Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Mission Day 2

By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member David Coan, an engineer with United Space Alliance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Mission Day 2 was an exciting day for the pilot in all of us. We changed plans up from our usual days of collecting rocks out on a “spacewalk” (Extra Vehicular Activity or EVA) to do some more challenging flying tasks. Our new mission today was to pilot the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) down to several different asteroids that spin at a variety of rates. These asteroids varied from relatively easy, slowly spinning objects to ones that moved at rates such that the ground seemed to whiz by quickly underneath the spacecraft.

The Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) viewed from outside during the RATS simulated mission; video screens in front of the MMSEV windows project images of the asteroid as crew members pilot the MMSEV. Photo credit: NASA

The Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) viewed from outside during the RATS simulated mission; video screens in front of the MMSEV windows project images of the asteroid as crew members pilot the MMSEV. Photo credit: NASA

Once we rendezvoused with our target on the ground, we had to manually pilot the MMSEV to station keep, or in other words hold the spacecraft in one small spot such that an EVA crewmember on the end of the arm could collect samples. Our station keeping goal was to keep the spacecraft to within a half meter of a given location. While that may sound easy, when the ground is moving quickly under you in unexpected directions, and you have limited visual cues out the windows, it becomes challenging to hold position in one spot. This is made even more complicated by trying to maneuver the spacecraft manually in all six axis (forward/back, left/right, up/down, roll, pitch, and yaw).

Once we completed our planned flying evaluations, we even had the opportunity to try out some potential techniques for holding the MMSEV steady at a worksite. This technique had us use a telescoping pole (‘stinger’) sticking out the front of the vehicle to help ‘stick’ us to the ground. Basically, we flew the MMSEV directly at the asteroid and pushed the ‘stinger’ into the ground, using light thrust to keep it buried. In theory, this would help us stay in one location, though the asteroid rotation rates made it challenging to stay balanced on our spacecraft sized pogo stick. But, it all made for a fun and exciting of day of piloting on an asteroid.

Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Mission Day 1

By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member David Coan, an engineer with United Space Alliance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Trevor and I started the day by getting sealed up in the Multi-MissionSpace Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) to kick off the RATS 2012 simulated asteroid mission. Thevehicle looks rather small from the outside, but on the inside it seemsto be just roomy enough. Packing can be a little tricky, since there’sjust enough space crammed into every conceivable location, but we got itall in with the help of our Human Factors guru. Once settled in thecabin, we got down to the day’s mission.

Our goal was to virtually “fly” down to theasteroid and have one of us go out on a spacewalk (an Extra Vehicular Activity or EVA) to collect some rock samples. I started off flying theMMSEV, and Trevor headed out the door. To go on an EVA, Trevor used thesuitports in the back of the MMSEV, where his spacesuit was attached onthe outside. He opened the inner hatch, climbed into the suit, closedthe hatch, and then was off on his EVA.

View from inside the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) as the simulated asteroid mission is running. Photo credit: NASA

View from inside the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) as the simulated asteroid mission is running on video screens. Photo credit: NASA

To simulate being on EVA,Trevor headed up to the Virtual Reality Lab, where he donned goggles thatmade it appear to him as if he were near the asteroid. Having Trevorsettled on the front of the MMSEV, I then flew it down to each of thesample sites. With the virtual simulation projected out my frontwindows, it seemed as if I was really on the asteroid. Liz, Allison, andMarc helped a lot by choreographing our mission from the Deep Space Habitat.

Flying the MMSEV was great. It reacted really well to all controlinputs, and it wasn’t too difficult to precision fly near the asteroid surfacewith Trevor’s helmet just inches from the rocks. We worked like that fora couple of hours, and then switched places. Climbing into the Mark IIIspacesuit to egress for my EVA was definitely fun, even though I was onlyin the suit for a few minutes.

Having trained in the space shuttle andspace station airlock mockups, I found using the suitport to be veryquick and easy. Once we were done with our flying tasks, we settled infor our evening tasks. That involved making a freeze dried dinner,setting up our cycle and exercising, and filling out a bunch of datasheets. Exercising in the confined quarters was challenging, and wemostly stuck with using the cycle. We finished the night by configuringour bunks for sleeping, and shutting things down for the night.

Suitports on the outside of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

Suitport with spacesuit on the outside of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

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!

Second Life Desert RATS: A Mixed Reality Meeting in the Desert

Caledonia Heron

Caledonia Heron is participating in a Desert RATS 3-D mission in Second Life.
+ Download a guide to getting started and locating Desert RATS in Second Life (PDF)

By Caledonia Heron
September 1, 2010

(NASA Virtual News) – We’re in the Second Life rover yard this morning, preparing for a D-RATS mixed reality event from the Arizona Black Rock volcanic field. We’ll stream the live, real-world webcast into Second Life’s social media 3-D world to create an immersive, participatory experience for the Second Life community.

The rover yard in Second Life replicates NASA rover activities so users can share in NASA’s compelling story of science and exploration. Mission concepts and technology models are available to everyone in this hands-on, distance-learning environment. Second Life residents are telepresent as they work together and communicate about the design, analysis and performance of space technology and events. This feeling of telepresence creates a collaborative bond that fosters engagement, conversation, feedback and learning.

The rover yard in Second Life

The rover yard for Desert RATS in Second Life.

The NASA eEd island is a venue to investigate education outreach and ultimately the usefulness of conducting science in virtual world platforms. As virtual worlds evolve it’s possible that shared virtual spaces such as Second Life will include the planning, development and training for future D-RATS missions. Scientists and engineers will routinely use desktop 3-D technology to spatially investigate large data sets, explore human factors issues and perform simulated tasks.

Back from the future of virtual worlds to here and now, where Second Life residents are dropping in to participate in the Arizona D-RATS webcast with NASA scientists. During and after the webcast, the conversation spins from what the rovers will be used for, their destinations, the size of the rovers and vehicles to get them to their destinations. The group is a mix of scientists and educators interested in NASA’s work.

NASA eEd Island in Second Life

The NASA eEd Island in Second Life.

You can join the citizen scientist and educator network in Second Life and be a part of virtual NASA at work. Contact the LT Technical Office to have your NASA education project represented. The NASA eEducation island is located in Second Life and sponsored by NASA Learning Technologies, an education technology incubator.

Desert RATS: What now?

By Dr. Jacob Bleacher
Dr. Jacob Bleacher is a Planetary Geologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Bleacher was the geology crew member on rover B during week one.

Now that the field test is over, what will our team be doing? Some of you might have heard that one goal of this field test was to experiment with several different operational modes. Two different exploration strategies that we examined included different approaches to using two rovers at the same time, and two different communications capabilities. The two approaches to using both rovers were called “Lead and Trail” and “Divide and Conquer.”

During “Lead and Trail” operations, both rovers and crew operated in close proximity to each other, often exploring similar geologic terrains. In general, the rovers maintained line of sight, but most important was maintaining communications during these operations. If line of sight and communications were lost for a period of time, both rovers were required to return to the last location in which they had communication with the other rover. In general, this resulted in the rovers being no farther apart than 1-2 km.

During “Divide and Conquer” operations, both rovers were free to explore different geologic terrains without maintaining line of sight or as strict communications. This enabled both crews to cover more ground as a team, but should something go wrong, they would be farther apart from each other and less able to help each other out of trouble.

The two communications scenarios that we tested were called “Two-a-day Comms.” and “Continuous Comms.” Together, these two scenarios represent the opposite extremes of how we might set up our communications capabilities for future missions.

During “Two-a-day Comms,” the crew were not in communication with the science backroom or Mission Control during the day. Crew were responsible for making sure that they arrived to predetermined sites, at which our communications hardware would enable us to touch base with the backrooms. As we slept in the rover overnight, the backrooms would work to download all of the data that we had collected the day before. At the beginning and end of each day, while we were still in communication with the backrooms, we would have meetings to discuss what we had seen during the day, and what the plan was for the new day.

During “Continuous Comms,” the crew were able to communicate directly with both Mission Control and the science team at all times. This enabled the science team to keep track of what we had done all day, and took some pressure off of them while working through the night to interpret all of our data.

As you might suspect, each scenario resulted in slightly different outcomes. As we have read already, the Human Factors team was tasked with keeping track of how the crew physically responded to the work environment, which is strongly influenced by these different scenarios. Meanwhile, the Science Team was keeping close track of which combination of scenarios provided the greatest science value.

Now that the test is over, it’s time for the team to evaluate what the outcome was of these different scenarios. Each scenario will also need to be balanced against the cost it takes to make it happen. So, which one was best? What do you think? Stay tuned. You might very well see the answer to that question in the way that our future missions are designed to send humans to the moon and other planets. And you can say you saw it all unfolding when you kept track of the Desert RATS and other NASA Analog Field Tests.

Space Exploration Vehicles A and B

Space Exploration Vehicles A and B come home at the end of the Desert RATS mission.

Desert RATS: Space Exploration Vehicle Versus Lunar Rover

By Dr. Jacob Bleacher
Dr. Jacob Bleacher is a Planetary Geologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Bleacher was the geology crew member on rover B during week one.

One of the great advantages of the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is the ability for the crew to return to a “shirt sleeve” environment (like your living room) inside the rover, to relax between Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs). In an earlier blog, Dr. Rice mentioned that the Apollo J-Missions (15-17) brought along a rover. This rover enabled their crew to cover much more ground than the earlier Apollo missions and was a great advance for human exploration of another solar system surface. However, the Apollo rover was unpressurized, meaning the crew needed to be in their spacesuits for the entire time, as they roved the lunar surface.

During the J-Missions, crew members were in their pressurized suits for up to 8 hours a day for 3 days of exploration. Operating in a pressurized suit is difficult and can be painful. It is manageable for a short period of time. Future missions to explore the solar system with humans may be longer duration missions, such as 7, 14, 30 days or even longer. If crew members were to use an unpressurized rover for missions of this length, they would be forced to wear their pressurized suits for much longer periods of time than their Apollo forefathers.

As I mentioned before, the suitports help us to keep dust out of the rover. They also give the crew a break between EVAs so they do not feel as much discomfort or exhaustion as a result of wearing pressurized suits all day, every day, during a mission. As Dr. Robert Howard reported in his blog, the human factors team is monitoring how tired we become during EVAs and how quickly we can recover while resting inside the rover. During my week in rover Bravo, we went on one EVA for almost 3 hours, as did the crew of Rover Alpha. In the second week, one crew went on two EVAs in one day that were just as long.

I can say, that at the end of my long EVA, I was very happy to return to the rover. After using the suitport to enter the SEV, I was able to change out of my dirty field shirt and into a clean t-shirt. I was able to stretch out without a heavy backpack on and I even stood in front of the air conditioning vents for a few minutes to help me cool off. Although we don’t have much time to “relax” after an EVA (because we need to head to our next site), it is much more comfortable to sit in a clean t-shirt without a backpack on while navigating and driving (and even eating a snack). Due to the ability to take a break between EVAs, the SEV and its suitports make it reasonable for us to plan missions of a month or more, without causing the crew to suffer from exhaustion.

Lunar rover

Astronaut David Scott must wear a spacesuit while driving the unpressurized lunar rover on the Apollo 15 mission.

Dr. Jacob Bleacher inside rover

Dr. Jacob Bleacher and the other crew members can work in shirt-sleeves inside the Space Exploration Vehicle.

Desert RATS: Black Point Lava Flow, Human Origins and Destiny

By Dr. Jim Rice

Dr. Jim Rice is an Astrogeologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert Rats field test, Dr. Rice will be the geology crew member on rover A in week one, as well as a member of the science backroom for week 2.

Our field site here in northern Arizona allows one to contemplate our human origins and destiny in a very unique way. Now, allow me to explain. The Black Point Lava Flow, where Chris and I started our 7-day mission in Rover Alpha, is 2 million years old. 2 million years is an interesting number in terms of human origins. While the Black Point Lava Flow was being born and flowing as a river of molten rock and fire, our early ancestors, Homo Erectus, were learning to fashion tools out of rock (some were made of basalt – the very same rock type that is at Black Point) and harness fire for the first time in Africa, the cradle of mankind. This date of 2 million years ago also records the first migration of our ancient ancestors out of Africa and into what is now Europe and Asia.

Now, moving on to another prominent lava flow for this year’s field test, we come to the lava flow from SP Mountain. This flow is 70,000 years old and while this eruption was taking place, halfway around the globe a much larger massive super volcanic eruption was occurring at Toba, in what is present-day Indonesia. This was one of the largest eruptions known in the geologic record. Its prestigious amounts of ash combined with an already present Ice Age contributed to further cooling the planet down. At the same time, the human population had decreased to a dangerously low level of between only 1,000 to 10,000 people worldwide. Modern humans at this time started another mass migration out of Africa that eventually led to the spread of humans across the whole globe that we recognize today.

Flash forward to today, where we are now conducting a manned Planetary Rover field test. It is also interesting to note that the earliest human footprints are recorded and preserved in a layer of volcanic ash, and the Apollo astronauts’ bootprints are also preserved in the volcanic plains of the moon (see photos below). The human race is now on the brink of another major migration – this time it is into the cosmos. I have no doubt that Desert RATS with everyone’s hard labor and long hours is setting the stage for this, the greatest of all human migrations out among the stars.

Earliest human footprint

Photo of the earliest human footprint recorded in volcanic ash.

First footprint on the moon

Photo of the first human footprint in lunar soil.

Desert RATS: Life in Space Exploration Vehicle B

By Kelsey Young
Kelsey Young is a geologist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and supporting Desert RATS as a member of the science backroom and as one of the geologist crew members.

Seven days in Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) B. I am conducting a thorough exploration of a volcanic terrain in a concept space vehicle with one other person (in my case, Astronaut Stephanie Wilson). Sound straightforward? While I’m a field geologist who has spent a lot of time in the outdoors, I’ve not been trained to live in a confined space for seven straight days. Cooking, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and cleaning, take on a whole new meaning. They all happen in a very small space. My bed is also the storage location for my food, in addition to the surface where I prepare my meals. In preparing for this field test, and completing the first three days, I’ve been surprised to realize how easy it is to live comfortably in SEV B.

The biggest thing I’ve learned while spending the last three days in the rover, is establishing a set of routines to use for each daily task. It takes several minutes for the hot water for cooking to heat up, and in that time I clean my bed and eating surface (typically my seat in the front of the rover). For food we eat dehydrated pastas and meats that have to be cooked for 10 minutes with hot water. We also have iced tea, lemonade, and fruit punch mixes that we can drink, and instant coffee for the mornings.

Each person has their own sleep station that affords a lot of privacy, and we each have a set of soft lockers where we can store our clothes and personal items. Considering we’re living in a prototype space vehicle, it’s been a comfortable stay! SEV B has become my home away from home, and I’ll say a fond farewell at the end of Day 7.

Crew members hiking

Crew members and test team hike toward a designated exploration site on Mission Day 11.

Space Exploration Vehicle in field

The Space Exploration Vehicle viewed from a distance, a small white dot against the landscape.

Desert RATS: Fieldwork With The Space Exploration Vehicle

By José Hurtado
José Hurtado is a geologist, teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). During Desert RATS 2010 he is working in the science back room in week one, and on Space Exploration Vehicle A as the geology crew member in week two.

My name is José Hurtado, and, while I am a geologist and professor in my normal job, for the past three days I am one of two crewmembers on board a prototype planetary rover called the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). I’m supporting a week-long mission simulation in the Arizona desert north of Flagstaff that is part of a NASA field test called Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies). The test has the overall goal of figuring out how to use the SEV for studying geology on another planet. We are doing this in the San Francisco volcanic field, a cluster of volcanoes that have erupted over the past 3 million years and are similar to the types of terrain and geology we hope to someday explore on the surface of the moon or Mars. Our mission is to make observations and to collect samples to help unravel the history of volcanic eruptions in the area.

Our main tool for doing this is the rover itself, which is an incredible machine for fieldwork. In addition to being able to climb over steep, rough terrain, it also has an array of cameras and a bubble window that allow us to get detailed views of the surroundings. It serves as our mobile home and base of operations for performing EVAs (“extravehicular activities”), or spacewalks to make detailed observations. During our EVAs we wear backpacks that simulate the spacesuits astronauts would wear when exploring outside their SEV. The backpacks also have video cameras we can use to share our findings with our colleagues on the science team in “mission control”. Other tools we use are familiar to geologists, including a rock hammer, shovel, tongs, core tubes, and sample bags. We use these to take rock, soil, and sediment samples to bring back to a prototype GeoLab facility at base camp. The GeoLab allows us to make basic observations about the texture and structure of the samples with a microscope and mineral and elemental composition of our samples with an X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer.

I have three more days left in my mission before we arrive at base camp for a day of work in the GeoLab. It has been a productive and fun mission so far, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to help NASA plan for future planetary exploration missions!

SEV caravan

The caravan with Space Exploration Vehicles (SEVs) also includes chase vehicles with scientists and others supporting mission operations teams.

SEV behind rock formations

The Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) moving along the trail is captured on camera from behind rock formations.

Desert RATS: Geology from the Rover

By Dr. Jacob Bleacher
Dr. Jacob Bleacher is a Planetary Geologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Bleacher is the geology crew member on rover B during week one.

I am a geologist who studies lava flows on the Earth, moon, and Mars. To do so, I conduct field work on lava flows here on the Earth for comparison with other planets. The Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is a tremendous asset for conducting field geology in extreme environments. Unlike Apollo, where the crew needed to return to the Lander at the end of each day, we use the SEV to travel from a site of geologic interest to another site of geologic interest, without being forced to return to a common location every night. As such, we carry the most important geologic tool with us, the geologist.

To support the geologist, the rover has a bevy of tools. Once we reach an exciting site, and our commander has picked a safe location to park, we begin by recording a voice note to tell the science team what our plan is for exploring the area. This note is supported by video and images taken from cameras mounted on masts above the rover. After providing an overview to the science team, they are given control of the cameras to track our progress outside of the rover. At this point, we move to the back of the rover, where the suitports are located, and begin our Extra-Vehicular Activity or EVA. The suitports are a new design allowing us to climb into the suit through its backpack. The process keeps the suit and the dust that sticks to it on the outside of the rover.

Once outside, we collect the tools that we will need to complete our objectives for the site. We have a standard geologist hammer, shovels, core tube (to collect soils without disturbing their layers), and sample bags. We also have two cameras mounted on our backpacks. We use the cameras to show the scientists at base camp the rocks and samples we are collecting. With the cameras, we record notes for the science team. Our field notes describe sample characteristics and its relationship to other samples. The cameras provide audio, video, and high definition images that help us document what we have done.

After we collect samples, we weigh them and store them in a locker on the aft (back deck of the rover.) The aft is where the samples are stored until we meet up with the Pressurized Excursion Module or PEM. Our SEV docks to the PEM. The PEM is a large habitat housing tools and equipment we use to repair our suits or hardware. In the habitat we also have medical equipment and a geology work station. The geology workstation has laboratory instruments we use to study exciting samples in more detail. This is how we will use the SEVs to explore the geology of another planet or the moon.

Geologists collecting rock samples

Geologists Dr. Jacob Bleacher (left) and Dr. Jim Rice (right) take a closer look before collecting samples.

Rover docked with the PEM

Space Exploration Vehicle rovers A & B connected to the Pressurized Excursion Module (PEM).