Each year a NASA-led team of researchers, called Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS), test their latest human-robotic exploration systems in a simulated lunar environment in Arizona. This year, the agency is conducting a 14-day mission during which two crew members–an astronaut and a geologist–will live inside a Lunar Electric Rover (LER). They will only leave the rover, wearing spacesuits, to perform simulated moonwalks.
The event kicked off on August 28 and will continue until September 18. It will include testing NASA’s K-10 rover, designed for reconnaissance and mapping, and its Tri-ATHLETE rover, a heavy-lifter that carries a habitat for the LER to dock to.
The field tests are important in the development of NASA’s planetary robotic systems–it not only gives engineers and technicians experience with the equipment, but it ensures their reliability for future missions.
New technologies that the researchers will be testing include LER avionics, a dust cover for the new lightweight spacesuits, and controls and mechanisms for so-called suit ports–a system that allows astronauts to slip in and out of their spacesuits without having to ever bring them inside the vehicle, leaving the cabin free of any dust and contaminants (read more from NASA on the suit ports here). Researchers will also test communications systems and how different communications scenarios–continuous, limited, and non-real time–affect the crew’s productivity.
The rovers will transverse a 20 kilometer circle in an area 40 miles north of Flagstaff called Black Point Lava Flow that is one mile south of the Gray Mountains. The K-10 rover will be used as a scout for LER, traveling ahead of it, mapping the area, gathering data, and planning tasks. Tri-ATHLETE will mate with LER, carrying the crew’s habitat, supplies, and communication system.