Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Virtual Field Work

By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member Trevor Graff (Planetary Geologist)

This is my third year as part of NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team. In 2010, I was a member of the science team and supported the GeoLab operations in the Deep Space Habitat (DSH). I was part of the field science team in Arizona again in 2011, in addition to having the unique opportunity to train and prepare as a backup crew member. This year I’m one of the prime crew members for RATS 2012.

As a geologist, I greatly enjoy being in the field – exploring, mapping, sampling and analyzing the rocks, soil, and terrain. Geologist crew members for RATS get to apply the years of knowledge and experience we’ve gained from our field and lab work to exploration missions beyond our Earth. Our “field” environment for this year’s test is extremely unique.

Unlike many of the previous RATS tests conducted in the field in Arizona, this year we are exploring an actual asteroid. Well… sort of. Let me explain. This year’s test, conducted here at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), has us exploring the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. This is accomplished in a few very cool ways. First, our vehicle (the Generation 2A Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle or MMSEV) is in front of a large simulation screen that displays the asteroid in front of us. Using data and imagery from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa mission – that visited, landed, and returned samples from Itokawa – the simulated asteroid looks and moves just like the real thing.

RATS crew members Marc and Trevor running an asteroid mission simulation from within the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

This extremely realistic simulation allows us to fly around, approach, and anchor to the asteroid, all while monitoring our flight controls, propellant usage and many other factors. Once we approach or anchor to the asteroid, one or more of us will perform a simulated spacewalk, also known as an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). This involves two additional very cool aspects of this year’s testing.

For EVAs, we either go to the Virtual Reality Laboratory (VR Lab) or to the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS). In the VR Lab, we put on a special set of glasses that allows us to view and explore the asteroid as if we were in a space suit external to the MMSEV. From here we can fly to and sample the asteroid – getting our “hands dirty” in the virtual reality world. The other EVA option is to get strapped into ARGOS. The ARGOS facility provides the ability to offload our weight to simulate weightlessness, all while conducting our exploration and sampling of the simulated asteroid surface.

RATS crew member performs a simulated spacewalk using the ARGOS system.

RATS crew member performs a simulated spacewalk using the ARGOS system.

Analog missions like this one are vital in providing the data that will influence the development of mission architectures and technology critical to future human spaceflight. As a scientist, it’s great to be a part of helping evaluate and develop the equipment, techniques, and strategies that will eventually take us to places like asteroids and on to Mars!