An adaptive atmospheric prediction algorithm to improve density forecasting for aerocapture guidance processes
Wagner, John Joseph
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Many modern entry guidance systems depend on predictions of atmospheric parameters, notably atmospheric density, in order to guide the entry vehicle to some desired final state. However, in highly dynamic atmospheric environments such as the Martian atmosphere, the density may vary by as much as 200% from predicted pre-entry trends. This high level of atmospheric density uncertainty can cause significant complications for entry guidance processes and may in extreme scenarios cause complete failure of the entry. In the face of this uncertainty, mission designers are compelled to apply large trajectory and design safety margins which typically drive the system design towards less efficient solutions with smaller delivered payloads. The margins necessary to combat the high levels of atmospheric uncertainty may even preclude scientifically interesting destinations or architecturally useful mission modes such as aerocapture. Aerocapture is a method for inserting a spacecraft into an orbit about a planetary body with an atmosphere without the need for significant propulsive maneuvers. This can reduce the required propellant and propulsion hardware for a given mission which lowers mission costs and increases the available payload fraction. However, large density dispersions have a particularly acute effect on aerocapture trajectories due to the interaction of the high required speeds and relatively low densities encountered at aerocapture altitudes. Therefore, while the potential system level benefits of aerocapture are great, so too are the risks associated with this mission mode in highly uncertain atmospheric environments such as Mars. Contemporary entry guidance systems utilize static atmospheric density models for trajectory prediction and control. These static models are unable to alter the fundamental nature of the underlying state equations which are used to predict atmospheric density. This limits both the fidelity and adaptive freedom of these models and forces the guidance system to retroactively correct for the density prediction errors after those errors have already impacted the trajectory. A new class of dynamic density estimator called a Plastic Ensemble Neural System (PENS) is introduced which is able to generate high fidelity, adaptable density forecast models by altering the underlying atmospheric state equations to better agree with observed atmospheric trends. A new construct called an ensemble echo is also introduced which creates an associative learning architecture, permitting PENS to evolve with increasing atmospheric exposure. The PENS estimator is applied to a numerical guidance system and the performance of the composite system is investigated with over 144,000 guided trajectory simulations. The results demonstrate that the PENS algorithm achieves significant reductions in both the required post-aerocapture performance, and the aerocapture failure rates relative to historical density estimators.