model in water

Here’s What Actually Happens Inside Our Lunar Lab

Water is a precious resource – especially on the Moon! In the near future, robotic rovers may roam the Moon’s poles in search of hidden reservoirs of water beneath the lunar surface. But traversing the poles can be a perilous journey. Depending on the Sun’s position in the sky and the way that its light falls on the surface, hazards such as boulders and craters can be difficult, if not impossible, to see. 

Inside our Lunar Lab at Ames Research Center, researchers are using Hollywood light kits and a giant sandbox filled with 8 tons of artificial Moon dirt to simulate driving conditions at the poles. The research aims to provide rovers and their human supervisors with 3-D hazard maps of the Moon’s terrain, helping them to avoid potential obstacles that lie ahead. 

Here’s how it works:

STEP 1: GENERATE A MOON MAP

Researchers begin with a map of the Moon’s terrain that’s randomly generated by a computer. Each scene is based on observations made from lunar orbit. The map indicates the number, location and size of features like rocks and craters that should be placed inside the 12x12-foot testbed.

STEP 2: BUILD A MOONSCAPE

Using the map as a guide, researchers build the terrain by hand with everyday tools. The terrain is then dusted with a top layer of artificial Moon dirt to eliminate shovel and brush marks.

STEP 3: CAPTURE IMAGES

Lights are positioned at different locations around the testbed. One by one, the lights are switched on and off while a camera captures images of the terrain. Notice how the appearance of the terrain changes depending on the source of illumination.

STEP 4: CREATE A 3-D MODEL

Using a computer algorithm, a 3-D hazard detection model of the terrain is generated from the images. The model provides important information about the size of an obstacle, its height and where it’s located.

STEP 5: GO EXPLORING

With this technique, researchers can teach a rover to recognize the effect of different lighting conditions on the Moon’s poles. The tool could come in handy for future lunar rover missions like Resource Prospector, which will use a drill to search for subsurface water and other compounds on the Moon.

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