A low-cost beamformer phased array antenna has been developed for expendable launch vehicles, rockets, and missiles. It utilizes a conformal array antenna of ring or individual radiators (design varies depending on application) that is designed to be fed by the recently developed hybrid electrical/ mechanical (vendor-supplied) phased array beamformer. The combination of these new array antennas and the hybrid beamformer results in a conformal phased array antenna that has significantly higher gain than traditional “omni” antennas, and costs an order of magnitude or more less than traditional phased array designs.

Existing omnidirectional antennas for sounding rockets, missiles, and expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) do not have sufficient gain to support the required communication data rates via the space network. Missiles and smaller ELVs are often stabilized in flight by a fast (i.e. 4 Hz) roll rate. This fast roll rate, combined with vehicle attitude changes, greatly increases the complexity of the high-gain antenna beam-tracking problem. Phased arrays for larger ELVs with roll control are prohibitively expensive. Prior techniques involved a traditional fully electronic phased array solution, combined with highly complex and very fast inertial measurement unit phased array beamformers.

The functional operation of this phased array is substantially different from traditional phased arrays in that it uses a hybrid electrical/mechanical beamformer that creates the relative time delays for steering the antenna beam via a small physical movement of variable delay lines. This movement is controlled via an innovative antenna control unit that accesses an internal measurement unit for vehicle attitude information, computes a beam-pointing angle to the target, then points the beam via a stepper motor controller. The stepper motor on the beamformer controls the beamformer variable delay lines that apply the appropriate time delays to the individual array elements to properly steer the beam.

The array of phased ring radiators is unique in that it provides improved gain for a small rocket or missile that uses spin stabilization for stability. The antenna pattern created is symmetric about the roll axis (like an omnidirectional wraparound), and is thus capable of providing continuous coverage that is compatible with very fast spinning rockets. For larger ELVs with roll control, a linear array of elements can be used for the 1D scanned beamformer and phased array, or a 2D scanned beamformer can be used with an N×N element array.

This work was done by Daniel Mullinix, Kenneth Hall, Bruce Smith, and Brian Corbin of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-15805-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the November, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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