A spacecraft may be unable to communicate critical data associated with a serious or catastrophic failure. A brief report proposes a system, somewhat like a commercial aircraft "black box," for retrieving these data. A microspacecraft attached to the prime spacecraft would continually store recent critical data from that spacecraft. If either spacecraft detected certain serious conditions of the prime spacecraft, the microspacecraft would separate from the prime spacecraft and independently transmit the stored data to Earth. Supplemental data, acquired from sensors onboard the microspacecraft, could be added to this transmission. For example, the orientation and angular rates of the prime spacecraft immediately before separation as well as pictures taken of the prime spacecraft after separation could be included. Functional enhancements over aircraft black boxes include the separation from the prime vehicle (which gains independence from the fate of that vehicle), wireless transmission of data (making physical black box recovery unnecessary), and the optional acquisition of supplemental sensor data.
This work was carried out by John Carraway and David Collins of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To obtain a copy of the report "Spacecraft 'Black Box' Flight Recorder," access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.nasatech.com/tsp under the Computers/Electronics category. NPO-20842