Spacecraft Prototype Technology Demo Takes the President to Mars

Andrew Bronshteyn/The Avion Newspaper
Francisco Pastrana presents the model for EPPL’s Mars spacecraft to the ERAU President, P. Barry Butler.

Francisco Pastrana/Correspondent

On Friday, Nov. 10, the Engineering Physics Propulsion Laboratory (EPPL) had the pleasure of hosting Dr. P. Barry Butler, the President of the university, along with a few additional colleagues for a technology demonstration of their prototype spacecraft, the JX-01. Celebrating two major milestones in the long-term spacecraft development project, the EPPL showcased the large strides it has made over the last two years in developing autonomous spacecraft control systems, as well as the recent incorporation of an immersive virtual reality simulation environment. Following the lab’s presentation, Dr. Butler and his associates were given the reins to manually operate the prototype spacecraft in the lab and don the VR headset, placing them in a breathtaking sunrise simulation on Mars next to the spacecraft. After returning to Earth, and the lab, the group learned about past EPPL projects and their impact on current projects, a broad array of other ongoing projects and the bold path forward being paved by the laboratory.

Andrew Bronshteyn/The Avion Newspaper

Located in the College of Arts and Sciences, the advanced research facility is home to a number of ambitious, innovative and determined students pursuing the future of the rapidly growing and expanding the field of space exploration. Dr. Sergey Drakunov, Associate Dean of Research for the COAS who founded EPPL, mentors this group of students; the lab is also aided by Dr. Patrick Currier, Mike DuPuis (a NASA mentor), Bill Russo and student start-up Beyond Ares Technologies. The lab’s creation would not have been possible without the generous donation of Mr. Jay D’Amico, CEO of Louisiana Steam Company. Also, essential support of establishing EPPL was provided by former dean of the COAS, Dr. William Grams, and Associate Dean Jan Collins. Additional support was provided by NASA, Honeybee Robotics, Micro Aerospace Solutions and Dr. Karen Gaines, the current Dean of the COAS. By utilizing the vast knowledge base and experience of all parties involved, the lab can develop and maintain state-of-the-art capabilities that are needed to pursue the multiple avenues of researching, developing, and testing cutting-edge space exploration technologies.

Fittingly, the lab currently hosts three spacecraft prototypes, two of which were designed and built by NASA with the help of Embry-Riddle students and faculty in previous semesters. However, the star of Friday’s show was the third and newest prototype, the internally designated JX-01. Designed, built, and tested by students, the JX-01 successfully performed basic rotational maneuvers and self-stabilization upon disturbances for the demonstration. The primary means of control will be fully autonomous and benefit from visual cognition deep-learning technologies. Dual-joysticks coupled with a virtual reality interface are also being developed to manually control and test the vehicle. This interface can additionally be used to interact with a simulative environment.

The lab hosts a group of students unified under a startup company named Beyond Ares Technologies, LLC. The company’s mission is to design, develop and deploy the world’s most advanced spacecraft. The students share a common vision of an industrialized solar system, teeming with autonomous vehicles. Many of the advancements within the laboratory thrust Embry-Riddle into the forefront of the space exploration field. With the help of Embry-Riddle’s dedicated Engineering Physics Propulsion Laboratory team, Embry-Riddle will not just move with the topic of space exploration into a new era, but it will lead it.