NASA’s new ‘lunar backpack’ can generate 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, walks through the Cinder Cone in New Mexico’s Potrillo Volcanic Field in late 2021, testing the planet-sized prototype ‘a backpack for NASA’s Kinematic Navigational and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK), a mobile lidar scanner currently in development to support lunar exploration and science missions. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

Consider a mountaineering expedition in a totally unexplored environment, where hikers have the ability to generate a real-time 3D map of the terrain. " data-gt-translate-attributes='[{"attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"}]'>Nasa researchers and industry partners have developed a remote sensing mapping system that will help explorers in one of the most remote regions imaginable: the airless wastelands of the Moon’s south pole.

The Kinematic Navigation and Mapping Backpack (KNaCK) is a mobile lidar scanner – a remote sensing technology that measures distance using light detection and laser light. It is worn like a hiking backpack and uses an innovative type of lidar called frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) lidar to deliver Doppler speed and range for millions of data points per second. These measurement points generate a real-time navigation system, providing the explorer with a 3D “point cloud” or high-resolution representation of the surrounding environment.

Think of it as a supercharged version of the laser range finders used by surveyors or the incredibly sensitive proximity alarms that help smart cars avoid crashes, according to planetary scientist Dr. Michael Zanetti, who leads the KNaCK project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Washington. NASA in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Basically, the sensor is a surveying tool for navigation and scientific mapping, capable of creating ultra-high resolution 3D maps with centimeter precision and giving them rich scientific context,” Zanetti said. “It will also help keep astronauts and mobile vehicles safe in a GPS-less environment such as the Moon, by identifying true distances to distant landmarks and showing explorers in real time how far they have traveled and the remaining distance to go to reach their destination.

It’s a major challenge as Artemis-era explorers prepare to undertake the first modern missions to the Moon, and the very first to its South Pole. The Sun here never rises more than 3 degrees above the lunar horizon, leaving much of the terrain in deep shadow. This makes distances to various points of interest difficult to observe.

UAV Drone Landing KNaCK Technology

This video of a UAV drone landing in the dusty New Mexico desert shows how KNaCK technology – leveraging 4D FMCW-lidar data from NASA supplier Aeva Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. – combines high video imagery live, real-time definition, as seen on the top left panel; lidar telemetry data, top right; and Doppler lidar velocity data. The latter tracks the speed and direction of dust particles kicked up by the descending drone, with red indicating particles moving away from the scanner and blue indicating those moving towards it. Such capabilities, currently under development by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, could benefit future science missions to other worlds in addition to enabling real-time topographic mapping by explorers. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

Launched in 2020 with funding from NASA’s Early Career Initiative, the KNaCK project has partnered with Torch Technologies Inc. of Huntsville to develop the prototype backpack and associated navigation algorithms that enable accurate mapping without GPS. The project’s commercial supplier, Aeva Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is providing FMCW-lidar sensors and support, working with NASA to improve the backpack lidar detection system for use on the Moon and to Other Extraplanetary Human Excursions.

Using KNaCK on rover excursions and while traveling on foot, explorers could accurately map the topography of the landscape, including deep ravines, mountains, and caves. Lidar works even in total darkness, relieving astronauts of the need to carry cumbersome lighting rigs wherever they go.

“As humans, we tend to orient ourselves based on landmarks — a specific building, a grove of trees,” Zanetti said. “These things don’t exist on the Moon. KNaCK will continuously allow explorers traversing the surface to determine their movement, direction, and orientation to distant peaks or their base of operations. They can even mark specific sites where they’ve found a unique mineral or rock formation, so others can easily return for further study.

It’s vital for astronauts on a clock, their excursions limited by the oxygen supply in their suits. KNaCK’s ultra-high resolution accuracy — an order of magnitude better than conventional lunar topography maps and elevation models — makes it a vital resource for conducting science and mission operations 238,900 miles from mission control, a said Zanetti.

The hardware will undergo another major field test in late April at NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) in Kilbourne Hole, New Mexico. The team previously put the KNaCK system through its paces in this ancient volcanic crater – estimated to be between 25,000 and 80,000 years old – in November 2021. They also used it recently to perform a 3D reconstruction of the Barrier Reef dunes. 6-mile-long sea at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which protects its main rocket launch pads. Kennedy and Marshall engineers will continue to use KNaCK to assess the impact of storms on dune erosion, ensuring the safety of future flight missions as they refine the system.

Next, the KNaCK team will work to miniaturize the hardware — the prototype backpack weighs around 40 pounds — and harden the sensitive electronics against the punitive effects of microgravity and solar radiation.

“Leveraging the latest advances in lidar technology from Aeva, our space-hardened next-generation unit with support from Torch Technologies will be roughly the size of a soda can and could enable surface operations. moon like never before,” Zanetti said. He plans to mount it on a rover or on the side of an astronaut’s helmet – which should leave plenty of room in future moon climbers’ all-purpose backpacks.

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