The European Space Agency (ESA) is developing 3-D imaging light detection and ranging (lidar) as a navigation aid for deep-space exploration. Lidar operates in the same fashion as radar but with shorter wavelengths because it uses light rather than radio waves. A pulsed laser beam scans targets by measuring the time it takes for the light to bounce back; its shorter wavelengths offer more precise measurements – nanometers rather than the centimeters offered by radar. Separate designs were built in parallel by two consortia, one led by Jena-Optronik of Jena, Germany, and the other by ABSL of Culham, UK. The two designs were aimed at different guidance and navigation applications. The German-led unit demonstrates a future rendezvous sensor, while the British-led design is intended to help a lander touch down safely on a planet while detecting and avoiding potential hazards. The shoebox-size imaging lidar system relies on a steerable scan mirror that flicks the laser beam across the target, and a highly sensitive light detector measures the returning beams from several kilometers away. ABSL prototype lidar system, intended to help a lander touch down safely on a planet while detecting and avoiding hazards. Courtesy of ESA/ABSL. Imaging lidar could prove useful for guiding, navigating and controlling planetary landers, for steering rovers on planetary surfaces, and for assistance in docking the craft in planetary orbit, said João Pereira do Carmo of ESA. “Terrestrial imaging lidar [systems] already exist, typically used for scanning buildings or industrial sites, but they are much too bulky for use in space,” Carmo said. “The challenge is to produce a new class of imaging lidar, much smaller and needing less power.” For missions deeper into our solar system, ESA hopes to use 3-D imaging lidar to build up a complete picture of targets such as boulder-strewn surfaces. It would work much as a stereoscopic imager does, but it would also work in total darkness or blinding sunlight. The Imaging Lidar Technology project was supported through ESA’s Basic Technology Research Programme, which is aimed at prototyping promising new engineering concepts, and the newly designed 3-D lidar system is expected to help in the safe landing of ESA’s Lunar Lander in 2019. The engineers are looking at using new types of detectors and micromechanical optical mirrors to make the systems smaller. “It is expected that we can reduce the mass and power consumptions of current commercial imaging lidar systems by at least 70 percent,” Carmo said.