NASA's new 'lunar backpack' to help astronauts map the moon

Saddle up.
Loukia Papadopoulos
NASA Planetary Scientist Michael Zanetti testing out the backpack.NASA

NASA researchers and their industry partners have joined forces to engineer a remote-sensing mapping system called the Kinematic Navigation and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK) that is set to aid astronauts in the exploration of the South Pole of the Moon, according to a statement by the space agency released on Wednesday.

A mobile lidar scanner

The invention is a mobile lidar scanner, a remote sensing method that uses light detection and ranging laser light to measure range. Planetary scientist Dr. Michael Zanetti, who leads the KNaCK project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, describes KNaCK as a superpowered version of laser range finders used by surveyors or the highly sensitive proximity alarms that help smart cars avoid collisions. 

“Basically, the sensor is a surveying tool for both navigation and science mapping, able to create ultra-high-resolution 3D maps at centimeter-level precision and give them a rich scientific context,” Zanetti said. “It also will help ensure the safety of astronauts and rover vehicles in a GPS-denied environment such as the Moon, identifying actual distances to far-off landmarks and showing explorers in real-time how far they’ve come and how far is left to go to reach their destination.”

Like a hiker's backpack

Space explorers will don KNaCK like a hiker’s backpack and use it to deliver a 3D “point cloud” or high-resolution map of the surrounding terrain, essentially precisely mapping the topography of the landscape, including deep ravines, mountains, and caves.

“As human beings, we tend to orient ourselves based on landmarks – a specific building, a grove of trees,” Zanetti said. “Those things don’t exist on the Moon. KNaCK will continuously enable explorers traversing the surface to determine their movement, direction, and orientation to distant peaks or to their base of operations. They can even mark specific sites where they found some unique mineral or rock formation, so others can easily return for further study.”

Currently, the team is working on shrinking the technology as the backpack prototype weighs about 40 pounds. Zanetti envisions it could even become small enough to be mounted on an astronaut's helmet.

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