Ohio University to design control systems for space launch vehicle

June 10, 2001

ATHENS, Ohio - The next generation of government and commercial space launch vehicles could be powered by flight control systems designed by an Ohio University-led engineering research team.

The researchers, supported by a $4.4 million contract from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, are developing the guidance and control systems that will steer the craft into orbit and bring it back to Earth. The project involves researchers at four universities and the Marshall center and was among 22 to receive funding during the first phase of NASA's Space Launch Initiative, a research and development effort designed to improve safety and reduce the high cost of space travel.

On-board guidance and controls systems determine and regulate everything from the trajectory of the spacecraft to when and how much fuel it burns, said Ohio University's Jim Zhu, lead researcher on the project.

"Launch vehicles cannot cut through the atmosphere during launch or re-entry at hypersonic speed without these systems," said Zhu, a professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. "The automatic flight control system is a quiet, enabling technology. When it works, no one know it's there."

Current guidance and control systems are based on theories and technology of the 1970s. The systems are designed and operated separately, and before every launch, thousands of new control systems parameters must be calculated, validated and loaded on the on-board computer on the day of launch to account for changing payload, mission objectives and atmospheric conditions. The process is lengthy and expensive.

Zhu and his colleagues are basing their systems on advanced mathematical theory and a computer program they're designing called an Autocommander, which integrates the guidance and control systems to make them more efficient, safe and easily adaptable to different flight plans.

The theory behind their research was developed while Zhu and several members of the research team were working on the Advanced Guidance and Control Research Project for the X-33 RLV technology demonstrator at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"We made a convincing argument that such an approach will significantly reduce the design and operational costs and greatly improve the vehicle and crew safety," Zhu said, "and we won the very competitive contract. Now we need to prove it."

During the first 10 months of the project, which began this month, Zhu and his partners will run thousands of computer simulations to test their design. At the end of the eighth month, they must demonstrate to NASA that their technology reduces the risks and expenses of launch.

If they're successful, the team will spend the next 14 months working toward the next NASA milestone, which entails more sophisticated computer simulation. If all goes well, the last two years will be spent implementing and testing the systems on flight computers. Most of the testing will be done at the Huntsville center.

Each of the four research teams - located at Ohio University, Auburn University, Iowa State University and the University of Alabama at Huntsville - will lead work on different components of the project. The Autocommander program will be developed at Ohio University in an effort led by Douglas Lawrence, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Zhu will oversee the research efforts of all the teams throughout the four-year project. The $4.4 million contract was awarded to the Avionics Engineering Center, part of the university's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and will be managed by center director James Rankin.

Ohio University was one of only two academic institutions to receive a contract during the first step of the Space Launch Initiative, a $4.8 billion investment in the development of alternative technologies that NASA will make available to all U.S. companies. The second step, construction of the launch vehicle, could begin as early as the middle of this decade, with the final phase - launch - set for early next decade.
-end-
Written by Kelli Whitlock.

More information on NASA's Space Launch Initiative can be found at http://www.slinews.com.Additional Contacts:
J. Jim Zhu, Ohio University, 740-597-1506; zhu@homer.ece.ohiou.edu
June Malone, Marshall Space Flight Center, 256-544-7061; june.malone@msfc.nasa.gov

Ohio University

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