A laser-based technology designed to help spacecraft land on a proverbial dime for missions to the Moon and Mars is also helping self-driving cars navigate rush hour traffic on this planet, NASA has said.
The technology will undergo testing on upcoming suborbital rocket launches with Jeff Bezos's aerospace company, Blue Origin, on its New Shepard rocket and ride to the Moon on several commercial landers as part of the Artemis programme which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.
Future missions will require multiple supply deliveries as well as people to land within a few hundred yards of each other.
Only a precision landing and hazard avoidance system can make that possible.
Future landers may use a full suite of technology, including next-generation sensors, cameras, specialised algorithms, and a high-performance spaceflight computer that all work in concert.
NASA organised the development of these capabilities under the Safe and Precise Landing -- Integrated Capabilities Evolution project, or SPLICE.
Lidar is a detection system similar to radar that uses light waves instead of radio waves to detect objects, characterise their shape, and calculate their distance.
SPLICE uses a new variation called navigation Doppler lidar, or NDL, which goes even further: it detects the movement and velocity of distant objects, as well as the spacecraft's own motion relative to the ground -- such as speed, pitch, roll and altitude.
NDL co-inventor Farzin Amzajerdian, who is the technology's principal investigator at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, explained that the frequency of the system's laser is at least three orders of magnitude higher than radars.
"Higher frequency translates to higher-precision data and potentially more efficient and compact sensors," he said, and "the velocity or speed is obtained by using the Doppler effect."
That is, the frequency of the returned laser light will shift when bouncing off the ground as the spacecraft approaches.
So, a spacecraft will have precise data to verify exactly how quickly it's moving toward the ground and at what angle.
Steve Sandford, former engineering director at Langley, also believed the technology had valuable terrestrial applications.
He supported development of Doppler lidar during his tenure at NASA, seeing initial results first-hand.
After retiring, he formed Psionic LLC, based in Hampton, Virginia.
In 2016, the company licensed Doppler lidar technology from Langley. It also entered into a Space Act Agreement with the centre to leverage NASA facilities and expertise while developing its commercial version of the technology for uses on this planet as well as maturing it for space applications such as lunar landings.
Psionic is reengineering the hardware, an effort led by Diego Pierrottet, a lidar co-inventor when he worked at NASA and now chief engineer at Psionic.
Sandford said the work invested by NASA for decades makes it possible for Psionic to develop a viable manufacturing process to enter the market.
"Doppler lidar's high resolution can distinguish between objects that are only several inches apart and even at a distance of several hundred feet," explained Sandford.
This matters when a pedestrian is crossing a road, or a truck is passing in front of a building.