Kamalabadi teams up with NASA to improve small spacecrafts


Katie Carr, CSL

Farzad Kamalabadi
Farzad Kamalabadi
In recent years, NASA has put a strong emphasis on developing technology for small spacecraft for science, exploration, and space operations, as smaller satellites, robots, and systems can be launched into space at lower cost.

As part of those efforts, NASA recently selected nine university teams to work on developing new technologies and capabilities for small spacecraft in the areas of instrument technology, technologies that enable large swarms of small spacecraft, and technologies that allow small spacecraft to perform deep-space missions.

Farzad Kamalabadi, the Kung Chie and Margaret Yeh Endowed Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a researcher at CSL, is leading a team that is collaborating with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to develop imaging systems to improve telescope resolution. The project, which is under the Smallsat Technology Partnerships initiative and managed by the Small Spacecraft Technology program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), began in February. Kamalabadi is receiving $200,000 per year for the two-year project, while the Goddard Space Flight Center activities are receiving separate funding.

The sizes of small spacecraft range from a few pounds up to several hundred pounds, with typical small spacecraft weighing 10 to 100 pounds, according to Kamalabadi. He added that while their small size enables them to take advantage of rideshare launch opportunities at a reduced cost, the smaller a spacecraft is, the more limitations there are on power sources (such as batteries or solar panels), on telemetry (such as transmitters and receivers for communication), and on the sizes of scientific instruments.

"A large part of any NASA space project is the cost associated with launching the spacecraft," Kamalabadi said. "The larger the mass, the harder and costlier it is to put it into orbit. Reducing the size of a spacecraft can not only reduce the cost, but also add observation versatility, by having multiple small spacecraft at multiple vantage points providing sampling and sensing diversity which can potentially yield additional information in contrast with a monolithic spacecraft."

Kamalabadi’s project will focus on the development and demonstration of novel computational diffractive optical sensing and advanced image processing that make use of a small satellite formation’s flight to enable an extremely high-resolution imaging capability that would otherwise be unattainable with conventional approaches.

"The current generation of NASA space telescopes, especially the ones focusing on looking at the Sun and its atmosphere in the ultraviolet spectral range, are limited in the resolution they can attain for looking at very detailed phenomena," Kamalabadi said.

Those telescopes rely on technology that uses reflective optics, i.e., concave or convex lenses or mirrors, which have manufacturing constraints, he explained. Those constraints result in limitations in spatial and spectral resolutions, and Kamalabadi is working to beat those limitations with a completely different approach to imaging that uses diffractive imaging elements and computational processing of the measured data.

"You’re able to do more than just optical imaging with the physical lenses, enabling you to perform computations and processing of optical measurements," he said. "This allows you to obtain extremely high resolution with multiple exposures, each at a different focus."

The new technology requires computation and algorithmic development, and Kamalabadi will be working to develop the algorithms for this technology, while collaborators at the Goddard Space Flight Center will build the hardware.

"They'll use our algorithms to extract the added information necessary to get the high-resolution imagery we desire," he said. "This innovative technology is aimed at achieving imaging resolution that's far beyond state-of-the-art imaging technology. Basically, we're trying to come up with imaging resolution with hundreds of times better resolution. It will allow scientists to see things at a scale that was previously impossible. When you see things at unprecedented detail, discovery and deeper understanding become possible."

Read the original article on the CSL website.