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Intelligent Sensor Systems


Lead Center: SSC

Technology Area: TA4 Robotics, Telerobotics and Autonomous Systems

Scope Title

Advanced Instrumentation for Rocket Propulsion Testing

Scope Description

Rocket propulsion system development is enabled by rigorous ground testing to mitigate the propulsion system risks inherent in spaceflight. Test articles and facilities are highly instrumented to enable a comprehensive analysis of propulsion system performance. Advanced instrumentation has the potential for substantial reduction in time and cost of propulsion systems development, with substantially reduced operational costs and evolutionary improvements in ground, launch and flight system operational robustness. 

Advanced instrumentation would provide a wireless, highly flexible instrumentation solution capable of measurement of heat flux, temperature, pressure, strain, and/or near-field acoustics. Temperature and pressure measurements must be acquired from within the facility mechanical systems or the rocket engine itself. These sensors would be capable of addressing multiple mission requirements for remote monitoring such as vehicle health monitoring in flight systems, autonomous vehicle operation, or instrumenting inaccessible measurement locations, all while eliminating cabling and auxiliary power. Rocket propulsion test facilities also provide excellent test beds for testing and using the innovative technologies for possible application beyond the static propulsion testing environment.

This subtopic seeks to develop advanced wireless instrumentation capable of performing some processing, gathering sensory information and communicating with other connected nodes in the network. Sensor systems should have the ability to provide the following functionality:

  • Acquisition and conversion to engineering units for quantifying heat flux, temperature, pressure, strain, and/or near-field acoustics such that it contributes to rocket engine system performance analysis within established standards for error and uncertainty.
  • Capable of in-place calibrations with The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) traceability.
  • Collected data must be time stamped to facilitate analysis with other collected data sets.
  • Transfer data in real-time to other systems for monitoring and analysis.
  • Interface to flight qualified sensor systems, which could be used for multi-vehicle use.
  • Determine the quality of the measurement and instrument state-of-health.
  • Self-contained to collect information and relay measurements through various means by a sensor-web approach to provide a self-healing, auto-configuring method of collecting data from multiple sensors, and relaying for integration with other acquired data sets.
  • Function reliably in extreme environments, including rapidly changing ranges of environmental conditions, such as those experienced in space. These ranges may be from extremely cold temperatures, such as cryogenic temperatures, to extremely high temperatures, such as those experienced near a rocket engine plume.


Fernando Figueroa, Randy Holland, David Coote, "NASA Stennis Space Center integrated system health management test bed and development capabilities," Proc. SPIE 6222, Sensors for Propulsion Measurement Applications, 62220K (10 May 2006);

J. Schmalzel ; F. Figueroa ; J. Morris ; S. Mandayam ; R. Polikar, "An architecture for intelligent systems based on smart sensors," IEEE Transactions on Instrumentation and Measurement ( Volume: 54 , Issue: 4 , Aug. 2005)

S. Rahman, R. Gilbrech, R. Lightfoot, M. Dawson, "Overview of Rocket Propulsion Testing at NASA Stennis Space Center," NASA Technical Report SE-1999-11-00024-SSC

David J. Coote, Kevin P. Power, Harold P. Gerrish, and Glen Doughty. "Review of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Ground Test Options", 51st AIAA/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference, AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum, (AIAA 2015-3773)

H. Ryan, W. Solano, R. Holland, W. Saint Cyr, S. Rahman, "A future vision of data acquisition: distributed sensing, processing, and health monitoring," IMTC 2001. Proceedings of the 18th IEEE Instrumentation and Measurement Technology Conference. Rediscovering Measurement in the Age of Informatics (Cat. No.01CH 37188)

Expected TRL or TRL range at completion of the project: 3 to 6

Desired Deliverables of Phase II

Prototype, Hardware, Software

Desired Deliverables Description

For all above technologies, research should be conducted to demonstrate technical feasibility during Phase I and show a path towards Phase II hardware/software demonstration with delivery of a demonstration unit or software package for NASA testing at the completion of the Phase II contract.

State of the Art and Critical Gaps

Highly modular, remote sensors are of interest to many NASA tests and missions. Real-time data from sensor networks reduces risk and provides data for future design improvements. Wireless sensors offer a highly flexible solution for scientists and engineers to collect data remotely. They can be used for thermal, structural and acoustic measurement of systems and subsystems and also provide emergency system halt instructions in the case of leaks, fire or structural failure. Other examples of potential NASA applications include 1) measuring temperature, strain, voltage and current from power storage and generation systems, 2) measuring pressure, strain and temperature in pumps and pressure vessels and 3) measuring strain in test structures, ground support equipment and vehicles, including high-risk deployables.

There are many other applications that would benefit from increased, real-time sensing in remote, hard-to-test locations. For example, sensor networks on a vehicle body can give measurement of temperature, pressure, strain and acoustics. This data is used in real time to determine safety margins and test anomalies. The data is also used post-test to correlate analytical models and optimize vehicle and test design. Because these sensors are small and low mass, they can be used for ground test and for flight. Sensor module miniaturization will further reduce size, mass and cost.

No existing wireless sensor network option meets NASA’s current needs for flexibility, size, mass and resilience to extreme environments.

Relevance / Science Traceability

This subtopic is relevant to the development of liquid propulsion systems development and verification testing in support of the Human Exploration and Mission Operations Directorate. Supports all test programs at Stennis Space Center (SSC) and other propulsion system development centers. Potential advocates are the Rocket Propulsion Test (RPT) Program Office and all rocket propulsion test programs at SSC.

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