NFT’s Journey from Understudy to Center Stage

NFT’s Journey from Understudy to Center Stage
November 03, 2019

The system wasn’t in the original plan.

It wasn’t even considered until the team decided to add a backup option.

But now, Natural Feature Tracking — known as NFT — will be guiding the way when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descends to the surface of asteroid Bennu to collect a sample. 

For upcoming TAG site selection, the OSIRIS-REx team will identify a primary and backup sample collection site on Bennu. Learn about all four sites here. Video courtesy of NASA.

OSIRIS-REx: Solution in Action


Asteroid Bennu: Seeing in Three Dimensions

Within months of OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu, those imaging the asteroid’s surface found it surprisingly rocky. NFT proved its worth to the team, assuming a starring role as the spacecraft’s primary navigator for sample collection.

Where OSIRIS-REx’s original navigation system used LIDAR technology to sense only the spacecraft’s distance to the asteroid, NFT employs optical navigation to sense spacecraft position and velocity in three directions. Through its collected data, NFT can identify Bennu’s landmarks, such as craters or boulders, to determine if the spacecraft is on the right trajectory.

“This type of optical navigation using natural features on the surface has never been employed before by a small body exploration mission,” says Olds.

Senior engineer Curtis Miller says these capabilities will be invaluable for navigating Bennu’s tricky terrain. “NFT will know if you’re coming down onto a big rock and can tell you, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get out of here.’”

Without NFT’s pinpoint guidance, he adds, the mission itself could have been in jeopardy. “Had we not developed this, we’d be scratching our heads right now.”

OSIRIS REx Sample Sites: Downselection Coming Up

With NFT leading the charge on the collection navigation, the OSIRIS-REx team, led by the University of Arizona and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is preparing to choose a “TAG” (touch and go) site — the spot on the asteroid where OSIRIS-REx will briefly touch down to collect a sample.

The decision to narrow down to the final two potential TAG sites comes this December. Stay tuned!

Learn More About OSIRIS-REx