A new approach to predicting spacecraft re-entry

Mar 12, 2012 By Katie Walter
This graphic is a probability density map overlaid on top of the Earth. Lab researchers calculated the probability of the location where the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Graphic by Deborah Dennison based on calculations made by Matt Horsley.

(PhysOrg.com) -- In mid-December 2011, the Laboratory received a call from the Air Force Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). At the time, Laboratory scientists were working with JSpOC to upgrade their command and control software.

But this call was about something very different. The Russians had launched a mission to , one of the moons of Mars, in early November, but it failed to escape Earth's orbit. JSpOC asked if the Laboratory could help to predict where the spacecraft would return to Earth.

Under the direction of Alex Pertica, three Lab organizations -- the Lab's Space Situational Awareness team, the Homeland-Defense Operational Planning System and the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center -- contributed to this effort.

Accurate prediction of spacecraft re-entries has long been challenging because the forces that act to slow down the satellite are complex and dynamic. The atmosphere is an important contributor to this force, and the composition of this atmosphere can change rapidly with changes in the sun's intensity. In order to model these effects correctly, it is important to understand how these contributing forces change over time.

First, Laboratory researchers developed the software infrastructure necessary to make a series of increasingly accurate predictions for the re-entry, and more importantly, to quantify the uncertainty in these predictions.

With the spacecraft orbiting the earth once every 90 minutes, making the uncertainty window as small as possible was critical, but understanding exactly how big the uncertainty window was as re-entry approached also was crucial.

Matt Horsley recognized the need to use high-performance computing to fully characterize these evolving uncertainties and to produce a series of probability density distributions for the re-entry time, and he knew he had about a month to do it.

With the software in place, about 10 days before re-entry, data began to arrive from the Air Force about the satellite's precise position. As re-entry approached, Horsley's probability distributions got smaller and smaller. Horsley's final prediction contained a probability distribution spanning about an hour, which bracketed the actual re-entry time with a mid-point that was within 20 minutes of the actual event.

Livermore worked with Sandia National Laboratories to complete the picture of the Phobos-Grunt descent. Horsley handled the prediction to the "pierce point," which is where the atmosphere becomes so dense that the object begins to break up. Sandia staff performed aerothermal modeling using Livermore trajectory data to continue the prediction to where the spacecraft would land on Earth's surface.

GIS expert Debbie Dennison at the Laboratory's Homeland-Defense Operational Planning System (HOPS) aided the Air Force by creating a 3-D visualization of the probability distributions by draping them over Google Earth. In addition, the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center completed all advance planning necessary to perform plume modeling if Phobos-Grunt's fuel tanks came down intact over land.

The work performed by LLNL provided the Air Force with an unprecedented understanding of the evolving range of potential re-entry times and locations for the Phobos-Grunt satellite. In the end, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft finally landed in the Pacific Ocean west of Chile on Jan. 15. The final prediction delivered by the LLNL team was made with data received from the Air Force more than two hours before re-entry. However, the predictions could have been even better -- Air Force data available at two hours prior to re-entry was received at LLNL too late to be incorporated into the final prediction.

The team developed a "post-diction," which indicated that had this data been received soon after it was available, the prediction would have resulted in a probability distribution spanning about 20 minutes, with a mid-point within just a few minutes of the actual re-entry time. Processes to enable more timely data transfer in the future are currently under consideration by the .

Explore further: NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Video: Phobos-Grunt re-entry animation

Dec 30, 2011

When and where will Russia’s Phobos-Grunt satellite crash back to Earth? It’s too early to tell, but the engineers from Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI) have put together an animation which recaps what has happened ...

No new contact with stranded Mars probe

Nov 25, 2011

The European Space Agency (ESA) said on Friday it had been unable to establish a new link with Russia's stricken Mars probe but added that the craft's orbit seemed to have become more stable.

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

4 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 12, 2012
I am disappointed. I always thought they had maps like the above picture, already decades ago!

But rather than calculating exact odds for each pixel, I thought they were made to show the areas which are completely safe. (In the picture, the middle of every "square".) The needed horsepower and the data needed were already in ample supply 20 years ago.

I followed the last few laps of the russian spacecraft, while news sites had the most childish guesses about landing sites change hour from hour. If one had merely drawn the next 4 laps around the world, one could have excluded "our town", such as London, Paris, and whatever.

As a case in point, the authorities in Helsinki, Finland (60 North) announced that they were "on a heightened status" for fear of debris. A picture like the one above, could have convinced them that there is no way, period, debris could fall beyond 51 North. (That is, at least 1000km/600mi.)

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.