NASA is testing a remotely operated planetary rover and an advanced prototype spacesuit in southern California this week to see how robots and humans might someday work best together to explore other planets.
A team of scientists and engineers from NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC), Moffett Field, CA, and Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston, TX, is conducting the first field test involving the Russian-built Marsokhod and a geologist wearing a NASA advanced prototype spacesuit. Dubbed the Astronaut-Rover Interaction for Planetary Surface Exploration (ASRO) experiment, the four-day primary science mission was conducted Feb. 22-25 in the Mojave Desert, east of Los Angeles; a public demonstration will be held on Feb. 27.
The rover activity is led by Ames, while JSC provided the spacesuit, visual-tracking software, and associated human space exploration expertise. Together, the team hopes to develop a synergistic relationship between the two explorers.
"We want to obtain a preliminary assessment of human interaction with a rover for future planetary exploration, and find out how they can best help each other," explained ASRO Project Science Leader Dr. Nathalie Cabrol of Ames. "We want to be ready when it is time to start human surface exploration on other planets."
"NASA envisions future planetary surface spacewalks to be a cooperative effort, with robots assisting humans to increase productivity during these time-limited excursions away from the base station," said Robert Yowell of the Extravehicular Activity Projects Office at JSC.
The ASRO Project should improve the safety and performance of human surface operations, and therefore help minimize the cost of human planetary missions. Specifically, the team hopes to learn how the rover and the astronauts can collaborate in various operational tasks, leading to recommendations for improving the designs of future advanced spacesuits and rovers.
"The test is part of a continuing NASA effort to better identify the challenges facing future human explorers of other worlds, and the technologies that will be needed to meet those challenges," explained Joyce Carpenter, Deputy Manager of the JSC Exploration Office. "While we are in the early stages of learning how to explore other planets, NASA has not identified any specific human missions beyond Earth's orbit."
NASA acquired the Marsokhod rover from Russia and equipped it with improved avionics, computers and science instruments. It features six titanium wheels, a robotic arm to pick up soil samples and stereo video cameras mounted on a pan-and-tilt platform to transmit live images of the field test via a satellite back to scientists at Ames. The 165-pound (75-kilogram) rover is three feet (one meter) wide and 4.5 feet (1.5 meters) long, with a mast that extends about 4.5 feet high to hold the cameras.
The spacesuit is constructed primarily of fabric, with ball bearings that allow the wearer to move more easily when the suit is inflated to 3.75 pounds per square inch above the local pressure, as it would be on the Moon or Mars. A self-contained liquid air backpack provides life support, cooling, communications and power. The suit and backpack have a weight of about 150 pounds (68 kilograms) on Earth.
JSC geologist Dean Eppler wore the spacesuit during the test. The Marsokhod served as a scout and videographer, transmitting advance images of the site and the geologist's activities back to Ames and JSC. The rover is equipped with JSC-developed software that should allow it to automatically track the human explorer's progress and move in response. In addition, the rover was designed to assist the astronaut by documenting science targets, and carrying rock samples and spacewalking tools. Although the field tests are not open to the public, project scientists plan to showcase the Marsokhod rover and the new spacesuit during a public demonstration following the science mission. The demonstration will be conducted in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management on Saturday, Feb. 27, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. PST at the Barstow High School stadium, First and Campus Way, Barstow, CA. For more information about the public demonstration, please contact Gina Robison at the Bureau of Land Management at 760/252-6000.
Information about the Barstow school can be found on the school's web site: http://www.barstow.k12.ca.us/bhs/
The public web site for the Marsokhod field test is located at: http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/ltc/special/mars/
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