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Desert RATS 2006 - Field Test

For two weeks a year, the stark Arizona landscape becomes a surrogate planet for NASA scientists. Why? Well, you can only do so much in a laboratory and it’s a long way to Mars.

The temperature extremes, gusty winds and grit and dust of Arizona’s high desert make it an ideal location to field test and evaluate prototype planetary exploration gear.

jsc2006e39969 --- Desert Research and Technology Studies in the Arizona desert
Image above: In one scenario of the Desert Research and Technology Studies in the Arizona desert, a test subject returns to a mock way station. Credit: NASA

So, now it is exam time for NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS), a team of scientists and engineers who test futuristic equipment that may one day be used for explorations of the moon and Mars.

During this year’s field test, the team will demonstrate technologies being developed for future extravehicular activity (EVA) and robotics operations such as a lithium-ion battery for spacesuit life support systems and the coordination of simultaneous operations of multiple robots.

The field test will be conducted in a remote part of the Arizona desert, Cinder Lake, where the Apollo astronauts trained for their missions because of the similarity in terrain and environment with that of the surface of the Moon. The actual test site includes the original craters and boulder fields that were created for that training.

jsc2006e39966 -- A Centaur removes packed samples from the SCOUT rover

Image at right: A Centaur removes packed samples from the SCOUT (Science, Crew, Operations and Utility Testbed) rover. Credit: NASA

The desert trials will also put to test three robots, including a mammoth-sized all-terrain robotic vehicle called Athlete and Centaur, a half humanoid, half vehicle robot. In one demonstration, the crew will return to a mock way station -- called a Pressurized Rover Compartment (PRC) -- that has been delivered to the site by Athlete, an All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer vehicle capable of "walking" over extremely rough or steep terrain.

jsc2006e39958 -- Test subjects simulate a regolith trenching operation.
Image above: Test subjects use a backhoe attached to an electric tractor to simulate a regolith trenching operation. Credit: NASA

Centaur will then unload the day’s sample collection and equipment and another robot will “visually” inspect the rover. The robotic maneuvers will be controlled through a satellite link to NASA’s Exploration Planning and Operations Center -- a mission control center -- at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Live webcams will broadcast via the internet and NASA personnel will be interviewed live via the Digital Learning Network on September 11-13.

On Friday, September 14, the Desert RATS team will set up its equipment at the USGS complex in Flagstaff, Arizona as part of the Flagstaff Science Festival, allowing the general public to see advanced space suit, rover, and robotics designs and to ask questions of the test team.

For information on Desert RATS through NASA’s Digital Learning Network, go on the Web at:

http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/d-rats/ or http://nasadln.nmsu.edu/dln/

For general information on NASA’s Digital Learning Network, click on: