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Guidance, navigation and control software command the GN&C; system to effect vehicle control and to provide the sensor and controller data needed to compute these commands. The process involves three steps: guidance equipment and software first compute the orbiter location required to satisfy mission requirements, navigation then tracks the vehicle's actual location, and flight control then transports the orbiter to the required location.

A redundant set of four orbiter general-purpose computers forms the primary avionics software system; a fifth GPC is used as the backup flight system.

The GPCs interface with the various systems through the orbiter's flight forward and flight aft multiplexers/demultiplexers. The data buses serve as a conduit for signals going to and from the various sensors that provide velocity and attitude information as well as for signals traveling to and from the orbiter propulsion systems, orbiter aerodynamic control surfaces, and displays and controls.

The GN&C; system consists of two operational modes: auto and manual (control stick steering). In the automatic mode, the primary avionics software system essentially allows the GPCs to fly the vehicle; the flight crew simply selects the various operational sequences. The flight crew may control the vehicle in the control stick steering mode using hand controls, such as the rotational hand controller, translational hand controller, speed brake/thrust controller and rudder pedals. The translational hand controller is available only for the commander, but both the commander and pilot have a rotational hand controller.

In the control stick steering mode, flight crew commands must still pass through and be issued by the GPCs. There are no direct mechanical links between the flight crew and the orbiter's various propulsion systems or aerodynamic surfaces; the orbiter is an entirely digitally controlled, fly-by-wire vehicle.

During launch and ascent, most of the GN&C; commands are directed to gimbal the three space shuttle main engines and solid rocket boosters to maintain thrust vector control through the vehicle's center of gravity at a time when the amount of consumables is changing rapidly. In addition, the GN&C; controls SSME throttling for maximum aerodynamic loading of the vehicle during ascent-referred to as max q-and to maintain an acceleration of no greater than 3 g's during the ascent phase. To circularize the orbit and perform on-orbit and deorbit maneuvers, the GN&C; commands the orbital maneuvering system engines. At external tank separation, on orbit and during portions of entry, GN&C; controls commands to the reaction control system. In atmospheric flight, GN&C; controls the orbiter aerodynamic flight control surfaces.

Functions of GN&C; software include flight control, guidance, navigation, hardware data processing and flight crew display. Specific function tasks and their associated GN&C; hardware vary with each mission phase.

Vehicle control is maintained and in-flight trajectory changes are made during powered flight by firing and gimbaling engines. During atmospheric flight, these functions are performed by deflecting aerosurfaces. Flight control computes and issues the engine fire and gimbal commands and aerosurface deflection commands.

Flight control includes attitude processing, steering, thrust vector control and digital autopilots. Flight control receives vehicle dynamics commands (attitudes, rates and accelerations) from guidance software or flight crew controllers and processes them for conversion to effector commands (engine fire, gimbal or aerosurface). Flight control output commands are based on errors for stability augmentation. The errors are the difference between the commanded attitude, aerosurface position, body rate or body acceleration and the actual attitude, position, rate or acceleration.

Actual attitude is derived from inertial measurement unit angles, aerosurface position is provided by feedback transducers in the aerosurface servoamplifiers, body rates are sensed by rate gyro assemblies, and accelerations are sensed by accelerometer assemblies. In atmospheric flight, flight control adjusts control sensitivity based on air data parameters derived from local pressures sensed by air data probes and performs turn coordination using body attitude angles derived from IMU angles. Thus, GN&C; hardware required to support flight control is a function of the mission phase.

The guidance steering commands used by the flight control software are augmented by the guidance software or are manually commanded by the hand controller or speed brake/thrust controller. When flight control software uses the steering commands computed by guidance software, it is termed automatic guidance; when the flight crew is controlling the vehicle by hand, it is called control stick steering. The commands computed by guidance are those required to get from the current state (position and velocity) to a desired state (specified by target conditions, attitude, airspeed and runway centerline). The steering commands consist of translational and rotational angles, rates and accelerations. Guidance receives the current state from navigation software. The desired state or targets are part of the initialized software load and some may be changed manually in flight.

The navigation system maintains an accurate estimate of vehicle position and velocity, referred to as a state vector. From position, attitude and velocity, other parameters (acceleration, angle of attack) are calculated for use in guidance and for display to the crew. The current state vector is mathematically determined from the previous state vector by integrating the equations of motion using vehicle acceleration as sensed by the IMUs and/or computed from gravity and drag models. The alignment of the IMU and, hence, the accuracy of the resulting state vector deteriorate as a function of time. Celestial navigation instruments (star trackers and crewman optical alignment sight) are used to maintain IMU alignment in orbit. For entry, the accuracy of the IMU-derived state vector is, however, insufficient for either guidance or the flight crew to bring the spacecraft to a pinpoint landing. Therefore, data from other navigation sensors-air data system, tactical air navigation, microwave scan beam landing system and radar altimeter-is blended into the state vector at different phases of entry to provide the necessary accuracy. The three IMUs maintain an inertial reference and provide velocity changes until the microwave scan beam landing system is acquired. Navigation-derived air data are needed during entry as inputs to guidance, flight control and flight crew dedicated displays. Such data are provided by tactical air navigation, which supplies range and bearing measurements beginning at 160,000 feet; the air data system provides information at about Mach 3. Tactical air navigation is used until the microwave scan beam landing system is acquired or an altitude of 1,500 feet is reached if MSBLS is not available.

During rendezvous and proximity operations, the onboard navigation system maintains the state vectors of both the orbiter and target vehicle. During close operations (separation of less than 15 miles), these two state vectors must be very accurate in order to maintain an accurate relative state vector. Rendezvous radar measurements (range and range rate) are used for a separation of about 15 miles to 100 feet to provide the necessary relative state vector accuracy. When two vehicles are separated by less than 100 feet, the flight crew relies primarily on visual monitoring (aft and overhead windows and closed-circuit television).

In summary, GN&C; hardware sensors used by navigation include IMUs, star trackers, the crewman optical alignment sight, tactical air navigation, air data system, microwave scan beam landing system, radar altimeter and rendezvous radar. The GN&C; hardware sensors used by the flight control system are accelerometer assemblies, orbiter rate gyro assemblies, solid rocket booster rate gyro assemblies, controllers and aerosurface servoamplifiers.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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