Testing, testing: NASA tested its new LIDAR system onboard this helicopter at Dryden Flight Research Center, in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles.
“This will make the system so much faster,” says Donald Figer, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the director of the Rochester Imaging Detector Laboratory (RIDL). “They will get more data, quicker, and in higher resolution.” Figer’s team is currently working with researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to build a new LIDAR system for mapping the planets.
The NASA LIDAR system is part of NASA’s Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) project, which is developing technologies that will allow spacecraft to land safely on the Moon. Until now, the only precaution against hazardous landings has been to put spacecraft inside big balloons and drop them onto the surface, where they just bounce around until they settle, says Figer. “But if you have astronauts onboard, you might not want to land that way.” Also, future spacecraft will need to land near specific resources that may be located amid hazardous terrain–areas where rocks, boulders, and craters can significantly damage robotics. To determine the safety of a site, NASA will pair the new optical sensor with a flash LIDAR sensor that uses commercial technology. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, CA, will use data from the flash LIDAR to create an image of the terrain. “You want to land in a good place, and this technology will help you do that,” says Figer.
The technology was recently tested in a series of flights at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles, and according to Reisse, it performed better than the advanced GPS receiver onboard. But the researchers will continue to test the technology until it is safe enough to guide manned lunar landers.