Goddard Scientists Explore Desert RATS
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Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) tests procedures and equipment that could one day be a part of human space flight missions to the moon and Mars.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

What's it like to explore the surfaces of other planets? Two scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are finding out by taking part in the annual Desert Research and Technology Studies, or Desert RATS, project, here on Earth. They will travel to the Arizona desert, a field location chosen to simulate possible sites of future planetary exploration missions. It's a cheaper, easier way for NASA to test equipment and train crews, and those who participate learn a lot about what will or won't work during real flight missions.

The Desert RATS project was developed as a means of field testing spacesuits, rovers, tools and other hardware. During the field campaign, engineers and field geologists go to Arizona to conduct tests on multiple exploration assets currently under development by NASA, such as new rovers, robots, suits and habitats. These new technologies are evaluated during several traverses across the desert. As a result, engineers and scientists can evaluate which hardware and techniques are and are not effective at enabling scientific work during a traverse, and therefore which might be useful in future exploration. The Desert RATS 2010 mission involves field testing of two space exploration vehicles, which could in the future allow astronauts to spend two or more weeks living, working and traveling across different planetary surfaces. This year, astronauts will use two such vehicles to explore a lava flow in Arizona and test data-collection methods, communications protocols, mission operations and advanced technology during week-long traverses, which run from August 31 – Sept. 13.

Jake Bleacher, a planetary geologist at Goddard’s Solar System Exploration Division, will be part of the rover crew. "This is my second year as a crew member in the SEV (Space Exploration Vehicle)," said Bleacher. "Each rover crew is composed of a flight-experienced astronaut and a field-experienced geologist so that we might be able to provide feedback to the engineering teams as to how their equipment handles with respect to spaceflight conditions and field science work."

James Rice, another planetary field geologist from the division, will be part of the second rover crew. "I officially became involved in Desert RATS three years ago, working as both a field geologist and a member of the science back room team. For last year's field test, I was the lead science principal investigator for planning and directing the crew rover traverses and spacewalk activities. My previous duties and responsibilities on the project have been to aid in developing a well-trained geological science support team and procedures for field operations, data collection and analysis; and to develop methodologies for constructing, executing and modifying traverse/spacewalk plans, in modalities where reconnaissance data is or is not available and when communications are continuous or intermittent."

This year the campaign highlights how to best use two rovers and two crews at the same time—something that has never been done before. The team will look at how different communication scenarios affect scientific productivity. For instance, is it better for the crew to be in constant communication with Mission Control and a science back room, or is the crew just as effective if they only communicate with those teams twice a day? Because the geology in the study areas is already well understood, they can compare their Desert RATS investigation results with previous work to see how well they can do similar work using the new NASA technologies.

The NASA hardware being demonstrated for the 2010 mission includes:
  • Space Exploration Vehicles – a pair of rovers that astronauts will live in for 7 days at a time
  • Habitat Demonstration Unit/Pressurized Excursion Module – a simulated habitat where the rovers can dock to allow the crew enough room to perform experiments or deal with medical issues
  • Tri-ATHLETEs, or – All Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer – two heavy-lift rover platforms that allow the habitat, or other large items, to go where the action is
  • Portable Communications Terminals – a rapidly deployable communications station
  • Centaur 2 – a possible four-wheeled transportation method for NASA Robonaut 2
  • Portable Utility Pallets, or PUPs for short – mobile charging stations for equipment
  • A suite of new geology sample-collection tools, including a self-contained GeoLab glove box for conducting in-field analysis of various collected rock samples.
The centerpiece of these tests over the past three years has been a prototype planetary rover called the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). During traverses, investigations can be conducted from within the cabin environment using a suite of cameras and other sensors. The crew can also conduct spacewalks facilitated by the innovative “suitport” hatches that allow relatively quick egress/ingress; this greatly increases the flexibility of spacewalks.

In the future, astronauts will need surface mobility to explore multiple sites across the lunar and Martian surfaces. In the SEV surface concept, the small, pressurized cabin is mounted on a wheeled chassis that would enable mobile exploration. These two components could be delivered to the planetary surface pre-integrated or as separate elements. This SEV can provide the astronauts’ main mode of transportation, and – unlike the unpressurized Apollo lunar rover – also allow them to work on long excursions without the restrictions imposed by spacesuits.

So what's a day like in the rover? Bleacher explained.

"Well, the crew wakes up and has breakfast. Then we go through a series of briefings with Mission Control and the Science Team to go over our plans for the day, how they might have changed from the day before. And we make sure that we know our specific objectives and points that we must reach by the end of the day. We then begin driving the SEV along our planned route, composed of several navigation points and stations where we might conduct spacewalks. During a spacewalk, we are able to exit the rover via the suitports, a new design that keeps the suit on the outside of the rover, as well as the dust that might be clinging to it. The suitport is a technology that we tested extensively in last year’s field test. During a spacewalk, we are able to collect scientific samples and conduct basic field geology analyses of the local terrain. By moving from station to station with the SEV, we are able to build a geologic understanding of the region. Unlike Apollo, the SEV enables the crew to enter into the rover after a spacewalk and rest in a comfortable shirtsleeve environment between stops. At the end of the day, we park the rover for the evening and go through a series of briefings to review our progress and help the science team plan for the next day. After that, the crew has time to eat, exercise and work out our notes for the day, and we have some personal time before heading to bed. All in all, we don’t have a large amount of space, but in general it is a comfy environment with all the accommodations that we need. I’ve certainly been in harsher living conditions while conducting field work for my own research."

Goddard has traditionally had little to no involvement in Desert RATS. However, in the last three years, the project has solicited scientists’ input about the use of the hardware components and feedback on the surface systems assets. Specifically, field geologists provide input on whether such assets hinder the ability of scientists to carry out their jobs on a planetary surface and, more importantly, how those capabilities might be improved. As such, Desert RATS now represents not only a multicenter engineering test, but a true combination of exploration and science efforts to develop the best surface systems hardware, software and operational protocols.

"The inclusion of significant scientist input over the last three field tests opens the door to a stronger Goddard presence, which is demonstrated by the fact that this year Johnson Space Center has filled 50 percent of the geology crew positions with Goddard scientists," added Rice.

"For me the Desert RATS mission encompasses what it means to work for NASA: you just can’t do this anywhere else but NASA," said Bleacher. "Ultimately, it is very rewarding to know that we are building new technologies and developing the procedures and techniques for using them that will enable humankind to expand our presence and to explore the universe in which we live."

Rice added, "It is a distinct honor and privilege to be part of the formative stages in helping NASA develop and test concepts for a new generation of space exploration vehicles. These space exploration vehicle concepts will help future astronauts explore various planetary surfaces ranging from near-Earth asteroids, the moon and/or Mars; build a long-term space presence; and conduct a wealth of science experiments. I have always been interested in becoming an astronaut and long ago decided that if I wasn't fortunate enough to be selected as an astronaut, then I wanted to devote my energies to training the astronauts in the principles, methods and techniques of field geology, and helping to develop and test concepts and equipment for future manned planetary surface missions. After all, it is the next best thing to being there. But obviously I would gather go in person! My rock hammer and toothbrush are always ready to roll!"

Desert RATS is sponsored by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. and is managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

For more information on Desert RATS, visit:
Nancy N. Jones
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center