Lancaster Physicists use Blender and MATLAB to model the Field of View of spacecraft instrumentation

A 3D model of the Cassini space probe

Spacecraft are notoriously complex pieces of machinery, with their instrumentation often requiring the perfect alignment in order to get accurate readings. The body of the spacecraft – and components attached to it - can often create issues for instrumentation relying on a clear field of view to operate, such as star trackers for navigation or solar panels for the charging of electrical apparatus. It is therefore important for space scientists to know exactly what potential issues the placement of an instrument on a spacecraft may have so they can take it into consideration when analysing the data.

Physics PhD student George Xystouris, alongside Lancaster’s Dr Chris Arridge and Oleg Shebanits of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics have therefore been using the 3D modelling software Blender, alongside MATLAB, to help them calculate the field of view of instrumentation, the spacecraft’s shadow, and potential exposure to plasma wake, utilising freely-available models of spacecraft on NASA's website. Blender is typically used to create models for the purposes of 3D printing – but the team at Lancaster are repurposing it as a tool for calculating vector intersection.

As a spacecraft and their instruments can rotate, the modelling software allowed the team to recreate the exact orientation of the spacecraft and the instruments, and then to visualise where the spacecraft, or any other instruments, would potentially block the sunlight or plasma - or where the field of view would be obstructed by any components on the spacecraft. The team then used the modified model and with the help of MATLAB calculated the field of view computationally. Theoretically, using Blender in such a manner would allow aeronautical engineers and designers to accurately correct for any issues regarding the field of view of instrumentation.

The simplicity of the programs and the calculations used to compute the field of view also means that calculations can easily and accurately be rerun during any part of a mission should there be a change to the spacecraft – such as the release of a probe or the ejection of a solid rocket booster.

While MATLAB can be an expensive software for some, as George remarks that “anyone can reproduce our results using free software, such as Python and Blender, and spacecraft models that are freely accessible from an agency’s website, such as ESA and NASA, without the caveat of needing any special software.” He also added that “an exciting part of the project was showing that the methodology is also adaptable to any spacecraft, so anyone can play around and find field of views of instruments onboard, for example, Voyager, or even create their own spacecraft for their own future space missions!”.

The ease with which George and the team were able to calculate the field of view on their Cassini test subject additionally highlights the potential for programmes such as Blender to be used within a teaching environment, allowing undergraduate-level students studying space and planetary physics to get hands-on experience in a programme that is both familiar and easily obtainable.

Back to News