Leonardo and NASA, a space alliance to explore the Universe

Space exploration has always been a compelling and ambitious enterprise, driving nations and organisations to work together to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. As well as being a trusted partner of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the European Space Agency (ESA), Leonardo contributes at the transatlantic level to numerous NASA programmes, opening new perspectives in the exploration of Space. 

The OSIRIS-REx mission, in which a space probe was launched in 2016 to reach the Bennu asteroid, collect samples from its surface and transport them back to Earth, is an example of the cooperation between NASA and Leonardo. The enterprise required sophisticated technologies, many of which were developed by Leonardo in Italy and the United Kingdom, and follows the numerous accomplishments the company has achieved in other space missions with the US space exploration agency.

The mission successfully concluded on 24 September 2023 when the spacecraft, during its return to Earth, released the capsule containing a piece of asteroid Bennu that landed in the Utah desert. This was NASA’s first historic contact with an asteroid, which took place in October 2020, when OSIRIS-REx touched the surface of Bennu for just five seconds - enough to collect approximately 250 grams of soil material.

OSIRIS-REx descending toward the rocky surface of the asteroid Bennu – conceptual image
Credits: NASA - Goddard/University of Arizona 

Since asteroids are by-products of the planet-forming process, studying Bennu will help scientists to understand the origin of the Solar System, to study resources on the surface of these celestial bodies - like water, organic matter, metals, and rare earths that are vital for future space exploration - and to gather information that can be used to predict their likelihood of colliding with Earth with greater precision. NASA has also announced that about 75% of the samples gathered will be preserved for future study with technologies that do not yet exist. 


Leonardo’s role in the OSIRIS-REx mission

Leonardo technologies played an essential role in all the critical phases of the mission: guiding the probe toward the asteroid, collecting the samples, and returning to Earth.

Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - conceptual image lab 

Follow the voyage of OSIRIS-REx

At the Southampton site in the UK, Leonardo realised  and supplied Arizona State University (ASU) with the infrared sensor for the OTES - Thermal Emission Spectrometer, helping identify minerals on the asteroid, gather thermal data, and enable scientists to achieve a better understanding of Bennu's composition. Leonardo built the A-STR - Autonomous Star Tracker attitude sensor, the ‘compass’ that guided OSIRIS-REx throughout its voyage, at the Campi Bisenzio site near Florence, Italy.

Working on the attitude sensor in Campi Bisenzio 

The sensor handled the precision manoeuvres required for accurate positioning in relation to the asteroid during its approach, ensured a stable, secure position while collecting samples from the surface and, lastly, helped the probe adjust its trajectory repeatedly throughout its 2.3 billion kilometre trip back home.

Following OSIRIS-REx, Leonardo is preparing for ESA's HERA mission, the next challenge in the study of asteroids. Leonardo has produced the photovoltaic panels that in 2024 will accompany the probe towards the binary asteroid Didymos and its moon Dimorphos. The objective is to study more closely the after-effects of NASA's DART mission, which in 2022 successfully accomplished the first test of deflection of an asteroid by modifying its orbit. DART was also guided by a Leonardo compass.


Leonardo and NASA, a long-lasting collaboration

OSIRIS-REx has just landed, but numerous NASA missions are still in orbit or on the launchpad, while others have already completed their work. Most using Leonardo instruments and technologies. Some of them are created right in Leonardo’s laboratories, while others are the result of the company’s partnership with Thales through the Telespazio (Leonardo 67% and Thales 33%) and Thales Alenia Space (Thales 67% and Leonardo 33%) joint ventures.

Leonardo created the attitude sensors for NASA’s JUNO mission, which has been studying the planet Jupiter since 2016. This particular sensor is an SRU - Stellar Reference Unit, the optics of which are specially designed to detect extremely faint stars during navigation. With these exceptional characteristics, the SRU not only guided the probe across 2.8 billion kilometres but was also used, for the first time ever, as a high-resolution scientific instrument for exploring multiple phenomena and characteristics of Jupiter's system. In fall 2022, for example, JUNO executed a close fly-by of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and the SRU captured the highest resolution image yet taken of the Moon’s dark side while it was illuminated by the planet's glow.

Observation of Jupiter’s lightning
Credits: NASA

In this image, captured by the SRU on NASA's JUNO probe in February 2018, the arrows indicate small flashes observed on the cloud tops of Jupiter, while the enlarged boxes show how they appear in the probe's on-board scientific camera. A study published in Nature magazine shared images of lightning captured by the Leonardo SRU showing that the lightning originated at unexpectedly high altitudes, where the temperature is too low for liquid water to exist. SRU's technical capabilities, combined with JUNO’s close fly-bys over the cloud tops, allowed lightning of up to 33 kilometres across to be identified.

JUNO also carries on board a JIRAM spectrometer (also built at the Campi Bisenzio site), funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and operated under the scientific responsibility of Italy’s National Astrophysics Institute (INAF). JIRAM is one of the eyes of the mission that enables the simultaneous capture of imaging and spectral information in infrared using a dual focal plane, thus allowing to observe Jupiter up close and better understand its formation, evolution and structure.

JIRAM spectrometer on board the JUNO probe – conceptual image.

Leonardo, through Thales Alenia Space, with the support of a scientific team from ‘La Sapienza’ University in Rome and funding from ASI, built the KaT - Ka-Band Translator for conducting radio science experiments to obtain information on the internal composition and gravitational field of Jupiter.

This series of images depicts the formation and movement of cyclones at Jupiter’s south pole, captured by the JIRAM infrared imager on the JUNO spacecraft. The data was collected between 2 February 2017 and 3 November 2019.

The famous James Webb Space Telescope for deep space observation also relies on Leonardo’s compasses, with three Autonomous Star Trackers and two Smart Sun Sensors on board supporting the satellite's orientation and attitude maintenance, as well as its telescope aiming instruments.

The A-STR attitude sensor

NASA's journey to the Sun was also assisted by Leonardo sensors, most recently in the Parker Solar Probe mission, which advanced to within about 6.16 million kilometres of the Sun’s surface: around 7 times closer than any previous probe. Instead, the record for Leonardo’s longest-living sensor is held by the SOHO mission to study the Sun that has been operational in Space since 1995.

The SOHO probe – conceptual image
Credits: NASA/A. Lutkus/H. Zellp

The probe of the DAWN mission, launched in 2007 to analyse the processes that led to the formation of the Solar System, orbited around two distinct heavenly bodies in deep Space: the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, the two biggest proto planets that have remained intact since they were formed. In this case too, a spectrometer built by Leonardo – in partnership with ASI and INAF – played a key role in the close observation of the dwarf planet’s and the asteroid’s surfaces.

Leonardo was also responsible for the ‘eyes’ of the Cassini mission, completed in 2017.  Cassini is the first probe to have entered Saturn's orbit to study its system and that of its moons, Titan in particular. For this mission, Leonardo developed - again with ASI and INAF - the camera in the visible part of the VIMS - Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. In the first ten years of the mission, VIMS carried out more than 250,000 observations, producing a volume of data totalling 171 GB that subsequently appeared in 180 scientific journals. In addition to the camera, Leonardo also worked on the SRU - Stellar Reference Unit, which was used to continue tracking Cassini during its interplanetary trajectory and orbit around Saturn.

The Cassini probe and Saturn – Conceptual image
Credits: ASI

Leonardo, through Thales Alenia Space, designed and built the high gain antenna (HGA/LGA), the most complex ever created for an interplanetary mission, that guaranteed all the connections to and from Earth; the multimode radar that helped gain an understanding of the morphological particularities of Titan; and key apparatuses for conducting radio science experiments, such as the Ka-translator.

Leonardo’s attitude sensors reached Mars with the Insight mission and travelled to the edges of our Solar System with the New Horizon mission to study Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, travelling 7.5 billion kilometres.

Leonardo for the future of space exploration

Returning to the Moon to gradually increase the amount of time humans can spend on our satellite, with a view to establishing a permanent base there, is the goal of the Artemis mission, which will use the Orion space vehicle to transport tomorrow’s astronauts.

Leonardo is participating in the programme through the production - at its Nerviano site - of photovoltaic panels and electronic units aboard the EMS - European Service Module that will power the Orion capsule on the Moon.

The company – through Thales Alenia Space - plays a leading role in the development and construction of thermomechanical systems for the EMS and some pressurised modules for the Lunar Gateway, a future space station on the Moon where astronauts will be able to live and work.

A final fundamental aspect for the Moon mission will be the digitalisation of the lunar ecosystem, i.e., the creation of a network of telecommunications and navigation services that guarantees constant contact between astronauts and robotic systems with control centres, as well as correct and precise positioning on the lunar surface.

Leonardo is protagonist in the study of an infrastructure for telecommunications and lunar navigation through Telespazio, which has been selected by ESA and leads an international consortium to carry out its realisation. The project is part of the LCNS - Lunar Communications and Navigation Services initiative of the Moonlight programme and, among the requirements, will analyse the possibility of making the system interoperable with LUNANET, the infrastructure that NASA is developing to support the Artemis programme.

Leonardo – Solar panel production 

The Mars Sample Return programme, which NASA is conducting in collaboration with the ESA – European Space Agency, is intended to bring soil samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time in history, allowing us to find out more about the red planet. At its site in Nerviano, Leonardo is working on the development of a robotic arm, 2.5 metres in length, that will collect the vials containing samples of Martian soil retrieved by the rover in the Mars 2020 mission, to deposit them in a container to be brought back to Earth.

In the third mission of the Mars Sample Return programme, the Earth Return Orbiter, which aims to ‘capture’ the capsule containing the soil samples in orbit around Mars to bring them back to Earth, Leonardo, through Thales Alenia Space, will supply the communication system permitting data transmission between Earth, the Orbiter and Mars, and will be responsible for the design of the Orbit Insertion Module.

With its constant research and development of advanced technologies, Leonardo will continue to play a prominent role in space missions, supporting NASA, ESA, ASI, and other international space agencies in exploring the mysteries of the Universe. The future still holds many new frontiers to be discovered, in a journey that will take us beyond the limits of our imagination, and Leonardo will always be ready to contribute to this extraordinary human endeavour in the fascinating exploration of Space.