Impact case study

Shaping the future of space navigation

Published on 12 May 2022

The development of tools for autonomous spacecraft navigation and extra-terrestrial exploration.

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As our exploration of the solar system extends to uncharted planets, the need for appropriate tools increases, in order to ensure the safe navigation and landing of exploratory spacecraft such as surface rovers.

Drawing on Dundee’s research expertise in computing and in space technology, PANGU was conceived in 2002 as a tool to generate realistic simulated images of planetary bodies such as asteroids or the Moon. Such imagery is critical in enabling the development of navigation systems for self-guided spacecraft and for vehicles used in surface rover missions. Although physical testing is possible, it has limitations: the development of physical mock-ups is expensive, and the capture of scenes using laboratory cameras mounted on robotic arms is constrained by the earth’s atmospheric conditions, lighting and terrain.

PANGU software has provided a way to test vision-based spacecraft. It produces realistic synthetic images of planetary surfaces that can be used to develop autonomous navigation, guidance, approach and landing technologies essential for extra-terrestrial exploration. Its outputs have been verified by independent planetary scientists for realism, using real images as a comparison.

The development of PANGU is underpinned by three key concepts: an age-degraded overlapping crater model that simulates the geological processes of cratering over time; new techniques to generate asteroid models; and the development of a comprehensive camera model in a Graphics Processor Unit.  Supported by funding from the European Space Agency (ESA) these concepts have been developed and extended, enabling PANGU to provide simulated images at a frame rate sufficient to support real-time testing.

Following the success of the original tool, further ESA funding has allowed development to continue, this time on a much wider range of mission scenarios such as asteroid approach and landing, Mars surface models, atmosphere models and full descent sequences from orbit to landing.

PANGU is an officially validated ESA tool and has been identified by them as one of the technologies that are ‘Shaping the Future’. It has been used on major space missions including ExoMars and has been described as ‘essential’ to the development of guidance navigation and control.  The availability of an officially validated tool has freed up ESA manpower, enabling them to focus on other activities rather than on image generation and has established a common benchmark for the evaluation, comparison and validation of technical solutions.

PANGU is being used in the development and verification of future generic space navigation technology and is freely available to institutions working on ESA-funded projects. For non-ESA missions it is available via licenses sold by STAR-Dundee Ltd, a leading aerospace engineering company that began life as a University of Dundee spin-out company and which specialises in spacecraft on-board data-handling and processing technologies. In the year to 31st July 2020, sales have been made to institutions in the USA, India, South Korea and Japan, supporting future space exploration.

Learn more about research in the School of Science and Engineering

Read about PANGU and STAR Dundee

REF 2021

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing research in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Story category REF 2021, Research