Archaic technology may one day help astronauts navigate the moon

When people begin living and working on the moon in the Artemis missions, they are going to need good navigational aids. Sure, they want a GPS equivalent to help them find their way around. And that will be LunaNet, the lunar equivalent of the internet. But there are places on the moon that are quite remote. In such cases, explorers may require more than one method of communication and navigation. That prompted NASA Goddard research engineer Alvin Yew to create an AI-powered local mapping service. It uses local landmarks for navigation.

Create moon map

The collection of ridges, craters and boulders that form a lunar horizon can be used by artificial intelligence to precisely locate a lunar traveler. A system being developed by research engineer Alvin Yew will provide a backup location service for future explorers, robotic or human.NASA/MoonTrek/Alvin Yew

The idea is to use already collected surface data from astronaut photographs and mapping missions to provide overlapping navigational aids. “For safety and scientific geotagging, it’s important for explorers to know exactly where they are when exploring the lunar landscape,” said Alvin Yew, a research engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Equipping an embedded device with a local map will support any mission, whether robotic or human.”

Having a map-based system as a backup would make life much easier for explorers in craters, for example, Yew said. “The motivation for me was to enable lunar crater exploration, where the entire horizon would be the crater rim.”

Navigating the Moon

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provided the data for the experiment.NASA

The heart of Yew’s system is data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. That spacecraft maps the lunar surface in the greatest possible detail and performs other lunar science and exploration tasks. The onboard Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) has provided high-resolution topographic maps of the Moon.

Yew fed LOLA data into an AI program that uses digital elevation models to recreate features on the lunar horizon. It makes them look like they would look to an explorer on the surface of the moon. The result is a series of digital panoramic images. AI can correlate them with known surface objects – such as large boulders or ridges. The aim is to provide accurate location identification for a given area.

“Conceptually, it’s like going outside and trying to figure out where you are by surveying the horizon and surrounding landmarks,” Yew said. “While a ballpark location estimate may be easy for one person, we want to demonstrate on-the-ground accuracy down to less than 30 feet (9 meters). This accuracy opens the door to a wide range of mission concepts for future exploration.”

Yew’s geolocation system also has its roots in the capabilities of GIANT (Goddard Image Analysis and Navigation Tool), developed by Goddard engineer Andrew Liounis. Scientists used GIANT to double-check and verify navigation data for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. That spacecraft went to the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample for analysis here on Earth.

Moon map in your device

There may soon come a time when a lunar explorer goes out to study various surface features. They will be equipped with cameras and communication equipment. It is similar to earth geologists heading into the field with a DSLR and a cell phone with GPS and satellite access. They can find their way around by marking landmarks, but it’s always helpful to have backup methods. Of course, here on Earth, we have several communication networks.

On the moon, that infrastructure is not in place. But it should be there when the Artemis mission is in full swing. Still, it won’t be long before these lunar geologists are “in the field” themselves. And they will need all the help they can get while doing their work. According to a study published by Goddard researcher Erwan Mazarico, a lunar surface researcher can see up to a maximum of 300 kilometers from any unobstructed spot on the Moon. That makes long-term surface studies over large areas a bit more challenging. Ideally, a surface explorer could use the “app” that Yew is developing in a handheld device. Like a portable GPS device, a lunar wayfinding device will help astronauts in regions that do not have the greatest line of sight. On-board terrain data sets, including elevation data, will be part of the software.

Yew’s geolocation system has some likely applications beyond the moon. Even on Earth, location technology like Yew’s will help explorers in terrain where GPS signals are obstructed or subject to interference. This application of AI-interpreted visual data against known models of the lunar surface could provide a new generation of navigation tools not only for Earth and the Moon, but even on Mars.

This article was originally published on The universe today by Carolyn Collins Petersen. Read the original article here.

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