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Chapter 4
The Magellan Spacecraft


   The ship, a fragment detached from the earth,
   went on lonely and swift like a small planet.
                          -- Joseph Conrad

The design of the Magellan spacecraft was driven by the need for a low-cost, high-performance vehicle. The spacecraft for the earlier VOIR mission was to have been custom-designed and built, but the Magellan Project saved many of those costs by taking advantage of an inventory of mission-proven technologies and spare components (see Table 4-1).

       Table 4-1.  Equipment from Other Spacecraft
    Component                                        Source
Medium-gain antenna                              Mariner Mars 1971
High- and low-gain antenna                       Voyager
Equipment Bus                                    Voyager
Star-scanner design                              Inertial Upper Stage
Radio-frequency traveling-wave tube assemblies   Ulysses 
Attitude-control computer                        Galileo
Command and data subsystem                       Galileo
Thruster rockets (small)                         Voyager
Electric-power distribution unit                 Galileo
Power control unit                               P-80 satellite
Pyrotechnic control                              Galileo
Solid-rocket motor design                        Space Shuttle payload
                                                 assist module (PAM)
Propellant-tank design                           Space Shuttle auxilary
                                                 power unit

Magellan's simpler design also meant that some components would perform more complex tasks. For example, instead of using separate antennas for mapping and telemetry, the craft's primary antenna will perform both of these functions.

The team that designed Magellan worked within the stringent budgetary and performance requirements and produced a spacecraft that complied with the Project's fiscal reality and one that has our highest confidence in its ability to carry out the objectives of the Magellan mission.

Overall Physical Appearance

The Magellan spacecraft (see Figure 4-1) that was loaded in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Atlantis weighed 3,453 kilograms (7,612 pounds) and consisted of

(1) Antennas (high-, medium-, and low-gain, plus altimeter).
(2) Forward equipment module.
(3) Equipment bus.
(4) Solar panels.
(5) Propulsion module.
(6) Solid-rocket orbit-insertion motor.
(7) Inertial-Upper-Stage (IUS) adapter structure.


Figure 4-1. Magellan and the IUS loaded in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Atlantis

The parabolic, dish-shaped, high-gain antenna (HGA) dominates the top of the stack. The dish is made of strong, lightweight, graphite-epoxy sheets mounted to an aluminum honeycomb for rigidity. This antenna, further described in the telecommunications section of this chapter, functions as the primary antenna for radar operations, transmission of radar data, receipt of radio signals from Earth, and transmission of engineering health data to Earth.

The medium-gain antenna (MGA) is the cone-shaped structure mounted to the top side of the equipment bus. The low-gain antenna (LGA) is mounted on a platform held by struts above the HGA. Both of these antennas augment the HGA and are useful when the HGA cannot be pointed directly at Earth.

The altimeter antenna (ALTA) is mounted on the side of the forward equipment module (FEM), extending forward from beneath the HGA dish. It is used exclusively for radar altimetry. During the mapping part of each Venus orbit, the ALTA is pointed vertically down at the planet to provide one-dimensional readings of the heights of surface features. The 1.5-meter- (5-foot-) long aluminum structure has an aperture of 0.6 x 0.3 meter (2 x 1 feet) and weighs 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds).

The FEM houses the radar electronics, radio telecommunications equipment, certain attitude-control equipment, batteries, and the power- conditioning unit (see Figure 4-2). The boxlike housing measures 1.7 x 1.0 x 1.3 meters (5.3 x 3.3 x 4.3 feet) and is made of aluminum panels on a framework of square aluminum tubing that has been chemically milled for weight reduction. Two sides of the FEM have louvers for thermal conditioning. Mirror-surfaced covers shield the louvers from the intense sunlight at Venus.

Immediately below the FEM is the 10-sided equipment bus, built originally as a spare for the Voyager Project. The bus is a bolted aluminum structure with aluminum cover plates. It measures 42.4 centimeters (16.7 inches) high and approximately 2.0 meters (6.6 feet) across. Each of its 10 compartments is a 42- x 47- x 18-centimeter (16.5- x 18.5- x 7-inch) enclosure for electronics. An opening in the middle of the ring of compartments holds the hydrazine fuel tank for the liquid-propulsion system.

The bus compartments contain the flight computers, the input/output interface between the computers and Magellan subsystems, tape recorders, solar-array controls, solid-state bulk memory, and pyrotechnic control electronics.

The two square solar panels, shown in Figure 4-3, measure 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) on a side and together can supply 1,200 watts of power. With the arrays deployed, Magellan spans 10 meters (32.8 feet) from tip to tip of the panels. The light-colored lines visible on them are solar reflectors that keep the temperature of the arrays below 115 degrees centigrade (239 degrees Fahrenheit), even in full sunlight at Venus. Approximately 35 percent of the front surface is reflective mirrors, and the back surface is 100 percent mirrors.

The panels are hinged for stowage in the shuttle and were deployed while Magellan was in Earth orbit. During interplanetary cruise and in orbit around Venus, they rotate to follow the Sun. Solar sensors on the panel tips and a control package in the equipment bus maintain the panels' sunward orientation. The honeycomb aluminum backing structure, arms, and oversized joints are designed to enable the panels to withstand the force produced by the rocket burn that will insert Magellan into Venus orbit.

The propulsion equipment shown in Figure 4-4 includes a 24-thruster liquid-propulsion module and the solid-rocket motor (SRM) used for orbit insertion. The propulsion-module structure provides precisely aligned attachment of the SRM, as well as the liquid-propellant thrusters and associated plumbing, which are needed for trajectory/orbit corrections, attitude control during orbit insertion, and other functions.

The propulsion module also provides the attachment points for the IUS adapter structure. Both structures are made of graphite-epoxy trusses with sculptured titanium end fittings. Explosive bolts released the adapter, along with the IUS, after IUS burnout.

Spacecraft Equipment

The spacecraft equipment can be grouped into several functional subsets: the radar sensor and altimeter antenna; telecommunications, including radio equipment and antennas (except the altimeter antenna); spacecraft attitude control and solar-panel articulation control; electrical power; propulsion and pyrotechnic control; thermal control; and structure and mechanisms. The radar equipment and functions are described in Chapter 5. The remaining subsets, which comprise the engineering subsystems, are described below.


Acquiring detailed knowledge of Venus' surface depends as much on Magellan's ability to send large amounts of data to Earth as it does on the radar equipment itself. Most of the communications components for sending, receiving, and decoding radio signals are located in the FEM. These components include a redundant set of receivers, command detectors, transmitters, data encoders, data modulators, exciters, control units, and switches used to interconnect them in various combinations with each other and with the externally mounted communication antennas. A receiver, command detector, exciter, and low-power amplifier are packaged together into an assembly called a NASA-standard transponder, of which there are two on Magellan. In addition to the low-power amplifiers in the transponders, there are two high-power amplifiers called traveling-wave tubes. The NASA-standard transponder and traveling-wave tube assemblies enable Magellan to transmit at a peak rate of 268.8 kilobits per second. In comparison, the Viking Orbiter in 1976 transmitted its detailed images of Mars at 16 kilobits per second.

Magellan uses two different transmitters that operate on the S and X frequency bands for communications with Earth. S-band, with a frequency 2,000 times higher than the AM radio broadcast band, is used for transmitting engineering data to Earth and for most command transmissions from Earth to the spacecraft. The high S-band frequency enables the HGA to concentrate the spacecraft's low-power (5-watt) engineering signals so that they can be detected on Earth from distances up to 257 million kilometers (160 million miles). X-band transmission, at a frequency rate almost four times greater than that of S-band, enables the HGA to transmit an even more concentrated signal to Earth. The use of X-band and a higher signal power (20 watts) enables the high data rates used for transmitting radar data to Earth.

From Venus orbit, this system will send engineering data about the spacecraft's condition to Earth at 1.2 kilobits per second through the HGA via S-band and simultaneously transmit the radar data at 268.8 kilobits per second via X-band. Backup data rates of 40 bits per second for engineering telemetry and 115.2 kilobits per second for radar data are available for certain circumstances or emergencies.

Working with the radio transponder, modulators, and amplifiers to make up a complete telecommunications subsystem are the high-, medium-, and low-gain communication antennas.

The 3.7-meter- (12-foot-) diameter HGA is critical to all aspects of the mission. It transmits and receives the mapping radar pulses, collects radiant energy emitted by Venus (for the radiometry experiment), sends science and engineering data to Earth, and receives commands from Earth that direct spacecraft activities. The HGA has a total beamwidth of 2.2 degrees at S-band and 0.6 degree at X-band.

The MGA is used primarily for sending commands to and receiving engineering data from Magellan during the Venus orbit-insertion (VOI) maneuver and during portions of the 15-month cruise period. Because its 18-degree beamwidth provides telemetry capability without the precise pointing required by the narrow-beam HGA, the MGA is also used for emergency situations when spacecraft pointing may not be correct.

The LGA, mounted on the top of the HGA, is placed so that no part of the spacecraft can interfere with its broad beam. Its design allows commands to be received from any direction within 90 degrees of its central axis. This hemispherical coverage pattern greatly reduces the need to precisely point the spacecraft during an emergency. An example would be a solar flare that produces energetic particles strong enough to alter the computer program used by the attitude-control subsystem. This type of anomaly would be sensed by the spacecraft, recognized as having a potential effect on pointing the HGA, and cause the spacecraft to begin corrective actions, including switching to the LGA for command reception from Earth. Thus, ground controllers would be able to augment the spacecraftÕs corrective actions, if required.

Attitude Control

Magellan is a three-axis-stabilized craft, but it is required to perform frequent changes of its orientation in space as it orbits Venus. Keeping track of its precise orientation at all times via gyroscopes, this maneuvering is performed with reaction wheels controlled by one of two ATAC-16 computers located in the equipment bus.

During each orbit of Venus, Magellan will rotate four times: away from the planet to aim the HGA earthward for data transmission, toward space to scan stars for precisely determining any spacecraft-orientation errors, again toward Earth to resume data transmission, and back toward the surface of Venus for mapping. Throughout each elliptical orbit's mapping pass, the spacecraft continuously maneuvers in small increments to adjust the pointing of the HGA as the distance to the surface of the planet changes.

Throughout the mapping phase of the mission, there are 1,852 orbits requiring 7,408 major attitude changes in 243 days. If these attitude changes were performed solely with rocket thrusters, there would be more than 14,800 thruster burns for each of the spacecraft's three control axes (one to start a maneuver, another to stop it, and periodic thruster burns to control the rate). Indeed, Magellan would need immense fuel tanks.

However, Magellan is miserly with the fuel in its single, small, propellant tank. The repetitive attitude changes are instead accomplished with reaction wheels that use the principle known as Newton's Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. An illustration of this is a child jumping from a wagon. If the wagon is initially at rest, and the child jumps out the back of the wagon, the wagon moves forward as the child moves backward.

When it is desired to turn Magellan in a particular direction, an electric motor inside the spacecraft is commanded to spin a reaction wheel (a rotatable mass approximately 36 centimeters [14 inches] in diameter) in the opposite direction. By Newton's Third Law, the spacecraft turns in the intended direction while the reaction wheel spins in the opposite direction. The spacecraft turn is stopped by commanding the motor driving the reaction wheel to stop. Three reaction wheels, one for each possible axis of rotation, are located in the FEM. The job of keeping track of the spacecraft's current orientation is accomplished with gyroscopes and a star scanner. The gyroscopes sense any rotational rate, which is then integrated by the attitude-control computers to determine the spacecraft's current orientation. When the spacecraft orientation is more than a preset amount (usually 0.0l degree) from what it should be, appropriate reaction wheels are commanded to speed up or slow down until the orientation is again within bounds.

Projecting from one side of the FEM is the barrel of the star scanner (see Figure 4-3). This highly accurate attitude-sensing device is used to periodically correct errors due to drift of the gyroscopes. Once a day during cruise and once an orbit during mapping, the spacecraft performs a star scan. This involves turning the spacecraft to a preset starting position, after which a single rotation is used to sweep the optical star scanner across two known reference stars that are 80 to 100 degrees apart. The stars' apparent positions are calculated by the attitude-control computer using the gyroscope inputs, and these positions are compared with the stars' true positions, which are contained in data previously stored in the computer. The difference represents how much the gyroscope drift has affected the computer's knowledge of its own attitude since the last star scan. This error has typically been less than 0.l degree per day during the cruise period. The computer autonomously updates its attitude, as well as its own drift-compensation model, based on the determined error.

Rounding out the complement of attitude-control hardware are sun sensors and solar-array drive motors, which keep the solar panels pointed toward the Sun. The sun sensors are located on the outboard tips of the solar panels and feed information to the computer about the current position of the Sun. The computer responds by commanding the solar-array drive motors until the solar panels are as close to pointing at the Sun as possible. Because the panels can be rotated around only a single axis while the spacecraft can rotate about three axes, it is not always possible to point the panels directly at the Sun. However, most of the time the spacecraft attitude is programmed to keep the solar panels' rotational axis perpendicular to the sunline, which allows the panels to point exactly at the Sun.

Did you know...

After orbiting Venus for more than a dozen years, there will be sufficient onboard propellant only to desaturate the reaction wheels. There will not be enough propellant to prevent the orbit from decaying, which will result in Magellan eventually entering the atmosphere of Venus and burning up.

Electrical Power

Magellan operates on 28 volts fed through a power-conditioning unit in the FEM. The power source is the solar arrays, a pair of nickel-cadmium batteries, or the solar arrays and batteries used simultaneously. Either battery could support the mission with only a moderate amount of data loss should the other fail.

The solar panels directly supply all power required by the spacecraft during cruise and the data-transmission periods during mapping operations in Venus orbit; this includes recharging the batteries. The batteries augment solar-panel power during mapping, when the radar is drawing maximum power. When Venus occults the Sun from the spacecraft, the batteries supply the entire spacecraft power load.

Command and Data Handling

The command and data subsystem (CDS) decodes, stores, and distributes commands received from Earth to control spacecraft activities. These include commands to the attitude-control subsystem that regulate the position of Magellan and its back-and-forth changes between data gathering and transmitting. Other commands control radar-operating parameters and sequence other spacecraft subsystems through their operational states, as required. Most commands for controlling the spacecraft are stored for later distribution. The CDS can execute commands immediately upon receipt, however, if that is required.

The CDS' second function is to gather the engineering and radar data, format it for readability on Earth, pass it to the telecommunications subsystem for immediate transmission in the case of engineering data, or pass it to a tape recorder for storage and later transmission in the case of radar data. Engineering data can also be stored on tape if there is no communication with Earth at the time the data are gathered.

Redundant tape recorders, called the Data Management Subsystem (DMS), each provide storage for 1.8 gigabits of data. During the orbital mapping phase, the DMS is used almost entirely for radar data, but some spacecraft engineering data are stored there also. In addition to tape storage, the CDS bulk memory is used to hold 5 kilobytes of sampled engineering data when real-time transmission of telemetry from Magellan is interrupted, for example, when the spacecraft is behind Venus. These sampled data are read out to Earth immediately after the data interruption is over.


The 24 multipurpose liquid-propellant (hydrazine) thrusters provide several functions: spacecraft attitude control, trajectory/orbit correction, and reaction-wheel desaturations. Positioned in the middle of the 10-sided equipment bus is the single propellant tank that, at launch, contained 132.5 kilograms (293 pounds) of monopropellant hydrazine. A helium tank is attached to the struts of the propulsion-module structure and will be used, if necessary, to offset a drop in the pressure of the hydrazine system, a drop that would reduce thruster output level. The helium pressurant will be used if Magellan's interplanetary trajectory requires a major corrective firing of the thrusters, which, in turn, would drop the system pressure.

At each of the four outboard tips of the propulsion structure is a group of six thrusters: two of 100-pound, one of 5-pound, and three of 0.2-pound thrust. The large 100-pound thrusters, aimed aft, are used for large midflight course corrections, large orbit-trimming corrections, and controlling the spacecraft while the SRM burns during VOI. The 5-pound thrusters, aligned perpendicularly to Magellan's centerline, keep the spacecraft from rolling during those same maneuvers.

For the duration of the interplanetary cruise and mapping phase, the tiny 0.2-pound thrusters provide thrusts to desaturate the reaction wheels; they can be used for attitude control, if required. Eight 0.2-pound thrusters point aft and four are positioned for roll control. The aft-facing thrusters are also used for small course corrections and orbit trims.

The SRM used for orbit insertion at Venus is the Star 48B, the same motor used to send commercial communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit around Earth. The "B" denotes a motor using a carbon-phenolic nozzle, rather than the newer carbon-carbon nozzle. The motor weighs 2,146 kilograms (4,731 pounds), of which 2,014 kilograms (4,440 pounds) is propellant.

The motor's thrust will reduce Magellan's speed for transfer from the spacecraft's interplanetary trajectory into an orbit around Venus. The motor is aligned with the spacecraft's center of gravity to within 0.25 centimeter (0.1 inch) to provide sufficient balance of mass during the SRM burn to allow the 100-pound thrusters to maintain stability and prevent the spacecraft from tumbling.

Pyrotechnic Control

Attached to the underside of one equipment bus compartment is a box containing the control electronics that arm, disarm, and fire detonators to activate various explosive bolts, pin-pullers, and other devices. These enable release of the solar panels from their stowed position after deployment from the shuttle, actuation of propulsion valves, ignition of the SRM, and separation of the spent SRM after orbit insertion.

Thermal Control

Magellan will be subjected to sunlight approximately twice as intense as that which reaches Earth, potentially for several years. On the other hand, shaded exterior spacecraft temperatures can plunge to -204 degrees centigrade (-400 degrees Fahrenheit). Throughout the mission, the constant maneuvering of the craft will subject nearly every exterior surface to those ranges of heat and cold. Special effort was required in thermal control to keep electronics from overheating and moving parts from freezing, while minimizing weight and the need for electrical-heater power.

Electronics housings are wrapped in multilayered thermal blankets (see Figure 4-5) that insulate and reflect light. The outer layer of all external blankets is a material called astroquartz. It is similar to glass-fiber cloth, but is better able to withstand intense solar radiation. In fact, chemical binders normally used in astroquartz to control flaking had to be baked out when tests showed that the light intensity at Venus could discolor them and eventually cause a buildup of heat.

The HGA, ALTA, MGA, LGA struts, and propulsion-module structure are painted with a special, inorganic water-based paint, developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, to withstand and reflect intense solar radiation while minimizing discoloration. Electronics compartments in the FEM and the equipment bus have louvers that open or close automatically to regulate the dissipation of heat from inside the spacecraft. Covering these openings, and also lined up in strips on the solar arrays, are thin mirrors to reflect sunlight. The mirrors have been etched to diffuse reflections that could bake some other exterior part of the spacecraft.

The net effect of these materials makes the craft tend toward cold temperatures rather than hot. To assure that some cold-sensitive components do not become too cold, flexible electrical heaters have been installed inside housings or wrapped around such fixtures as the solar-panel articulation bearings.

Structure and Mechanisms

Structural design is crucial to an efficient spacecraft design, and Magellan was no exception in this regard. Structures must be strong enough to withstand the g forces of launch and orbit insertion and to withstand the tremendous acoustic environment that exists in the shuttle bay during launch. Critical alignment among optical sensors, inertial sensors, and antenna boresights cannot be allowed to suffer significant changes from deformations caused by these environments. All of this has been accomplished on Magellan, without exceeding weight limits imposed by the shuttle or the IUS performance limits, through the efficient use of various structural materials, including aluminum, titanium, beryllium, aluminum honeycomb, and graphite-epoxy composites.

Mechanisms used on Magellan include the hinges used to fold the solar panels in the shuttle bay for launch, retention and release devices used to hold the solar panels during launch, and the solar array articulation joints, including the cable-wrap assemblies, that allow the solar panels to rotate nearly 360 degrees without the use of slip rings. Also used on Magellan are bolts and explosive-actuated release nuts used to hold the spacecraft to the IUS adapter and to hold the SRM to the spacecraft until separation. At separation, such devices as springs and guide pins ensure enough distance between the separated bodies to prevent subsequent collision.

Computing and Software

Magellan's brains are two ATAC-16 computers located in the attitude-control subsystem and four 1802 microprocessors in the distributed CDS. All computers are in a redundant configuration as insurance against a breakdown, are fully reprogrammable, and are modified equipment from the Galileo Project.

Magellan is programmed to do a lot of its own "thinking" if problems arise. Past space missions often produced huddled experts exploring ways of working around a malfunctioning spacecraft. Magellan takes advantage of advances in fault-detection software design to analyze problems that occur and carry out a series of alternative remedies.

Minor or slowly developing problems revealed by telemetry will be managed by ground personnel. However, time-critical or mission-critical malfunctions will be detected, analyzed, and dealt with by two onboard fault-protection software systems: one for attitude control and the other for the rest of the spacecraft.

Problems with the attitude control are treated "holistically" in a full-system health analysis to ascertain the integral cause and remedy. Other spacecraft malfunctions are managed on an individual basis by software in the CDS.

Although some of the spacecraft attitude-control software was inherited from the Galileo mission, most is new because of differences between the control systems and the missions. Ninety percent of the 6,000 lines of code in the attitude-control software is new, including 2,000 lines for fault protection. Of the 18,000 lines of code for the CDS, 45 percent is unmodified Galileo code, 20 percent is new, and 35 percent is modified Galileo code. The fault-protection software resident in the CDS totals 1,500 lines.

Spacecraft operation is controlled for several days at a time by commands sent from Earth and stored in the CDS. During mapping, this method requires accurate navigational data that are updated as frequently as three times a week.

Control of the radar system is performed with data generated by the Radar Mapping Sequencing Software (RMSS) located on Earth. Almost all significant command sequences are stored in a simplified form on mission-control computers at JPL. For most command sequences, engineers simply select from that set and add parameters. Ground computers then convert the sequences into the Magellan command bit patterns for transmission to the spacecraft.

During the interplanetary cruise, these commands will span up to three weeks of activity. During mapping, up to eight days of commands are sent at a time. An extra day is included in every upload to provide a safety buffer if there is a delay in commanding the next upload.

As you can see, the Magellan spacecraft is a marvel of high technology. Its single payload, a radar sensor, and the synthetic-aperture method of radar mapping are both products of equally sophisticated technologies, as we shall see in Chapter 5.

right_arrow.gif Chapter 5 - The Radar System
magellan_icon.gif The Magellan's Venus Explorer Guide