A sequencer for a radar altimeter provides accurate attitude information for a reliable soft landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). This is a field-programmable-gate-array (FPGA)-only implementation. A table loaded externally into the FPGA controls timing, processing, and decision structures. Radar is memory-less and does not use previous acquisitions to assist in the current acquisition. All cycles complete in exactly 50 milliseconds, regardless of range or whether a target was found.
A RAM (random access memory) within the FPGA holds instructions for up to 15 sets. For each set, timing is run, echoes are processed, and a comparison is made. If a target is seen, more detailed processing is run on that set. If no target is seen, the next set is tried.
When all sets have been run, the FPGA terminates and waits for the next 50-millisecond event. This setup simplifies testing and improves reliability. A single vertex chip does the work of an entire assembly. Output products require minor processing to become range and velocity.
This technology is the heart of the Terminal Descent Sensor, which is an integral part of the Entry Decent and Landing system for MSL. In addition, it is a strong candidate for manned landings on Mars or the Moon.