

“It may look easy, but flying VTVL is really hard,” said Masten Space Systems CTO David Masten on Twitter.


The company said the flights this week reached a higher translation velocity than the previous flights and successfully expanded Xombie’s flight envelope. The flight was controlled by Masten’s own Guidance, Navigation & Control system.

The flight ascended to 476.4 meters before translating downrange 750 meters at a horizontal velocity of 24 meters per second (53 mph).
“As far as we know, the 750 meter translation flight represents the longest terrestrial translation flight ever undertaken by a rocket powered vertical takeoff, vertical landing craft” said the Masten website. “You can bet there were a lot of high fives around the Masten team after this flight!”

This was the third test Masten did for JPL to validate their algorithm, and all objectives were successfully met.

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie rocket with Draper Laboratory’s GENIE flight control system takes an untethered flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Photo courtesy of Draper Laboratory)

Masten’s Xombie Nails Vertical Flight Test

Masten Space Systems’ unmanned Xombie rocket recently made a successful flight test, flying from one pad to another and landing again. This was the first free-flight test for Xombie as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Using the GENIE (Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment) System, the Xombie suborbital rocket lifted off 50 meters to a stable hover, then flew laterally down range 50 meters, and then landed safely during a controlled 50 meter descent. The testing, which exercised the autonomous guidance, navigation, and control technology needed to fly planetary landing trajectories, was conducted at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
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Masten Successfully Re-Ignites Rocket Engine During Test Flight

“This was by far the coolest rocket flight I’ve ever seen!” said Ian Garcia, Guidance, Navigation, and Controls Engineer for Masten Space Systems.

I’ll second that! With their motto, “Just gas ’em up and go!” the Masten team today successfully demonstrated in-air engine re-light capability on their Xombie vehicle, and this was the first time that a vertical take-off, vertical landing vehicle has successfully performed a such a re-ignition during flight.
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