Aeneid is a Mission Control App concept that that aids in the planning and management of unmanned space missions. Advisors: Todd Masilko, Tibor Balint.

Final Origami Prototype

Understanding Mission Control

We’ve all grown up with an idea of mission control systems. A busy, overwhelming, anxious environment with a visual cacophony of switches, push-buttons, and monitors. The concept of mission control is so synonymous with system complexity that the term can be used to reference virtually any large control system.

For my first meeting with Tibor, JPL’s principle human centered designer, I brought in pictures of various mission control systems. Tibor walked through each one, breaking down how unmanned space missions are operated and the hierarchical structures of mission control.

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To understand how an unmanned space mission is planned, I used the New Horizons spacecraft science payload as an example, printing out a card for each scientific instrument. We then did a card sort of critical interface components.

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“While engineers need their numbers, other people need a visual to understand what’s happening or why something should happen."


Tibor mentioned how the equipment management of a space probe’s science payload is rather complex. To illustrate these challenges I’ll use the 1977 spacecraft Voyager as an example.

Voyager - 1977

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A space probe's science payload consists of all the instruments and equipment needed to accomplish its science mission.

Voyagers Payload

(CRS) Cosmic Ray Subsystem
(HGA) High-Gain Antenna - communicates with earth
(ISS) Imaging Science Subsystem - Two television-type cameras
(IRIS) Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer and Radiometer
(LECP) Low-Energy Charged Particle
(MAG) Magnetometer
(PPS) Photopolarimeter Subsystem
(PRA) Planetary Radio Astronomy
(PWS) Plasma Wave Subsystem
(RTG) Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator
(UVS) Ultraviolet Spectrometer

Unfortunately, not all the instruments can operate at the same time. For example, while Voyager is transmitting data to earth, the power resources are diverted to the (HGA). This means the (MAG) cannot operate during this period.


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Planning a Mission

I decided the best way to understand the problems associated with science payload scheduling was to plan my own fictional mission.

Destination: Venus

Science Goals: Atmospheric Analysis

Name: Virgil

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the roman poet Virgil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. This felt appropriate given that the surface temperature of Venus is 864º F.

Bringing Virgil to Life

I knew any interface I designed would rely heavily on my ability to visualize Virgil and its science payload. During the modeling process I analyzed all current and future unmanned space missions to get an understanding how spacecrafts are put together.

One potential technological advancement that I incorporated is the laser-based space communication network, which would allow for much higher data rates than today’s radio powered Deep Space Network. Read more about this technology at NASA.

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Virgil's Payload

(LMWR) Long Range Microwave Water Radiometer
(HDVC) High-Definition Venus Camera
(VIRTIS) Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer
(AISR) Atmospheric Imager / Spectral Radiometer
(APMA) Atmospheric Particulate Micro Analyzer
(LCR) Laser Communication Relay
(VUIS) Venus Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer

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Space and Interfaces

My goal for the interface was to surface the complicated schedule of Virgil’s science payload while displaying critical information. I thought a tablet application would be the most appropriate given the need to reference it in a group setting.

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Through sketching and wireframing I quickly realized progressive disclosure would be a critical interaction in most of the interface components. So I moved to my favorite interface prototype medium: paper!

Paper Prototype

After user-tests and feedback I moved into pixel space to start developing the final interface and prototype. I chose Origami Studio specifically because of its ability to work with video assets. Also, I love it.

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Tools Used: After Effects, Cinema 4D, Sketch, Origami Studio