Water is critical for human existence, whether on our planet or distant destinations. In support of future space exploration, researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, California, are searching for water closer to home -- in the desert near the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California.
The Mojave Volatiles Prospector (MVP) project team will remotely operate a planetary rover, named K-REX, developed and managed at Ames, to determine how moisture varies across surface and subsurface soil types. Collectively, the rover and a suite of tools housed on the rover, are being integrated to mature technology concepts into better designed and built systems for prospecting materials in permanently shadowed regions on the moon.
“Because the Mojave is extremely dry like the moon, the test makes it a great analog to future lunar polar rover missions. We'll be studying water distributions in the Mojave with a rover in order to learn how to study water distributions on the moon with a rover,” said Jennifer Heldmann, principal investigator for MVP at NASA Ames.
K-REX will be equipped with specialized prospecting instruments to help with the science. The rover includes a camera and lamp underneath the rover so scientists can collect data and see the soil. The Neutron Spectrometer senses the hydrogen in water to gauge soil and rock moisture. The Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer Systems (NIRVSS), which utilizes heritage technology from the NASA Ames Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission to the moon, will measure light reflections from the soil and identify levels of hydration and specific mineralogy in the differing surface and subsurface.
For example, one of the MVP testing sites exhibits a geological feature called “desert pavement.”
“These desert pavements consist of a nearly-flat surface of rocks that almost seem to be closely fitted together like puzzle pieces. In fact, they resemble road surfaces in many ways,” said Rick Elphic, principal investigator of the Neutron Spectrometer at NASA Ames. “Pavements can consist of small rocks all fitted together, or larger ones, or rocks with a lot of space between them and soil poking through.”
The team will look at the distinctions between the different pavement types and loose soil underneath, identifying the varied abundance and distribution of water. Meanwhile, as the rover explores the desert, the science team will be 440 miles away at an operations center inside the Ames campus. The decision to be remote is another key component of the project. Through an Ames-developed software system called Exploration Ground Data System (xGDS), the team will communicate with the distant rover, whether in a different state county or on the moon.
"We are not in the field because in future lunar missions the team won’t be on the moon and will have to rely solely on the data collected by the rover to do the science, so MVP provides a high-fidelity mission simulation,” said Heldmann.
xGDS is used in all phases of a mission from planning rover traverses, in conjunction with satellite images, to conducting real-time operations, and post-mission science analysis. Using the software and instruments, the team will interactively operate K-REX, continuously analyze the data, and make decisions based off the data in a matter of seconds, as opposed to days.
“MVP is different from other NASA robot missions because it emphasizes ‘high-tempo’ science operations,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames, “which is different than NASA’s Mars Exploration rovers.”
The K-REX planetary rover is a four-wheel drive, all-wheel steering, electric-powered mobile robot. Designed for autonomous movement, the K-REX travels at slow speeds, between 0.25 and 3.22 miles per hour, over 12 inch obstacles and 30 degree slopes in natural terrain and supports a wide range of fieldwork including scouting, mapping, site preparation, sampling and prospecting. K-REX is comparable in size to NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.