Because of the myriad of technical challenges involved in guiding a landing craft remotely onto the surface of a planet, NASA has been working on ways to give extra planetary craft more intelligence so that they can figure out the best way to land on their own and do so. The current Mars rover, demonstrated some of that technology, but still relied on some guidance from engineers back on Earth before taking the final plunge down to the Martian surface. Now, NASA is reporting, they have successfully tested a craft they call the “Mighty Eagle” that took off, moved around in the air until spotting it’s landing site, then landed itself with no assistance. Mail Online says it’s the first ever such experiment and that it was a resounding success and because of that marks a new milestone towards creating a craft that will be able to fly to more remote sites.
Online explains that the farther away a spacecraft gets from Earth, the more difficult it becomes to control via remote signaling. While it’s true such signals can travel at the speed of light, because of the great distances it can still take several minutes for them to reach Earth, then several more for a response to get back. And that comes after the engineers think over and formulate a response. For space vehicles sent out beyond the solar system, such an exchange becomes unfeasible; hence, the development of the Mighty Eagle.
The test NASA explains, involved liftoff, moving slowly in a concentric circle until spotting a target that had been drawn on the ground. Once the target was spotted the craft automatically moved itself in position over the target and made constant adjustments to its jets to allow for a smooth soft landing directly on top of the target. The entire flight took all of thirty two seconds, but to NASA, the achievement was as big as the seconds-only flight the Wright Brothers took in proving that manned flight was possible. This new experiment shows that unmanned flight to unknown worlds is possible too.
The Mighty Eagle is approximately four feet high by eight feet across its diameter and weighs approximately seven hundred pounds. They say that the only human interaction came in telling the craft when to launch, after that, every operation was performed exclusively by the craft, drawing on several decades of work by NASA and others in the aeronautical, aviation and robotics industries.
NASA says the technology being developed will one day soon allow for spacecraft that are able to visit multiple planets, comets and asteroids, as it boldly goes where no manmade craft has gone before.