NASA’s Langley Research Center
Hampton, VA
Aitech Systems
Chatsworth, CA
The successful LOFTID demonstration suggests that inflatable aeroshells can keep payloads safe during atmospheric entry. (Image: NASA/Greg Swanson)

The development of reusable launch vehicles and re-entry units has helped to significantly lower the costs of putting systems in orbit, making space trips cheaper and far more obtainable. This has led to the creation of a host of never-before-imagined space innovations.

The successful launch and re-entry of NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) on November 10, 2022, was an example of modern space advancements. The LOFTID space mission demonstrated an inflatable heat shield that acts as a viable braking system by deploying a large inflatable aero shell (in a deployable structure with a flexible heatshield) before re-entering the atmosphere.

The LOFTID re-entry vehicle was aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V as a secondary payload with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2), a polar-orbiting weather satellite. After JPSS-2 reached orbit, LOFTID was put on a re-entry trajectory from low-Earth orbit (LEO) to demonstrate the inflatable aeroshell’s (heat shield’s) ability to slow down and survive re-entry. Managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center, the LOFTID project is a part of the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. (Figure 1)

But NASA’s LOFTID wasn’t developed just to demonstrate a cross-cutting aeroshell for atmospheric re-entry. It’s a forward-looking program, with the results of the November 10 demonstration serving to inform future designs for inflatable heat shields that could be used to land heavier payloads on worlds with atmospheres, including Mars, Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, and Earth. The inflatable decelerator technology is scalable for both crewed and large robotic missions and is targeted to help capture reusable space assets, as well.

For the technology demonstration, six Aitech S-A1760 Venus AI GPGPU (General-Purpose Computation on Graphics Processing Unit) systems collected video data and telemetry, then transmitted it to ground-based stations and spaceborne assets for near-real-time monitoring of the entire re-entry from deployment to touchdown. The S-A1760 was the first implementation of GPGPU processing in a space environment. Although heavily relied upon for Earth-based artificial intelligence (AI) computation, GPGPU had yet to be proven in space electronics.

As one of the first embedded computing companies to incorporate NVIDIA’s technologies back in 2015, Aitech had a mature set of GPGPU-based supercomputers utilizing best-in-class technologies as well as offering optimized SWaP and a low-cost point of entry.

The company then applied its four decades of developing reliable, leading-edge technologies for space applications to the LOFTID program, delivering a COTS-based (commercial off the shelf) solution that was space-ready, tested, and validated for not only this harsh, radiation-laden environment but also for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

With powerful GPGPU processing made ready for space, Aitech’s S-A1760 enabled reliable data and video capture during the LOFTID technology demonstration. (Image: Aitech Systems)

The S-A1760 units onboard helped control and record the visible and infrared camera images from each of the six camera pods viewing the LOFTID heatshield. The GPGPU-based systems helped ensure recovery of the backup recordings for the mission’s captured camera data and provided critical intelligence on the aeroshell and heatshield performance. (Figure 2)

The NVIDIA Jetson TX2i system-on-module (SoM), which features the Pascal architecture with 256 CUDA cores and reaches 1 TFLOPS of processing, serves as the core of the S-A1760. This makes the supercomputer the most powerful, smallest radiation-characterized space AI GPGPU rated for space flight and small-satellite constellations in LEO and near-Earth orbit (NEO) applications.

Many of the autonomous data decisions made onboard LOFTID relied on the unit’s powerful GPGPU computing to achieve mission success.

Important to note from a financial perspective, the S-A1760 is COTS-based, meaning the system is built on a foundation of cost-effective, reliable solutions that bridge the gap between costly radiation-hardened EEE parts and those that can be effectively used for lower orbits and shorter-duration LEO and NEO space missions.

The extensive use of COTS hardware across all orbit levels also enables satellite and space program developers the ability to meet aggressive schedules using proven, reliable embedded designs and mitigate program or mission risks throughout the entire lifecycle.

“COTS in Space” is not a new concept. In fact, Aitech has been providing reliable COTS-based systems to the space industry for nearly four decades. What is new is the ability to better integrate COTS electronics into higher-density, more compact, network-based electronics being developed throughout the space industry at a significantly lower cost and shorter development cycles.

Not only has the first GPGPU been successfully deployed in space, but also great strides have been made in developing more affordable, reusable technology for the entire space industry as well as enabling exploration into deeper orbits.

Thanks to the advanced data and tracking capabilities built into the electronics, the LOFTID aeroshell was recovered within a few hours. In addition to achieving its primary objective of surviving the intense dynamic pressure and heating of re-entry, preliminary results indicate that the aft side of the heat shield — opposite LOFTID’s nose — was well-protected from the re-entry environment, suggesting that inflatable aeroshells can keep payloads safe during atmospheric entry.

Compact, high-compute electronics, like the space-rated, GPGPU-based S-A1760, that can help foster better cost efficiencies and increase exploration initiatives, as well as provide reliable operation are critical elements to next generation space innovation. As both government agencies and the private sector seek to increase our use of all orbits of space, it is these advanced electronics that will help pave the way for more intuitive means of utilizing space technologies.

This article was contributed by Aitech Systems (Chatsworth, CA). For more information, visit here .