New Project To Develop GPS-Like System For Moon

July 21, 2008,
This artist's rendering shows an astronaut's-eye view of the lunar navigation system that Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues are developing. Image by Kevin Gecsi, courtesy of Ohio State University

The same Ohio State University researcher who is helping rovers navigate on Mars is leading a new effort to help humans navigate on the moon.

When NASA returns to the moon -- the space agency has set a target date of 2020 to do so -- astronauts won't be able to use a global positioning system (GPS) to find their way around, explained Ron Li, the Lowber B. Strange Designated Professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science.

The moon doesn't have satellites to send GPS signals.

So NASA has awarded Li $1.2 million over the next three years to develop a navigation system that will feel a lot like GPS to the astronauts that use it, but will rely on signals from a set of sensors including lunar beacons, stereo cameras, and orbital imaging sensors.

Li described the project in a poster session Monday at the NLSI Lunar Science Conference, held at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The new grant grew out of Li's ongoing development of software for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Researchers have learned a lot about navigation from exploring the red planet. New technology -- sensors, inertial navigation systems, cameras, computer processors, and image processors -- will make the next trip to the moon easier for astronauts.

People are used to having certain visual cues to judge distances, such as the size of a building or another car on the horizon, Li explained. But the moon has no such cues. Getting lost, or misjudging a distant object's size and location would be easy, and extremely dangerous.

He described incidents during past lunar missions when astronauts were traveling to a target site such as a crater, and got within a few yards of it -- but couldn't see the crater because of difficult terrain.

"They were so close, but they had to turn back for safety's sake," he said.

Keeping astronauts safe will be a top priority for Li's team, which includes experts in psychology and human-computer interaction as well as engineering.

"We will help with navigation, but also with astronauts' health as well," Li said. "We want them to avoid the stress of getting lost, or getting frustrated with the equipment. Lunar navigation isn't just a technology problem, it's also biomedical."

Li explained how the system will work: images taken from orbit will combine with images from the surface to create maps of lunar terrain; motion sensors on lunar vehicles and on the astronauts themselves will allow computers to calculate their locations; signals from lunar beacons, the lunar lander, and base stations will give astronauts a picture of their surroundings similar to what drivers see when using a GPS device on Earth. The researchers have named the entire system the Lunar Astronaut Spatial Orientation and Information System (LASOIS).

Li, who leads Ohio State's Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Laboratory, will work with Kaichang Di, a research scientist, and Alper Yilmaz, an assistant professor, both of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science. Yilmaz works in the the university's Photogrammetric Computer Vision Laboratory.

LASOIS partners at NASA Glenn Research Center will convert a pre-existing communications beacon to do double-duty for communication and navigation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers will design the touch-pad that astronauts will wear -- possibly on the arm of their space suits, Li said -- to view their location and search for new destinations. University of California, Berkeley, researchers will work out the visual cues that astronauts will need to find their way, and study the kinds of psychological stress they will experience.

According to Li's plan, the team will create a prototype navigation system, then travel to the Mojave Desert to test and refine it. The third year would possibly be spent testing the system on NASA astronauts.

NASA would then have several years to incorporate the navigation system into its other lunar technologies before 2020.

Source: Ohio State University

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5 / 5 (3) Jul 21, 2008
Thank God, Im simply fed up with getting lost on the moon.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2008
yes lets go a long way away and feel right at home.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2008
Heaven forbid we have to pack those annoying and hard to fold maps, although I wonder: Does a compass work on the moon?
3.3 / 5 (3) Jul 22, 2008
i had thought "why not put some satellite around the moon, like on earth".

Two reasons why not to do this:
1) costs too much. Thats obvious
2) surprisingly, gravity is not uniform around the moon! its varies drastically and nothing can be in any orbit around the moon for very long without flying away or correcting for the non-uniform gravity field. Earths gravity also varies, but not so drastically like the moon's.

4 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2008
Really? if the moon's gravity is non- uniform, that suggests it could have large cavities inside. Either that or super dense areas. I wouldnt think the differnence in rock densities could be all that huge, but it would make sense to me that there would be gargantuan voids and cave systems in the moon, since it has less gravity to crunch its self together, and it was probably formed in a cataclysm, it seems reasonable. Anyone have any evidence for my hollow moon theory?
not rated yet Aug 22, 2008
no hollow moon theory. its fact. just like the gravity appears to vary across the earth

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Commentary on the Moon's Gravity

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