Science benefits of onboard spacecraft navigation
Primitive bodies (asteroids and comets), which have remained relatively unaltered since their formation, are important targets for scientific missions that seek to understand the evolution of the solar system. Often the first step is to fly by these bodies with robotic spacecraft. The key to maximizing data returns from these flybys is to determine the spacecraft trajectory relative to the target body—in short, navigate the spacecraft—with sufficient accuracy so that the target is guaranteed to be in the instruments' field of view. The most powerful navigation data in these scenarios are images taken by the spacecraft of the target against a known star field (onboard astrometry).
Thanks go to the AutoNav team members at JPL: Ed Riedel, Steve Synnott, Bob Werner, Brian Kennedy, Dan Kubitschek, Nick Mastrodemos, Ken Starr, Boris Shenker, Martin Gilbert, Greg Horvath, Shailen Desai, Mike Wang, Don Han, Andrew Vaughan, and Matthew Abrahamson. Thanks also go to Ann Harch at Cornell University and Don Yeomans at JPL for thoughtful comments on this report. The research was carried out at JPL, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA.