NASA Tests Lunar Robots and Spacesuits on Earthly Moonscape

June 16, 2008
Lunar Truck
Lunar Truck. Credit: NASA

Conditions on the moon will be harsher, but prototype NASA robotic vehicles braved sand storms and unprecedented temperature swings this month on sand dunes near Moses Lake, Wash., to prepare for future lunar expeditions. Teams from seven NASA centers and several universities conducted the tests from June 2-13.

"The goal was to gain hands-on experience with specific technical challenges anticipated when humans return to the moon by 2020, begin to explore the lunar surface, and set up outposts," said Test Director Bill Bluethmann of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA's Human Robotic Systems Project, part of the agency's Exploration Technology Development Program, focused on human and robotic mobility systems for the moon, but also looked at communication and command and control systems that will connect the explorers with Earth and each other. The Moses Lake dunes provided a wide variety of soil consistencies and terrain that allowed the team to put prototype scout robots, rovers, cargo carriers, cranes and spacesuits through tests in a harsh and changing environment.

The prototype tests will be used to inform developers of specific requirements needed in lunar surface support systems for the Constellation Program. The program is building the launch vehicles and spacecraft that will take a new generation of explorers to the moon, as well as lunar landers, habitats, life support systems, vehicles and robots to support them. A ground control team located thousands of miles away at Johnson operated the robots and coordinated the movements of the suited explorers.

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., tested two K10 rovers that surveyed simulated lunar landing sites and built topographic and panoramic 3-D terrain models. One rover used a ground-penetrating radar to assess subsurface structures. The other used a 3-D scanning laser system known as LIDAR to create topographic maps. The scout robots are designed to perform highly repetitive and long-duration tasks, such as site mapping and science reconnaissance.

"It's as close as we can get in a terrestrial environment to the lunar environment," said Brian Wilcox, principle investigator for the All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer robot, known as ATHLETE, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

JPL tested two ATHLETE cargo-moving rovers. Each rover has six legs capable of rolling or walking over extremely rough or steep terrain. This will allow robotic or human missions on the surface of the moon to load, manipulate, deposit and transport payloads to desired sites. The team includes members from Johnson, Ames, Stanford University and The Boeing Co. of Chicago.

NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh tested an autonomous drilling rover that could be used to search for valuable resources under the lunar surface in the moon's polar regions. The team also includes members from Ames, Johnson, NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the Canadian Space Agency and the Centre for Advanced Technology Inc. in Sudbury, Ontario.

Engineers from Johnson tested a crew mobility chassis prototype, or lunar truck, and advanced spacesuit designs that could be used to greatly expand the exploration range of human explorers. NASA's new concept for a lunar truck was built in less than a year with unique features that allow each of its six wheels to move independently, giving the vehicle the ability to drive in any direction. Human drivers stood in turrets on the trucks that can pivot 360 degrees, contributing to easy steering.

To practice soil-moving techniques for the moon, Kennedy developed a bulldozing blade for the lunar truck, named the Lunar Attachment Node for Construction Excavation, or LANCE. A lightweight, composite technology such as LANCE will be used on the moon to clear landing pads and protect outposts from dust and debris generated by arriving spacecraft. The tests will help NASA evaluate the feasibility of excavating lunar soil, or regolith, for landing pads, blast protection berms, pathways, foundations and lunar operations areas.

NASA's Langley Research Center of Hampton, Va., demonstrated a lunar surface crane that could be used to lift and reposition heavy cargo, including modules used for crew quarters. The Lunar Surface Manipulator System is a lightweight lifting and precision positioning device that could give astronauts a helping hand during early outpost construction and follow-on operations. The crane can be operated autonomously, remotely or manually in backup mode, and can be reconfigured to perform different tasks. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center of Greenbelt, Md., provided lunar payload mockups that were used with the lunar crane to demonstrate payload handling operations.

Participants in the June tests will evaluate their data and prepare for additional tests in October at another site, yet to be announced, with moon-like conditions.

Source: NASA

Explore further: CubeSat to create a map of water ice on the moon

Related Stories

New technology may illuminate mystery moon caves

August 17, 2015

It's widely believed that the moon features networks of caves created when violent lava flows tore under the surface from ancient volcanoes. Some craters may actually be "skylights" where cave ceilings have crumbled.

LADEE spacecraft finds neon in lunar atmosphere

August 17, 2015

The moon's thin atmosphere contains neon, a gas commonly used in electric signs on Earth because of its intense glow. While scientists have speculated on the presence of neon in the lunar atmosphere for decades, NASA's Lunar ...

Recommended for you

At Saturn, one of these rings is not like the others

September 2, 2015

When the sun set on Saturn's rings in August 2009, scientists on NASA's Cassini mission were watching closely. It was the equinox—one of two times in the Saturnian year when the sun illuminates the planet's enormous ring ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Image: Hubble sees a youthful cluster

August 31, 2015

Shown here in a new image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the globular cluster NGC 1783. This is one of the biggest globular clusters in the Large Magellanic ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.