NASA’s new ‘Moon Backpack’ can create a real-time 3D terrain map to help lunar explorers

Michael Zanetti, a NASA planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, raises a cinder cone in New Mexico’s Potrillo volcanic field in late 2021, testing the backpack-sized prototype of NASA’s Navigation and Mapping (KNaCK) backpack. A portable lidar scanner is now being developed to support lunar exploration and science missions. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

Think of a mountain climbing expedition in a completely unfamiliar environment, where hikers had the ability to create a 3D map of the terrain in real time.

This video of a drone landing in a dusty New Mexico desert shows how it uses KNaCK technology — which uses 4D FMCW data from NASA Aeva Inc. Shown in the upper left panel; Data LIDAR bandwidth, upper right corner; And Doppler velocity data to deal with. The latter tracks the speed and direction of dust particles moved by the descending drone, with red indicating dust particles moving away from the scanner and blue indicating those moving towards it. These features, now being developed by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, could benefit future science missions to other worlds as well as enable real-time topographic mapping by explorers. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

The KNaCK project began in 2020 with funding from the NASA Early Career Initiative, in partnership with Torch Technologies Inc. in Huntsville to develop the backpack prototype and associated navigation algorithms that enable accurate mapping without GPS. Commercial seller of the project, Aeva Inc. in Mountain View, California, to provide sensors and support the FMCW deal, and work with NASA to improve the backpack’s sensing system for use on the Moon and in other human missions beyond the planet.

Using KNaCK during expeditions and when traveling on foot, explorers can accurately map the terrain of a landscape, including deep valleys, mountains, and caves. Lidar even works on your lions, relieving astronauts from carrying heavy lighting devices wherever they go.

“We as humans tend to orient ourselves based on landmarks — a specific building, a grove of trees,” Zanetti said. “These things do not exist on the Moon. KNaCK will constantly allow explorers passing by the surface to determine their movement and direction and direct them to distant peaks or their base of operations. They can even pinpoint specific locations where they have found some unique mineral or rock formations, so that others can easily return for further studies” .

This is vital for astronauts 24 hours a day, as their flights are limited by the supply of oxygen in their suits. Zanetti said KNaCK’s high-resolution resolution — an order of magnitude larger than conventional lunar terrain maps and elevation models — makes it a vital resource for carrying out scientific operations and missions within 238,900 miles of mission control.

The device will undergo another major field test in late April at NASA’s Virtual Solar System Exploration Research Institute (SSERVI) in Kilburn Hall, New Mexico. The team had already tested the KNaCK system on that ancient volcanic crater – estimated to be 25,000-80,000 years old – in November 2021. They also recently used it to perform a 3-D reconstruction of the 6-mile-long sand dunes at Kennedy Space Center for NASA in Florida, which protects the primary rocket launch pads. Engineers Kennedy and Marshall will continue to use KNaCK to assess the impact of storms on dune erosion, ensuring the safety of future flight missions as they improve the system.

Next, the KNaCK team will work on miniaturizing the devices – a typical backpack weighs about 40 kilograms – and strengthening sensitive electronics against the opposite effects of microgravity and solar radiation.

“Leveraging the latest advances in Aeva’s lidar technology, the next generation of our space-hardened unit, powered by Torch technologies, will be the size of a soda can and can enable operations on the Moon like never before,” Zanetti said. . He envisions it being mounted on a carriage or on the side of an astronaut’s helmet – which should leave plenty of room in multi-purpose backpacks for future moon-climbers.

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