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Discovering Deep Space: Robotics

How Robotic Missions Advance Science and the Future of all Space Exploration

The Moon, the Sun and the stars—and Mars and beyond.

If a robotic mission has traveled there, so has Lockheed Martin.

The spacecraft we design, build and operate have been a part of exploring every planet in our solar system. They have landed on Mars, executed tiny orbits around asteroids and flown past Pluto on to the Kuiper Belt, the farthest distance any space vehicle has ever gone.

Our systems provide the power and protection needed to navigate through cruise stage, maintain even the smallest, precise orbits, and withstand the challenges of entry, descent and landing (EDL). The instruments on our missions collect vital scientific samples and data and send them back to Earth. And on the ground, our mission support teams keep spacecraft flying and information flowing to scientists and engineers for analysis.

The experience and knowledge gathered from those robotic missions is not only providing us with valuable data about our solar system, they are also informing a key goal for deep space exploration-- sending humans to the moon and Mars in the not-so-distant future and providing the infrastructure for a new space economy.

OSIRIS-REx Robtic Exploration

Mapping the Planets and More

Robotic Space Probes

Lockheed Martin-built probes provide the data that shape our understanding of planets and other celestial bodies as well as measure the properties of space. We built and operated Magellan. In 1989, it became the first spacecraft to use aerobraking and the first mission to provide highly detailed surface and gravity maps of Venus.

Our innovation continued with a number of missions through the 1990s and early 2000s, and returned to space probes in 2011. Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft traveled to the Moon and Jupiter with GRAIL and Juno. We provided mission operations for GRAIL’S investigations of the Moon’s structure and thermal evolution and Juno’s study of Jupiter’s core, gravity, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Juno’s Jupiter mission sent it on the longest journey yet for a solar-powered spacecraft.

Now we are preparing for two unique missions. NASA selected Lockheed Martin Space to design, build and operate Lucy, the first mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, set to launch in 2021. And our small CubeSat, known as LunIR (Lunar Infrared), will ride along with the Orion spacecraft on Exploration Mission-1 to collect infrared images using a next generation technology gathering more information about our Moon.

GRAIL-robotics

Water on Mars and Other Discoveries

Robotic Orbiters

Orbiters supply scientists with a wealth of data and discoveries about how our solar system was formed including our planetary neighbor, Mars. In 1996, Mars Global Surveyor launched to orbit around the polar regions of Mars, and contributed to a multitude of findings about the signs of past, persistent water. The orbiters operating today are providing even more data. In 2001, Mars Odyssey began analyzing the radiation environment on Mars to evaluate risks, while the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) searched for official water sources. Other missions like MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) gather information on the impact that Mars’ upper atmosphere might have on a manned spacecraft approaching the planet.

Orbiters also provide important communications relays for deep-space operations, including landers and rovers.

When InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) landed on Mars in 2018, it relied on data relays from MRO and Odyssey to transmit information back to Earth.

We have a long heritage with building orbiters. For example, the Lunar Prospector lived up to its name—uncovering the first evidence of water ice at the Moon’s poles in 1998.  Now spacecraft like MRO at Mars continue to drive human exploration by examining potential landing sites for future Mars missions, while others like MAVEN contribute with studies of the Martian atmosphere and provide relay support.

MAVEN

Returning to the Red Planet—Again and Again

Robotic Landers

Lockheed Martin is the only company that has built a spacecraft that has successfully landed on Mars…and we have done it four times.  Beginning with NASA’s inaugural Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s, we have participated in every NASA mission to the planet since. InSight is NASA's 21st Mars mission and the 11th Mars spacecraft Lockheed Martin has manufactured. That extensive experience means that our engineers-built InSight with the most advanced technology and lessons learned from previous Mars missions. 

Landing on Mars means guiding a spacecraft like InSight more than 300 million miles to a select point in the Martian atmosphere that’s only 15 miles wide—that’s like hitting a hole-in-one from 2,100 miles away. Our propulsive landing systems help Mars landers, including Viking, Phoenix and now InSight, touch down safely.  

We continue to explore advanced techniques needed to land heavier spacecraft that will carry humans, their gear and supplies, and the fuel needed for the 300-million-mile-plus trip – depending on where Mars is at the time of launch. Now, Lockheed Martin is applying its expertise in interplanetary spacecraft to a new program designed to deliver commercial payloads to the Moon. NASA selected our McCandless Lunar Lander to provide payload delivery services as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract.  

The McCandless Lunar Lander can ferry large payloads weighing hundreds of kilograms – including stationary scientific instruments, deployable rovers, or even sample return vehicles – to the Moon’s surface. Once on the lunar surface, the lander can provide power, communications and thermal management for sophisticated payloads. CLPS also represents a path forward to reusable human landers in the future. 

Mars InSight Robotic Lander

Comet Dust, Solar Wind and Asteroid Soil

Sample Return Missions

Our innovations for sample return missions help bring science back to Earth. NASA’s Stardust and Stardust-NExT missions in 1999, the first U.S. space mission designed solely for comet exploration, relied on Lockheed Martin to design, build, integrate and test, as well as control and operate, the spacecraft. We provided launch support and support for the capsule that returned comet dust to Earth. We took on the same tasks for Genesis, a 2001 mission that returned solar-wind samples.

The experience from those missions carried over to the OSIRIS-REx (2016) mission to the asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft will use a first-of-its-kind sample collection mechanism invented by Lockheed Martin especially for the mission’s unique challenges. TAGSAM, or Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, will use its fully articulated “arm” and vacuum head to collect regolith from Bennu in 2020. 

Stardust Sample Return

Imaging the Wonders of Space

Telescopes

The Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer space telescopes—two of the telescopes that Lockheed Martin built and integrated--provide unprecedented views of deep space. Hubble has been flying for nearly 30 years, while Spitzer has logged more than 15 years. Their images have revealed new information about how stars form, discovered massive black holes and shown that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. They have even discovered a whole new solar system with seven planets orbiting a relatively nearby star, TRAPPIST-1.

Our Optical Payload Center of Excellence is a network of experts and integrated capabilities based in Palo Alto, Calif. The center has been designing, building and operating optical payloads for more than 50 years. Our optical technology on space telescopes like Hubble and Spitzer captures and interprets the data scientists need to better understand the universe. And it can be scaled to smaller satellites.

Hubble
Image: NASA

The People Behind the Robots

Mission Operations

The Mission Support Area (MSA) in Denver, Colo., houses the people in the loop who keep these robotic explorers on the right path. The Mission Operations teams in the MSA currently have eight missions operating in space and will add Lucy when it launches on its journey to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids in 2021. Capitalizing on the expertise of building the spacecraft, our team brings those lessons learned to spacecraft operations with the majority of the spacecraft outside Earth’s atmosphere – the only private company to provide this service.

Mission Ops teams are responsible for: 

  • Supporting in-flight maneuvers, testing and special scientific research requests
  • Monitoring data to analyze general spacecraft health and evaluate trends
  • Receiving data from NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas
  • Developing and validating commands to operate spacecraft
  • Creating background sequences that allow spacecraft to transmit data back to Earth
  • Redesigning mission capabilities to extend science collection  

Like the spacecraft they fly, Mission Ops teams constantly explore new territory. The OSIRIS-REx mission required unprecedented proximity operations when it reached the asteroid Bennu in late 2018. It’s the first time anyone has ever operated a spacecraft so close to a small celestial body and in a microgravity environment. That means the team must make frequent orbit adjustments—once or twice a week at times, compared to yearly for spacecraft in larger, more established orbits.

MSA

A View From Our Robots