The Aerospace Corporation is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) engaged in every discipline of science and engineering in the space enterprise. The Aerospace Corporation performs objective technical analyses and assessments for a variety of government, civil, and commercial customers.
The Space Quality Improvement Council (SQIC) was founded to address the challenges posed by a series of launch failures in the late 1990s. Since then, other forums were established, such as the Mission Assurance Improvement Workshop (MAIW).
These forums focused chiefly on concerns regarding quality and provided the industry with an opportunity to present informational outbriefs to government leadership to share perspectives, discuss issues, and offer recommendations. The positive effect of these activities is evidenced by the subsequent launch successes and the influence of the groups’ products on industry best practices.
The Aerospace Corporation decided to merge and refocus the SQIC and MAIW, which resulted in the establishment of the new Space Collaboration Council (SCC), formed to facilitate collaboration between senior leaders from government and industry to address emerging challenges in space. As part of the reorganization, the Aerospace Corporation aims to incite industry leaders to actively work with the government beyond an advisory capacity, in the development and application of solutions.
The first SCC meeting was hosted by Aerospace in 2017. Industry participants included Ball, Boeing, Harris, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK, Raytheon, and SpaceX. Government organizations represented included Space and Missile Systems Center, National Reconnaissance Office, Missile Defense Agency, NASA, and the Defense Contract Management Agency.
This meeting covered a range of key space enterprise issues: requirements for small payload ridesharing, hosted payload interface specification and design guidance, challenges in qualifying parts created via additive manufacturing, common specifications and standards, differences between government and commercial timelines, opportunities for lean developments, agile mission assurance, and early problem alert systems.
The Aerospace Corporation is also engaged in the development, launch, and deployment of space systems.
Human activities in space have resulted in a significant amount of space debris that can potentially damage satellites. Aerospace is addressing the issue of space debris and space traffic management by developing tools for analyzing potential collisions, studying reentry breakups, and modeling debris objects in space.
Aerospace supports the Space Surveillance Network, which helps the US government estimate the amount of debris created in a collision or explosion, assists with reentry predictions and reentry casualty expectation, and engages in space traffic management research. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of objects that could be fatal or catastrophic to a space mission and millions of objects that are capable of causing damage.
Aerospace's Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) was established in 1997 to focus the corporation’s research and technology applications in the areas of space debris, collision avoidance, and reentry breakup. The CORDS Reentry Database documents objects and payloads that have reentered earth’s atmosphere since 2000.
CORDS develops tools and techniques for the analysis of potential collision scenarios, studies reentry breakups of upper stages and spacecraft, and performs modeling of debris objects in space. These tools have a variety of uses, including the prediction of possible collisions during launch and on orbit, the prediction of hazards to spacecraft following collisions in space, the simulation of the breakup of reentering debris, the estimation of the survivability of satellite components reentering Earth’s atmosphere, and the determination of risk to life and property.
To measure the effects of atmospheric reentry on space objects, CORDS developed the Reentry Breakup Recorder (REBR). REBR is a small, lightweight, self-contained, autonomous, survivable, and locatable data-recording device. This device is attached to a host vehicle (generally a spacecraft) and remains in idle mode until the point of atmospheric reentry, when it activates to record temperature, acceleration, rotational rate, and data on the breakup of space hardware due to atmospheric drag, aerodynamic heating, and loads. REBR is released during breakup, is protected by its heat shield, survives reentry, and transmits recorded data to the base via the Iridium system.
CORDS has developed new techniques and processes to provide probability-based analysis for mission assurance launch collision avoidance for all national security space launches. The CORDS team has worked to improve the accuracy of the space object catalog and how to apply this knowledge to achieve effective collision avoidance. Aerospace’s Debris Analysis Response Team provides realtime debris risk assessment for on-orbit collisions and breakups. CORDS provides information on when a reentry might occur, and Aerospace collects and analyses material that survived reentry. The Air Force, NRO, NASA, NOAA, FAA and other customers have utilized CORDS' space traffic management services.
Collision energies of various sized particles
1400 to 500,000,000
Up to 1x10^13
Up to 3,000,000
Tracked and catalogued by the space surveillance network
Hundreds of thousands
Tens of millions
Tens of thousands
The Center for Space Policy and Strategy (CSPS) is dedicated to providing nonpartisan research and strategic analysis to decision makers and to informing broader public discussions of space policy. The CSPS is part of The Aerospace Corporation. The Center's aim is not to advocate for particular policies, but to provide objective analysis and data to support key decision makers and an informed public debate, to apply technical expertise to help decision makers explore the full implications of any policy proposal, and to help highlight key opportunities and challenges before they are considered by policymakers.
Laser and electronics experts in the Photonics Technology Department and xLab/Electrical and Software Engineering Department at The Aerospace Corporation are developing new laser technology to enable instruments to be sent to the moon and planets within the solar system and determine their age from an elemental analysis of collected surface samples.
This technology could be implemented in instruments such as the Chemistry Data Experiment (CDEX) tool — a prospective device containing nine lasers, a mass spectrometer, and mechanisms for gathering and processing surface samples. If successful, the instrument’s on-site measurements will be helpful in the assessment of inner solar system impact processes and geochronology, and potentially in supporting the search for evidence of biological activity or life-supporting environmental conditions. CDEX uses a dating method called LARIMS (Laser Ablation Resonant Ionization Mass Spectrometry), which is expected to be more accurate than other dating methods.
Once positioned on a moon or planet, the instrument gathers raw samples from the surface and prepares the material for the LARIMS analysis. The ablation laser vaporizes the raw material and specialized lasers resonantly excite and ionize strontium, rubidium, and lead atoms. This ionization removes an electron from an atom so it has a positive charge that allows it to be measured by a mass spectrometer. The mass spectrometer then measures the isotopes of Rb, Sr, and Pb, enabling the age of the material to be determined.
The EVA Flight and Increment Management (FIM) Office is most involved in the planning and execution of ISS spacewalks. Aerospace has four EVA Flight and Increment Managers (FIMs) who function as the primary interface between the EVA resources and the ISS Program for EVAs. In addition, the group provides the primary EVA interface with the ISS International Partners. This includes planning and requirements documentation, verification and certification of flight and EVA readiness, launch, and real-time operations. While the FIM group is responsible for planning and execution, personnel in the EVA Hardware Office and Management Integration Office are in charge of processes, logistics, and the design and certification of spacesuits, tools, and crew aids used in the spacewalk.
NASA's original Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) was specifically designed as a microgravity suit to enable safing of the Space Shuttle Orbiter in emergency situations, such as closure of the payload bay doors. The suit was later used in satellite repair missions and in the repair and replacement of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA's exploration destinations have prompted the implementation of additional necessary qualities for a spacesuit, such as dust tolerance and the walking in partial gravity, as well as increased radiation tolerance. The new suits are also designed for greater longevity.
The Planetary Society is one of a number of public and private organizations engaged in the development of solar sails for a propulsion system that does not rely on carrying its own propellant into space with it. The Planetary Society’s Light Sail 2 is a CubeSat-based system featuring a large solar sail and equipped with two cameras designed by The Aerospace Corporation. It was launched into space as part of the payload on SpaceX’s Space Test Program-2 mission on June 24, 2019.
The Aerospace camera, which was also a part of the 2015 Light Sail 1 mission, is designed to capture images during the deployment of the solar sail. These images can be useful in the event of difficulties arising as it can provide context and valuable data to engineers looking to troubleshoot issues. The 2MPC is a two mega-pixel camera with fish-eyed lenses. The casing design allows it to function under exposure to the extreme thermal conditions in space.
In 2018, Aerospace and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been awarded a Phase 2 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts grant to research the feasibility of developing a solar-gravity lens (SGL). In the collaboration, JPL focuses on the science behind the project, including selecting candidate planets and processing the data. And Aerospace attends to the technological challenges, such as the architecture, operational concept, instrumentation, costs, schedule, and risks. The solar-gravity lens could potentially be used in the detection of geologic features, seasonal patterns, and signs of civilization on distant exoplanets. In 2020 Aerospace received a further $2 million NIAC III grant for the SGL project.
Functioning as the nation’s independent testing, assessment, and research center for national security space systems, Aerospace has over eighty specialized laboratories that perform thorough testing, analysis, and troubleshooting of rocket and satellite systems.
Aerospace researchers are also involved in all aspects of research regarding near-Earth objects (NEOs), including collaborating with NASA’s Planetary Defense Group to run training exercises with FEMA in the event of extraterrestrial (ET) impact as well as running scenarios on diverting a potential impact before it happens.
With the help of funding from NASA, an Aerospace team patented a minuscule solar cell test platform called Aerospace Measurement Unit (AMU). It has been developed to assess the performance of various solar cells prior to sending them into space. Dr. Don Walker, manager of the Energy Devices Section at Aerospace, described this device as "a solar cell laboratory on a chip."
The main benefit of the AMU's minimal size and weight is that the team can use a smaller and less expensive balloon that can be flown more easily to the necessary altitude. When the flight is complete, the device is parachuted to the ground and taken back to the lab. The device has been flown successfully and seems to operate as intended.
A team from Aerospace’s Communication System Implementation Subdivision has been developing Blind Interference Signal Suppression (BLISS) technology, which is designed to counter jamming signals that interfere with GPS reception. Dr. Philip Dafesh, one of the BLISS architects, said the technology "uses a proprietary set of algorithms that estimate specific characteristics of a high-power jammer, which in turn enables it to mitigate the effects of a wide range of strong jammers."
BLISS can be implemented with existing receivers, as a standalone device between a GPS receiver and its antenna, or integrated into a future receiver chipset. Unlike more conventional techniques, which are focused on removing narrow band jamming over a limited frequency range, BLISS is effective against jammers that are matched to the signal of interest and is invulnerable to jammers whose frequency or phase characteristics are rapidly altered.
The technology has been licensed to Talen-X, a subsidiary of Orolia, a company that specializes in manufacturing precision time and frequency products to solve global navigation satellite system problems. The research and development for BLISS was originally funded by Aerospace’s Innovation Lab (iLab), which was created to encourage engineers to explore innovative solutions to space capability issues.
Space Cloud is an artificial intelligence system developed by Aerospace engineers led by Dr. Josh Train, the Chief Engineer at the Aerospace Corporation’s Space Systems Group. Space Cloud uses modern cloud computing to enable satellites to repeatedly detect and transmit specific meaningful data. The system teaches satellites to send back filtered requested information to an analyst. These satellites can be redeployed as soon as the request is complete.
Space Cloud was built with commercially available technology, including an Intel Movidius processor, and created an extended Google’s open-sourced Kubernetes tool to enable temporal-geospatial software scheduling. It enables analysts to deploy the same satellite to search for a variety of objects on land or on water, resulting in the provision of usable data and persistent overhead monitoring.
The Near Infrared Airglow Camera (NIRAC) is a 45-kilogram device that was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 3, 2019, as part of the Department of Defense Space Test Program to study lower atmospheric processes that affect space weather and to exploit airglow for nighttime imagery applications.
NIRAC provides visibility within the infrared part of the spectrum, whose brightness is significantly greater than that of visible airglow. This illumination enables the camera to capture images of the ground and clouds at night in the absence of other light. NIRAC also contributes to the study of lower atmospheric processes that affect space weather. NIRAC observations of airglow could also be employed in scientific investigations studying the coupling of the lower and upper atmospheres.
The Aerospace Corporation does not engage in manufacturing, but it supports its research efforts through a subsidiary organization, xLab (short for Experiments Laboratory), which designs and builds prototypes. Over the years, the company has developed space science instruments and nano satellites, including a number of CubeSats, known as AeroCubes. These small-scale experimentation and testing activities have provided Aerospace with insights into artificial intelligence, 3D printing, space weather, hyperspectral imaging, and other areas.
The Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) mission demonstrated an optical laser communications capability operating at a rate fifty times greater than similar systems on a pair of CubeSats. A laser hard-mounted to the satellite was directed by a precision attitude control system that moved the entire satellite for transmission. Additionally, the CubeSats were equipped with novel water-based propulsion systems that enabled the satellites to perform precise movements for proximity demonstrations.
In 2018, Aerospace was challenged by the United States Air Force to build and launch a pair of cube satellites in eighteen months on a relatively small budget. The Aerospace team developed a concept that utilized commercially-available technology and the proprietary AeroCube spacecraft bus. The resulting Aerospace Rogue Alpha/Beta CubeSats, also known as AeroCube-15, were launched in November 2019, meeting the target deadline.
Through the University Partnership Program (UPP), Aerospace collaborates with professors from select universities to offer students opportunities to participate in sponsored research and development projects, network with Aerospace technical experts, and gain valuable experience through internships.
Through a partnership between iLab and Aerospace’s University Relations and Recruiting (UR&R), Aerospace sponsors R&D projects with partnering universities, selected by a range of factors including diversity, quality, and research strengths. These projects involve leveraging AI to track objects in orbit, machine learning with environmental data, and robotics for in-space assembly.
The iLab and UR&R program also aims to coordinate events, such as guest lectures, seminars, and capstone classes for students in order to give them insights into the projects and programs supported by Aerospace.