What’s it like to explore the surfaces of other planets? Two scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are finding out by taking part in the annual Desert Research and Technology Studies, or Desert RATS, project here on Earth. They will travel to the Arizona desert, a field location chosen to simulate possible sites of future planetary exploration missions.
It’s a cheaper, easier way for NASA to train crews and test equipment, and those who participate learn a lot about what will or won’t work during real flight missions. During the field campaign, engineers and field geologists will conduct tests on multiple exploration assets currently under development by NASA, such as new rovers, robots, suits, and habitats.
The Desert RATS 2010 mission involves the field testing of two space exploration vehicles that could, in the future, allow astronauts to spend two or more weeks living, working, and traveling across different planetary surfaces. This year, astronauts will use two such vehicles to explore a lava flow in Arizona and test data-collection methods, communications protocols, mission operations, and advanced technology during week-long traverses.
This year the campaign highlights how to best use two rovers and two crews at the same time—something that has never been done before. The team will look at how different communication scenarios affect scientific productivity. For instance, is it better for the crew to be in constant communication with Mission Control and a science back room, or is the crew just as effective if they only communicate with those teams twice a day? Because the geology in the study areas is already well understood, they can compare their Desert RATS investigation results with previous work to see how well they can do similar work using the new NASA technologies.
The NASA hardware being demonstrated for the 2010 mission includes:
The centerpiece of these tests over the past three years has been a prototype planetary rover called the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). During traverses, investigations can be conducted from within the cabin environment using a suite of cameras and other sensors. The crew can also conduct spacewalks facilitated by the innovative “suitport” hatches that allow relatively quick egress/ingress; this greatly increases the flexibility of spacewalks.
In the future, astronauts will need surface mobility to explore multiple sites across the lunar and Martian surfaces. In the SEV surface concept, the small, pressurized cabin is mounted on a wheeled chassis that would enable mobile exploration. These two components could be delivered to the planetary surface pre-integrated or as separate elements.
This SEV can provide the astronauts’ main mode of transportation, and, unlike the unpressurized Apollo lunar rover, also allow them to work on long excursions without the restrictions imposed by spacesuits.
Desert RATS is sponsored by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. and is managed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.