FEB 27, 2024 4:30 PM PST

Enhancing Lunar Exploration: Realistic Simulation of Moon Dust for Robot Operation

After Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon, he said, “It’s almost like a powder”, as he described the lunar regolith, and astronauts on future Apollo missions found working on the lunar surface rather cumbersome and tedious due to the much finer lunar dust compared to Earth’s dirt. Therefore, what steps can be taken to better prepare future rovers and astronauts for NASA’s Artemis program to work on the lunar surface?

This is what a recent study published in Frontiers in Space Technologies hopes to address as a team of researchers led by the University of Bristol developed virtual models of lunar regolith simulants that could provide cost-effective methods to prepare astronauts and robots to work on the lunar surface, someday.

This study builds on an August 2023 study conducted by these same team members that explored the trust between teleoperated robots operating at long distances from Earth with their human controllers. The team found that the human controllers desired to train on increasing difficulty for operating their robots before working the real thing.

For the current study, the researchers compared their computer models to physical lunar regolith simulants to ascertain the accuracy of their models compared to real-world tools. Through collaboration with the German Aerospace Center, the researchers found that their virtual models were successful in simulating lunar regolith while requiring minimal computer assets to accomplish the tasks. For now, the team found the best results came by using small quantities of lunar regolith, but the results still look promising.

Joe Louca, who is a Space Robotics PhD Researcher at the University of Bristol and lead author of the study said in a statement, “Think of it like a realistic video game set on the Moon – we want to make sure the virtual version of moon dust behaves just like the actual thing, so that if we are using it to control a robot on the Moon, then it will behave as we expect. This model is accurate, scalable, and lightweight, so can be used to support upcoming lunar exploration missions.”

This study comes as NASA is preparing to land the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface in the next few years, along with the recent landing of the NOVA-C IM-1 lander by Intuitive Machines, which was the first soft landing on the Moon by the United States since Apollo 17 in 1972 and the first soft landing on the Moon by a commercial space company.

How will computer models help future astronauts and robots operate on the lunar surface in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: UNESCO, Magellan TV, Frontiers in Space Technologies, ScienceDaily, Frontiers in Neurorobotics, University of Bristol, CNN

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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