SPAN's Integral Role

As NASA's avionics test lead, Williamson oversees the design of the CPAS test vehicles avionics system. He collects a variety of data, from navigational to environmental, and is tasked with making sure the avionics work properly and that they can carry out the test procedure.

“The test vehicles are all equipped with sensors and instruments used to determine parachute performance and if we're meeting safety requirements,” he says. “We take humidity, inertial measurements, position, attitude and velocity measurements. We also outfit the vehicles with many types of cameras that are high definition and high speed. We take all data from the sensors and equipment and we use that data to validate the computer models and better predict how the parachute will perform, and make sure we're meeting the safety requirement.”

The team uses NovAtel's SPAN system to measure the test vehicle's attitude and vertical velocity. The team's goal is to observe the capsule dynamics and record how fast the vehicle is falling throughout the test.

The SPAN-SE receiver also offers trajectory estimates, which provides an alternative data set if the avionics system GPS signal is ever lost and there's potential for large data gaps. The IMU could extrapolate from the vehicle's movement and fill in the dots where drop outs occurred. SPAN-SE also offers synchronized position and attitude along with a self-contained recording system.

Heading into space

At the end of this year, Orion will take its first trip to space during the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). It won't carry a crew, but will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth for a two-orbit flight, according to NASA. This flight will give engineers the chance to not only verify its design, but to test the systems that are most critical to an astronaut's safety-including launch, re-entry and landing.

During this trip into deep space, Orion will travel 15 times farther than the InternationaSpace Station before it returns to Earth. After circling the Earth twice, Orion will re-enter the atmosphere at speeds close to 20,000 mph and temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The parachute system NASA's team has been testing, with the help of NovAtel's SPAN, will slow Orion down before it lands in the Pacific Ocean.

Orion is scheduled to take a second unmanned trip into space in 2017, and this time the spacecraft will take off from the new Space Launch System, according to NASA. Exploration Mission 1 will test how the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft work together to prepare for the first crewed flight. That flight, Exploration Mission 2, is scheduled for 2021.

Orion will take us further into space than we've ever been, marking an exciting time in space exploration. But before we get there, multiple tests must be completed to ensure the spacecraft is safe. Safe landing gear is a key component, and NovAtel's plays an important role, providing analysts with velocity data, to help ensure the capsule's descent rate stays where it should.