Analysis of entry accelerometer data: A case study of Mars Pathfinder

Withers, Paul; Towner, M.C.; Hathi, B. and Zarnecki, J.C. (2003). Analysis of entry accelerometer data: A case study of Mars Pathfinder. Planetary and Space Science, 51(9-10) pp. 541–561.



Accelerometers are regularly flown on atmosphere-entering spacecraft. Using their measurements, the spacecraft trajectory and the vertical structure of density, pressure, and temperature in the atmosphere through which it descends can be calculated. We review the general procedures for trajectory and atmospheric structure reconstruction and outline them here in detail. We discuss which physical properties are important in atmospheric entry, instead of working exclusively with the dimensionless numbers of fluid dynamics. Integration of the equations of motion governing the spacecraft trajectory is carried out in a novel and general formulation. This does not require an axisymmetric gravitational field or many of the other assumptions that are present in the literature. We discuss four techniques—head-on, drag-only, acceleration ratios, and gyroscopes—for constraining spacecraft attitude, which is the critical issue in the trajectory reconstruction. The head-on technique uses an approximate magnitude and direction for the aerodynamic acceleration, whereas the drag-only technique uses the correct magnitude and an approximate direction. The acceleration ratios technique uses the correct magnitude and an indirect way of finding the correct direction and the gyroscopes technique uses the correct magnitude and a direct way of finding the correct direction. The head-on and drag-only techniques are easy to implement and require little additional information. The acceleration ratios technique requires extensive and expensive aerodynamic modelling. The gyroscopes technique requires additional onboard instrumentation. The effects of errors are briefly addressed. Our implementations of these trajectory reconstruction procedures have been verified on the Mars Pathfinder dataset. We find inconsistencies within the published work of the Pathfinder science team, and in the PDS archive itself, relating to the entry state of the spacecraft. Our atmospheric structure reconstruction, which uses only a simple aerodynamic database, is consistent with the PDS archive to about 4%. Surprisingly accurate profiles of atmospheric temperatures can be derived with no information about the spacecraft aerodynamics. Using no aerodynamic information whatsoever about Pathfinder, our profile of atmospheric temperature is still consistent with the PDS archive to about 8%. As a service to the community, we have placed simplified versions of our trajectory and atmospheric structure computer programmes online for public use.

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