Arizona stands in for the Moon and Mars
For two weeks every year, NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies group (Desert RATS) conducts state-of-the-art technology development tests in the Arizona desert at Black Point Lava Flow in anticipation of future human and robotic exploration. Teams of engineers and geologists from several NASA laboratories and a variety of private and academic partners are participating in this year’s test, many with ties to ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
This year’s 14-day exercise, aimed at training people and testing equipment in a simulated mission environment comparable to the surface of the Moon or Mars, officially kicked off Aug. 30, at Black Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff, Ariz. The area was originally identified as a candidate lunar analog site during the Apollo era. With challenging topography and lunar and Martian analog geomorphology and geology, this high-elevation desert terrain is ideal for testing technologies and procedures for future human-robotic exploration in extreme extraterrestrial environments.
The mission will simulate the operational requirements of a mission to the Malapert Massif region of the Moon (located along the South Pole-Aitken Basin), which has been suggested as a site for future lunar exploration.
“Explorers are eager to trek across the surface of the Moon or Mars, but our planet offers several sites that mimic otherworldly landscapes – minus the hefty price tag and the long travel time,” said Kip Hodges, a Desert RATS science team leader and the founding director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We’re fortunate to have an analog site nearby, not only for our students but also for the expanding aerospace industry in Arizona.”
Research in astronomy, planetary sciences and space sciences is one of Arizona’s core competencies, with ASU serving as a premier center for space research and education. The state’s solid foundation in this sector is based on a legacy of involvement with NASA missions and bolstered by the continued collaboration amongst industry professionals, academia and private institutes in Arizona.
“The School of Earth and Space Exploration continues to play a pivotal role in this exciting era of exploration as evidenced by the involvement of many past and present members of the SESE community in the Desert RATS test,” Hodges said.
Desert RATS 2010 involves field testing two space exploration vehicles (SEVs), each carrying a crew of one astronaut and one geologist, which will be traversing a series of lava flows and volcanic cones to test the integration of multiple systems, including communications, power, mission ops, robotics, human factors and science. The science component of the project is being led by ASU geological sciences alum Dean Eppler, and the science team includes graduate student Liz Rampe and postdoctoral scholar Brian Monteleone. Of the four geologists involved as crew, three have ASU connections: geological sciences alums Jake Bleacher and Jim Rice, and current student Kelsey Young. In addition, several ASU and University of Maryland undergraduates involved with Project RAVEN have been invited to demonstrate their award-winning astronaut assistance rover on-site Sept. 15 and 16.
Young and her crewmate Stephanie Wilson, a current NASA astronaut, will spend seven days living in the rover and completing extravehicular activity (EVA) in a mock space suit to collect samples and make observations about the landscape. Their traverses will include driving up and down steep slopes and over rough terrain at various speeds. The crew will also demonstrate docking and undocking with the mobile charging stations for equipment known as PUPs (short for Portable Utility Pallets). Other objectives for the rovers include demonstrating the differences in productivity for crew members and their ground support that come with different communication methods, and evaluating different operational concepts for the trips the rovers make.
The astronaut crewmembers will be the primary drivers as they are more familiar with operations associated with active missions – three of the four astronaut crewmembers have flown multiple space shuttle missions. The geologist crewmembers will act as the “mission specialists”, assisting their partners with driving and logistics as much as possible, but primarily responsible for achieving the scientific goals of the test.
”Driving the rover is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Young said. “But driving it is nothing like driving a car. It’s controlled with a joystick that can move the rover up, down, forward, backward and even sideways, a move called crabbing.”
Young spent most of the summer at Johnson Space Center learning to drive and live in the rover. According to her, the rover drives fairly smooth, for the most part, with the exception of maneuvering across monster craters and huge boulder fields.
The rover, with its active suspension and 12-wheel chassis, has the ability to move up and down incredibly steep (~30 degree) slopes, even while carrying several thousand pounds of payload. If the cabin were to be removed, the chassis can literally “drive up” a vertical wall – it can get 8 of 12 wheels up off the ground onto a wall.
“While an important part of the test is to demonstrate the rover capabilities, a far more important task is to combine the efforts of multiple teams into one successful mission scenario,” said Young, who is combining geology and engineering to explore issues associated with manned space exploration as part of her PhD dissertation research.
An important part of the test involves human factors, since conducting EVAs in the desert in the summer while wearing 45-pound packs full of cameras and electronic equipment can be taxing. In addition to reporting their calorie intake, the crew is also required to complete surveys several times per day to evaluate their physical and mental health.
“The chase team following each rover will only interfere in life-threatening situations,” Young said. “They could be standing 2 feet outside the rover when it breaks down, but we, as the crew, are the first line of defense in the event of a rover malfunction. The chase team is instructed not to give us any information in the event of a breakdown – unless it is something that would take many hours to resolve.”
But that is exactly what this simulation is designed to do: test realistic exploration scenarios. Astronauts on the Moon or Mars can’t wave over an engineer to fix a problem. These crew members need to be cross-trained and equipped to handle whatever is thrown at them. Hardware and concepts must be tested in a real-world environment with real geology, slopes, rocks, dust, and the unexpected; it can’t be done in a controlled laboratory. Obviously, northern Ariz. is not the Moon or Mars – there is atmosphere to breath, the temperatures are moderate compared to other planetary surfaces, and it is easy to get to – but valuable lessons are learned here on Earth.
“In short, we can test operations here in a way that makes them analogous to a human planetary surface mission, and this allows us to learn how to work on other planets before we take the risk and effort to send humans there,” Eppler said. “If we test an approach that doesn’t work, for instance, we know not to implement that for a real mission, and we learn that in a way that costs less, saves time in the future, and doesn’t put the human crew at risk.”
“For me, the most exciting part is to provide feedback to the engineers and over several seasons to see those inputs lead to improved technologies that will enable science to be conducted by astronauts on other planetary surfaces,” Bleacher said. “I find it very rewarding to be involved with teams like Desert RATS to help develop protocols and hardware for future human missions.”
“Being involved in the formative stages of the SEV (rover) design, development and operational field testing is remarkable experience,” Rice said. “Of course conducting the geology EVA’s is also a high point.”
Geology is an important foundation for space exploration. According to Eppler, a good geologist is not just someone who works in the lab or an imaging facility, but has the education and experience that gets them into the field where the rocks are.
“The geologic education folks receive in SESE is really good and, equally important, it emphasizes the breadth of the geological sciences today,” Eppler said. “At a time when many geology departments are placing less emphasis on field studies, ASU has been one of the consistent leaders in giving their students, both undergraduate and graduate, a firm foundation in both field and laboratory work.”
Rampe, who works as the documentarian for the Strategic Science Operations Team (SSOT), credits her educational background as preparing her for the experience – specifically ASU Professor Ron Greeley’s planetary geosciences class, which helped her understand the geological context of the tests.
Rampe is responsible for recording the team members’ discussions and decisions as they look at the data received from the rover, assess to what degree the science goals were met for the day, and make plans for the next day’s traverses.
“Nearly every class I took while working on my Ph.D. at ASU included field work,” Bleacher said. ”This is a fundamental background that is not necessarily stressed in all planetary science groups in academia but which will be necessary as NASA looks towards sending humans to other Solar System bodies.”
Geologists such as Bleacher, Rice and Young in the rovers, as well as folks in the backrooms like Monteleone and Rampe, have a breadth of experience and a quality of education that is a cut above the rest, making them prime candidates to help figure out how to do planetary surface operations.
“While we may not go back to the Moon or travel to Mars by 2020, humans will visit other planetary bodies and, when that happens, tests like Desert RATS will be crucial in providing the technology and mission ops procedures to get us there,” Young said. ”This test is a great example of a field exercise that combines science, communications, robotics, and mission operational procedures. Tests like this one not only cross disciplines, but they bridge people in the space exploration and geology communities from all across the country.”