THE UNIVERSAL PAYLOAD INTERFACE CHALLENGE (UPIC)
One of the most challenging aspects for teams developing space payloads, such as next-generation instruments, sensors, and experiments, is understanding and meeting interface requirements (e.g., mechanical, electrical, and software). This is especially true when payload development begins well in advance of identifying a specific vehicle for a flight test. The types of vehicles can vary widely, ranging from suborbital vehicles (which include rocket-powered vehicles / landers, high-altitude balloons, and aircraft flying parabolic profiles) to orbital platforms and lunar / planetary landers. Additionally, there are a variety of commercial providers for each vehicle type, each with unique interfaces and requirements.
To address these complexities, NASA is seeking robust universal payload interface solutions that are low-cost and modular to enable straightforward, rapid payload integration and reduction of overall time-to-flight. An ideal interface system would also satisfy scenarios where payloads require multiple flight tests. These flight tests may be performed on the same vehicle or sequentially on multiple types of vehicles as part of a technology maturation plan. As just one example, after completion of benchtop tests, a payload might conduct a suborbital flight test, followed by a test on an orbital vehicle in low-Earth orbit, and then operate in a mission on the lunar surface.
To ensure the most extensible application, an ideal universal payload interface system would not dictate, suggest, or attempt to predict all possible use cases. Applicants shall describe how their proposed universal payload interface system would satisfy the following criteria:
- Enable rapid and accessible transition of payloads from the bench to integration for testing on a commercial flight vehicle (e.g., suborbital, orbital, lander)
- Enable payloads to be as vehicle-independent as possible to facilitate rapid integration, enable early payload development without vehicle interface knowledge, and unlock the ability to quickly conduct flight tests on multiple different flight vehicles.
A universal payload interface system shall have the following minimum required capabilities, as listed below and shown in Figure 1. Potential additional interface capabilities are also listed, and systems providing additional capabilities beyond the minimum requirements (including those not listed as examples) may be scored higher. Rationale should be provided for all proposed universal payload interface system elements.
Minimum Required Capabilities
- Distribute and switch power from the vehicle to the payload
- Convert and regulate power from the vehicle to the payload
- Support single point grounding between the vehicle and payload
- Support data transfer from the payload to the vehicle memory for downlink or storage
- Support custom hardware configurations economizing mass and volume
- Enable modularity and flexibility to meet diverse sets of requirements among vehicles
- Survive relevant flight environments of target vehicles
- Enable low-cost and rapid payload integration
Example Additional Capabilities
- Pass commands and acknowledgements between vehicle and payload
- Pass vehicle telemetry (e.g., time, vehicle state [position/velocity], attitude, temperature) to payload as needed
- Provide radiation or sun shielding for the payload
- Provide data storage for the payload
- Allow for access to payload post-integration with vehicle (e.g., on-the-pad accessible electrical ground support equipment (EGSE) data ports)
- Allow for early payload development before the vehicle is selected or available for integration and test (e.g., a stand-alone UPIC kit, host-emulators)
- Provide thermal isolation to the mounting system (if necessary)
- Provide easy-to-use human interfaces (e.g., documentation, lookup tables, virtual/software tools, smart apps) to provide payload teams clear requirements for payload design and development.
An ideal UPIC solution will be able to comprehensively address as many scenarios as possible. The following hypothetical scenarios provide examples of the types of situations that might occur and describe potential use-cases of a universal payload interface system. Applicants should consider how their proposed solution might address these scenarios or similar instances by leveraging the flexibility provided by a universal payload interface system to enable rapid, accessible integration to a wide variety of flight vehicles.
- Dr. Hemoglobin’s team has a blood sampling technology that they would like to test on a suborbital vehicle to evaluate its potential for use with astronauts in microgravity. The team has no experience with space technology development, nor the resources to hire a team to adapt the payload for testing on a suborbital vehicle. They have applied for opportunities to fly the invention on either a sounding rocket or other type of rocket-powered vehicle; however, timing constraints require the team to start developing the payload-to-host vehicle interface before they will know the specific vehicle associated with their award. They would like to have their payload fully built, tested, and ready for vehicle integration by the time they learn the vehicle on which they are able to secure a flight test.
- Ingrid Ingenuity has a space-worthy payload that they want to fly on a hosted orbital vehicle that exposes their payload to the low-Earth orbit space environment. There are several commercial flight providers that offer the flight environment they require; however, Ingrid’s procurement team is requesting bids from each of the flight providers to determine which one can best meet their requirements and offer the most competitive pricing. Due to time constraints, the payload team can’t wait until the acquisition process is complete and must proceed with developing their payload-to-host vehicle interface without knowing the specific interface requirements. They would like their payload to be easy to adapt to whichever flight provider has the more compelling quote so that they can quickly move to flight.
- Alice Academia has a payload that they are about to fly on a suborbital test campaign. They would like to plan ahead to prepare their technology for the next step, if the suborbital tests are successful. They work in a small university where there is limited funding for hardware development, so they must adapt their payload for an orbital flight as cost-effectively as possible.
- Lisa Lunar has a sensor payload that has flown aboard a 3U CubeSat in low-Earth orbit. They would like to modify their payload to enable integration onto a lunar lander for a future lunar mission. However, their interface must be generic enough to enable straightforward integration with a variety of landers that are currently not yet developed.
SYSTEM BUILD PHASE (8 months)
Up to three winning teams will be selected by June 2024. In addition to the $200,000 prize awarded at selection, Winners will have the opportunity to compete for an award of $200,000 each during System Build Round 1. Winners will participate in a System Build kick-off call in June 2024 with ongoing check-in calls to present their plans for the system development and progress to date. Field Judges will conduct an on-site visit in October 2024 to score the progress each Winner has made to determine if they qualify for the Round 1 award.
Upon successful completion of System Build Round 1, Winners will have the opportunity to compete for an additional award of $100,000 each in System Build Round 2. Winners will continue ongoing check-in calls to present progress on their plans to date for the system development. Field Judges will conduct an on-site visit in March 2025 to score the progress each Winner has made to determine if they qualify for the Round 2 award.
PERFORMANCE INCENTIVE PHASE (5 months)
Upon successful completion of System Build Round 2, Winners will have the opportunity to compete for an additional award of up to $150,000 each based on the integration of the payload using the winner’s UPIC system. NASA also intends to provide each Winner the opportunity for a flight test at no cost.
To win an award during the Performance Incentive Phase, a Winner must integrate a payload into a flight vehicle – both of which will be assigned by NASA – within a five-month timeframe. Teams that succeed in integrating the payload with the flight vehicle within the allotted timeframe of five months will receive an award of $150,000.