Engineers test novel navigation technology for NASA's Artemis mission in Arizona desert

A simulated moonwalk allowed engineers to test a wearable for future Artemis astronauts.
Chris Young
Artemis astronauts will travel farther from their lunar lander than ever before.
Artemis astronauts will travel farther from their lunar lander than ever before.


NASA's Artemis moon landings will see astronauts go further from their lunar lander than any Apollo astronauts could ever venture, all while traversing the harsher, rugged terrain of the lunar South Pole.

This poses a serious problem for NASA, as Artemis astronauts will face navigation challenges that no humans have ever faced before.

U.S. firm Draper is developing a navigation technology to help future lunar explorers overcome these obstacles. Its wearable kinematics system (WKS) will help astronauts pinpoint their location on the lunar surface without GPS.

Draper, the first-ever firm to obtain an Apollo contract in the 1960s, and NASA recently tested the technology in the Arizona desert. Draper space systems engineer Brett Streetman discussed the challenges of exploring the lunar South Pole and the simulated moonwalk in an interview with IE.

Navigating the lunar South Pole

With its Artemis missions, NASA expands the scope of human exploration. The space agency's ambitious program aims to help establish a permanent presence on the moon, and it will serve as a stepping stone for the eventual human exploration of Mars.

That added scope does create added complexity.

"For early Apollo missions, they landed on a very flat location, and navigation was such that you could turn around and see the spacecraft that you landed in," Streetman explained. "That was enough for some level of navigation."

The Artemis missions, however, will specifically target the lunar South Pole as scientists have pinpointed it as a location that may hold many of the resources required for future lunar bases.

Engineers test novel navigation technology for NASA's Artemis mission in Arizona desert
NASA's simulated moonwalk in Arizona.

"The lunar South Pole is much more rugged, much more interesting terrain, which is one of the reasons you want to go there," Streetman said, "but there will be times where you will go over ridges or into craters will you will no longer have your landing craft in sight. So one level of the navigation challenge is that you need astronauts to know where they are and how to get back to base."

"The second level is for scientific purposes, and it actually requires more precise navigation," Streetman added. "If you take a rock sample and bring it back, the geologist wants to know exactly where it came from [on the lunar surface]. So it's really two challenges we're trying to meet."

Essentially, as Streetman explained, the WKS works by pinpointing where an astronaut starts traversing lunar terrain — at the lunar lander — and then it keeps track of their movements from that point on. The Draper team is currently working on future integrations that might include a reader on the astronauts' heads-up displays inside their helmets.

A simulated moonwalk

Back in 2019, Draper also equipped an astronaut with a WKS for an underwater mission where the ocean acted as an analog for the weightlessness of space. The new Arizona desert test allowed the private firm to collect more data to further hone its device.

During the simulated moonwalk in the desert, NASA astronauts donned mockup spacesuit systems and tested out Draper's WKS system. Streetman explained that NASA chose the Arizona desert because it is "a geologically interesting location up in a volcanic area of Arizona," and it "simulates some of that lunar environment."

One of the biggest challenges of setting up the test walk, Streetman said, was "making lighting that is going to be something like the moon, where the Sun will be at a very low angle, and it's going to be very dark at times. We tried to simulate that experience using spotlights and other means."

As for the results of the test itself, the Draper engineer said he couldn't go into too much detail, but "Draper feel very good about it, and we're very pleased with how well our systems were able to perform under these lighting conditions."

The WKS system itself is a "built-in navigation system," Streetman said, that features a camera and an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that takes acceleration and gyroscopic measurements. Essentially, a computer takes both the camera and IMU data and combines them to make a navigation measurement. It does this by pinpointing features in the camera's images — or in the user's surroundings — and measuring the movement away from or towards that feature via a suite of algorithms.

Draper's space technology could have benefits here on Earth

Last week, NASA launched its LOFTID heatshield demonstration test to orbit in a great example of a technology that will have benefits in space and also on Earth. The heatshield will enable safer spacecraft atmosphere entries, but the technology developed for LOFTID has also been used to build a prototype fire shelter to help fight forest fires on Earth.

In a similar fashion, WKS could benefit people here on Earth, as the underlying technology could be used in locations underserved by GPS, meaning it could potentially be utilized for disaster relief and a number of other applications. "If you have a soldier that wants to navigate inside without GPS, for example, and they're in a complex building, the technology could provide a navigation solution," Streetman said.

Essentially, any situation where someone is indoors in a complex structure is far underground, or doesn't have access to GPS for any other reason, could potentially one day benefit from the use of Draper's WKS technology. For now, though, the company is fully focused on building a technology that will help future astronauts to remain safe while pushing the boundaries of human space exploration to new heights.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board