NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

A new test facility that will help researchers design and build new, smaller exploration spacecraft of the future has been opened at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The facility, called the Flight System Testbed, will be used in the development of such JPL missions as the Mars Environmental Survey (MESUR) Pathfinder and the Pluto Fast Flyby.

The aim of the facility is to reduce costs, shorten schedules, resolve problems early and mitigate risks associated with the development of spacecraft missions, according to E. Kane Casani, manager of JPL's Flight Projects Implementation Development Office.

"Although JPL has always had test facilities for various components or subsystems, this is the first time we have established an integrated testbed for system-level development of an entire spacecraft," said Casani.

"More than ever, we are being challenged to develop small, lightweight spacecraft using new technologies on tight schedules and limited budgets," he added. "The testbed is designed to support that goal."

The facility, located in JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility building, features three test stations and a network of computer workstations.

During spacecraft development, designers can bring one or several subsystems -- or an entire small spacecraft -- to the facility for testing, according to Nick Thomas, testbed manager.

"For example, the project team might want to test an advanced lightweight camera at an early stage of development," said Thomas. "Our testbed has the capability of simulating the remainder of the spacecraft -- in essence, creating a `virtual' spacecraft -- during the test."

Besides mimicking the spacecraft itself, the facility can also connect to the Deep Space Network and other ground systems on Earth that the spacecraft will communicate with during its eventual mission.

Thomas said that initially the Flight System Testbed will consist of a group of mission-specific test stations at a centralized location.

"But the testbed is designed so that components in other areas of JPL -- or even at other geographic locations -- can be connected through electronic networks and tested as part of a virtual spacecraft," he added.

Traditionally, designers have been hesitant to use very new technologies in spacecraft subsystems because such components are not as thoroughly tested and understood as ones that use more established technologies.

"In today's NASA, however, we are being challenged to produce much smaller and less expensive spacecraft on shorter time schedules," said Casani. "In order to do that, the flight projects need a way of rapidly evaluating and testing new technologies -- and that is what the testbed offers them."

In addition to the Mars and Pluto missions, the testbed will support work by the Microspacecraft Development Program under JPL's Office of Space Science and Instruments.

That program is developing innovative architectures for subsystems such as on-board command and data handling, attitude determination and control, and communications to pave the way for future deep-space probes that weigh about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and less.

The Flight System Testbed is sponsored by JPL's Flight Projects Office under the Flight Projects Implementation Development Office.

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