As the United States prepares to visit the surface of the Moon once again, scientists from the RIS4E node of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), led by researchers from the Stony Brook University College of Arts and Sciences, are partnering with Astrobotic Technology to demonstrate the robotic technologies needed to explore and study our nearest neighbor’s most interesting and challenging destinations.
This past April, the RIS4E SSERVI team, led by Timothy Glotch, professor in the Department of Geosciences, was joined at a field test site in New Mexico by the Astrobotic Future Missions and Technology team to demonstrate several key technologies required for robotic and human missions to explore lunar skylight , a means of accessing the subsurface of the Moon. Testing together, the science and engineering teams were able to refine a vision for lunar subsurface exploration.
SSERVI researchers have been working to analyze the capabilities of compact and deployable instruments needed to collect and characterize geologic samples in the field. The field site, known as the Potrillo Volcanic Field, has volcanic features analogous to those found on the Moon and Mars, and the collaboration between the teams sought to address the challenges of conducting extra-planetary geologic data and sample collection from autonomous aerial science platforms.
Due to its unique features, the Potrillo Lava field has served as a venue for planetary geologists and NASA astronauts since the Apollo program. In Potrillo, RIS4E team members conducted geologic fieldwork, incorporating sophisticated hand-held scientific instruments, including a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, an X-ray diffractometer, and a hyperspectral infrared camera, into geologic studies similar to what astronauts might one day perform on the Moon.
“The Potrillo Volcanic Field is a fantastic analog site for lunar and Martian volcanic terrains,” Glotch said. “Stony Brook faculty and students were able to test new technologies, conduct scientific inquiries, and engage in realistic human exploration scenarios.”
Under a research contract with NASA, Astrobotic has developed a custom navigation software product, known as AstroNav, to give small free-flying spacecraft the ability to autonomously explore lunar lava tubes. Meanwhile, advances in both areas are paving the way for future missions that are far more dynamic and autonomous than those possible today. To explore sub-surface environments on the Moon, Astrobotic’s AstroNav performs both stereo vision- and LiDAR-based navigation, works without GPS or previously stored maps (neither of which exist in this environment), and can perform in real-time while an aerial spacecraft explores a novel environment at a high rate of speed.
“Astrobotic provided a lot of added value to the team,” said Glotch. “They were able to contribute substantial engineering expertise and bring in new ideas for potential science and exploration technologies.”
The RIS4E field team is one of of 13 teams within SSERVI, based and managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and is composed of faculty, students, and research scientists from Stony Brook University, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and several other institutions. RIS4E team members are engaged in a variety of activities, including laboratory spectroscopic studies, theoretical calculations, sample analysis, and geologic field work, designed to further NASA’s science and exploration goals related to the Moon, the moons of Mars, and near-Earth asteroids.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense