Monster Machines: The Space-Faking NASA Simulator

Monster Machines: The Space-Faking NASA Simulator

Dragon Module

Located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, the Systems Engineering Simulator (SES) is a real-time engineering simulator for pretesting space-bound vehicles, systems and personnel before they leave the atmosphere. Well, to be fair, it’s actually a trio of simulators, each specialising in the testing of specific cockpit designs. Each dome does allow for a wide range of tests — docking contact dynamics, vehicle control systems, robotic manipulator dynamics and measurement of thruster plume impingement. It also accounts for a bevy of environmental factors, including gravity gradients and solar and lunar ephemerides.

All of this allows researchers, both from NASA and the likes of Space X or Virgin Galactic, to rigorously run virtual tests of concepts for tomorrow’s orbiters — typically at a significant savings compared to repeated test flights employing small-scale mock ups. It also provides astronauts-in-training a highly accurate reproduction of what they’re likely to encounter on mission, allowing them to practise approaches, robotic grappling, docking and descents until they’re perfect.

Each simulator is a dome (the Alpha and Beta models both have a 7.3m diameter, while the Mini dome is 6.4m wide) into which a cockpit mockup is inserted. Depending on which dome is employed, the SES recreates the interior of every active space vehicle — the HTV, Dragon, Cygnus, Orion, SEV — hell, you can even pretend to command the ISS itself.

Each dome employs a number of HD projectors to paint orbital scenes on the dome’s interior. Alpha Dome, for example, uses eight 1600×1200 projectors, while Beta uses 11 projectors at 1400×1500, and Mini uses eight at 1400×1500. All three have Dolby 5.1 surround sound systems as well. Because it has to look and sound real, too. [NASA 1, 2Aerosys]