New directions

AutoNav, a navigation system based on expert systems software designed to mimic human decision-making and learning, has a bright future, NASA officials say.

Even after the failure of a related Deep Space 1 system diminished its role in navigation, AutoNav was responsible for finding and tracking the nucleus of the comet Borelly during a close pass last September, helping Deep Space 1 produce the highest-ever resolution images of a comet's icy inner core, said Marc Rayman, Deep Space 1's deputy mission manager.

A system substantially similar to AutoNav will be used on the Deep Impact, scheduled for launch in 2004. Its mission is to rendezvous with a comet and knock a chunk off it in order to analyze the gases and other materials that will be produced. The final targeting and maneuvering of the impactor used to "bomb" the comet will also be under the control of the AutoNav-like system, said Ed Reidel, the mission's navigation team chief.

Even more exciting could be the use of an AutoNav system in a mission to return samples of Mars rock and soil back to Earth, tentatively scheduled for 2007.

An earlier mission will land on the surface of Mars to get the samples and then wait for the AutoNav-guided return module to arrive before boosting back into space from the surface. AutoNav, or something like it, could be used to detect the sample module and then maneuver the return craft to the module so it can grab it.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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