August 25, 2022

A NASA-funded team led by SMU researchers think that their small, lightweight device developed to measure spaceship velocity will improve the odds of successful landings on Mars and other planets.

Smaller, they say, is better in space.

The optical microresonator built by the team is only 2 millimeters in length, compared to the velocity-monitoring tool most commonly used on spacecraft – the Fabry-Perot interferometer – which can be as long as 500 millimeters. NASA and other space agencies may be able to use the microresonator to get an accurate, quick measurement of how fast a spaceship is moving in a specific direction.

The first proof-of-concept results have been published in AAIA Journal.

“Every gram of a device makes a huge difference in how much fuel I will have to have on a spacecraft and how many other items I can include as payload on that spacecraft,” says SMU’s Volkan Ötügen, one of the creators of the optical microresonator.

Ötügen is senior associate dean of the Mechanical Engineering Department in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering and director of the SMU MicroSensor Laboratory. The device he and other researchers built uses a phenomenon known as “whispering gallery mode.”

A spacecraft’s velocity is a key measurement during its descent, because the time between when a spaceship enters a planet’s atmosphere and the time it lands is usually only minutes at most. And costly accidents like the crashed European spacecraft Schiaparelli on Mars underscore how quickly a mission can go wrong when the spacecraft is given wrong information.

Just 40 percent of Mars missions – launched by any space agency – actually land there successfully.

Read more at SMU Research.