October 3, 2022

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NASA’s new “Lunar Backpack” can create a real-time 3D terrain map to help lunar explorers

Michael Zanetti, a NASA planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, raises the Cinder cone at New Mexico’s Potrillo volcanic field in late 2021, testing the backpack-size prototype of the NASA Navigational and Mapping Suitcase (KNaCK) . A mobile lidar scanner is now under development to support lunar exploration and science missions. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

Think of a mountain climbing expedition in a completely unknown environment, where hikers had the ability to create a 3D map of the terrain in real time. NASA Researchers and industry partners have developed a remote sensing map system that will aid explorers in one of the most remote regions imaginable: the airless wastelands of the moon’s south pole.

Kinetic Navigation and Mapping Bag (KNaCK) is a portable lidar scanner – a remote sensing technology that measures distance using light detection and laser light. It is worn like a hiking backpack and uses an innovative type of lidar called frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) lidar to provide Doppler velocity and range to millions of data points per second. These measurement points create a real-time navigation system, providing the navigator with a 3D “point cloud” or a high-resolution representation of the surrounding environment.

Consider it a supercharged version of the laser rangefinders that surveyors use or the highly sensitive proximity alarms that help smart cars avoid collisions, according to planetary scientist Dr. Michael Zanetti, who leads the KNaCK project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Essentially, the sensor is a scanning tool for both scientific navigation and mapping, capable of creating ultra-high-resolution 3D maps with centimeter-level accuracy and giving them a rich scientific context,” Zanetti said. “It will also help ensure the safety of astronauts and roving vehicles in a restricted environment using GPS such as the moon, determining actual distances to distant landmarks and showing explorers in real time how far they have come and how far left to go to reach their destination.”

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This is a major challenge as explorers of the age of Artemis prepare for the first modern missions to the Moon, and the first ever to the South Pole. The sun never rises more than 3 degrees above the lunar horizon there, leaving much of the terrain in deep shadow. This makes distances to different points of interest difficult to eyeball.

Drone landing with KNaCK technology

This video of an unmanned aerial vehicle landing in a dusty New Mexico desert shows how KNaCK technology — which makes use of 4D FMCW-lidar data from NASA Aeva Inc. Seen in the upper left panel; lidar band data, top right; and Doppler velocity data for lidar. The latter tracks the speed and direction of dust particles moved by the descending drone, with red indicating dust particles moving away from the scanner and blue indicating those moving towards it. These capabilities, now being developed by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, could benefit future science missions to other worlds as well as enable real-time topographic mapping by explorers. Credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti

The KNaCK project, which began in 2020 with funding from the NASA Early Career Initiative, is in partnership with Torch Technologies Inc. in Huntsville to develop the backpack’s prototype and associated navigation algorithms that allow accurate mapping without GPS. The commercial seller of the project, Aeva Inc. in Mountain View, California, to supply FMCW-lidar sensors and support, and work with NASA to enhance the Backpack Sensing System for use on the Moon and other human expeditions beyond the planet.

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Using KNaCK during roving expeditions and when traveling on foot, explorers can accurately map the terrain of a landscape, including deep valleys, mountains and caves. Lidar also works in the dark of you, relieving astronauts of the need to carry cumbersome lighting devices everywhere they go.

“As humans, we tend to orient ourselves based on landmarks—a specific building, a grove of trees,” Zanetti said. “These things do not exist on the Moon. KNaCK will continually enable explorers passing the surface to determine their movement and direction and direct them to distant peaks or their base of operations. They can even pinpoint specific locations where they have found some unique mineral or rock formations, so that others can easily return for more the study “.

This is vital for astronauts around the clock, as their flights are limited by the oxygen supply in their suits. Zanetti said KNaCK’s high-resolution precision — an order of magnitude larger than traditional lunar terrain maps and elevation models — makes it a vital resource for conducting science operations and missions 238,900 miles from mission control.

The device will undergo another major field test in late April at NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) in Kilburn Hall, New Mexico. The team previously put the KNaCK system through its paces in that ancient volcanic crater — estimated to be 25,000-80,000 years old — in November 2021. They also recently used it to perform a 3-D reconstruction of the 6-mile marine barrier dunes at Kennedy Space Center NASA in Florida, which protects primary rocket launch pads. Kennedy and Marshall engineers will continue to use KNaCK to assess the impact of storms on dune erosion, ensuring the safety of future flight missions as they improve the system.

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Next, the KNaCK team will work on miniaturizing the devices — a backpack prototype weighs about 40 pounds — and strengthening sensitive electronics against the opposite effects of microgravity and solar radiation.

“Leveraging the latest advances in lidar technology from Aeva, the next generation of our space-hardened unit powered by Torch Technologies will be the size of a soda can and can enable lunar surface operations like never before,” Zanetti said. He envisions it being mounted on a chariot or on the side of an astronaut’s helmet — which should leave plenty of room in multi-purpose backpacks for future lunar mountaineers.