Tuesday February 27, 2024

NASA's new 'lifelike' lab lets you experience conditions on moon

NASA claims that new lab model's ultra-realistic lighting and landscape accurately reflect lunar conditions

By Web Desk
February 02, 2023
Testing of the VIPER light system prototype in the Ames Lunar Lab (B503).— NASA
Testing of the VIPER light system prototype in the Ames Lunar Lab (B503).— NASA

Scientists from NASA are displaying their own model of the moon, which they claim accurately replicates the real one in every way. 

According to the space agency, this new lab model's ultra-realistic lighting and landscape accurately reflect lunar conditions. In order to prepare future robots, rovers, and astronauts for missions to the polar regions of the actual Moon, scientists now have two main types of lunar surfaces at their disposal.

At NASA's Ames Research Centre in California, two sizable indoor "sandboxes" are filled with tonnes of artificial lunar dust in the so-called Lunar Lab and Regolith Testbed buildings. The team can accurately mimic most regions of the Moon using both testbeds. The Regolith Testbed has allowed NASA's new Moon rover, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) team, to test how well its lighting and hazard avoidance cameras manage the extremely low-angle illumination it will encounter while studying the Moon's South Pole.

NASA recently renovated the facility, adding a second, larger testbed, loaded with more than 20 tonnes of light grey Lunar Highlands Simulant-1 (LHS-1), replacing a first moonscape that had been in operation for several years. It has dimensions of 62 feet by 13 feet by 1 foot and can be changed to create a testbed that is smaller yet deeper.

The first sandbox at the site is the largest collection of Johnson Space Centre One simulant (JSC-1A) in the world, measuring roughly 13 feet by 13 feet by 1.5 feet and containing eight tonnes of the substance. The JSC-1A simulant is dark grey in hue and resembles the basins of the Moon.

The Lunar Lab has allowed research scientists and engineers from NASA and the private space sector to investigate how effectively science equipment, robots, and people might be able to safely work, manipulate, navigate, and traverse the challenging lunar landscape. The Testbed also enables study that is applicable to bodies other than the Moon, such as Mercury, neighbouring asteroids, and moons covered in regolith, like Phobos on Mars.

The terrain the Apollo astronauts encountered is considerably different from the polar regions of the Moon. At the lunar South Pole, rovers and astronauts will have to navigate in low-angle lighting and get around harsh solar glare that makes it challenging to see. Even the smallest boulder or crater will cast a long shadow. The Sun will occasionally burn at eye level as it reflects off the ground.

“Sometimes researchers painstakingly shape the dust with hand tools to recreate, as accurately as possible, features astronauts and rovers are likely to encounter,” the NASA team explained in a media release.

“These include tiny pits and small craters measuring as small as a couple feet to a few yards across. It may also mean placing small rocks and other debris to resemble actual places observed by Moon-orbiting spacecraft.”

A pair of strong, powerful lights that mimic the Sun's dazzling rays distinguish the Testbed from other similar systems. Researchers are able to faithfully reproduce lighting conditions that are pertinent to sites on the poles of the Moon and during a variety of lunar eras, including the past, present, and future.