Future Moonwalkers Will Have High-Tech Maps
This artist's rendering shows an astronaut's-eye view of the lunar navigation system that Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues are developing.
Credit: Kevin Gecsi/OSU

Future moonwalkers could become high-tech surveyors whose lunar navigation system gets updated on the fly.

NASA-backed researchers envision a combination of motion-based sensors, surface cameras and orbiter maps to help Constellation astronauts returning to the moon in 2020.

"We will have cameras on the lander, cameras on the vehicle, and even on the shoulder, helmet or belly of the astronaut," said Ron Li, a civil engineer at Ohio State University.

Li previously designed navigation system upgrades for NASA?s Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently making their way across Mars. Now he has $1.2 million from NASA and collaborators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California-Berkeley to make the Lunar Astronaut Spatial Orientation and Information System (LAOIS) a reality within three years.

LAOIS will start with 3-D maps of the lunar surface created from orbital views taken by probes such as the future Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Such maps provide the basic topography of the lunar landscape and landmarks such as craters.

The system gets updated as soon as NASA's Orion spacecraft arrives and its Altair lunar lander begins the descent to the moon?s surface, with cameras figuratively clicking all the way down. The new images of the landing area will then feed into the navigation system.

"According to our Mars work, during landing you might get descent pictures that give you gradually a higher resolution of the places on the surface," Li told SPACE.com.

Video feeds from astronaut and vehicle cameras would also add to the flow of information. Both the astronauts and their vehicles will also carry motion sensors that constantly update the navigation system with their location — moonwalkers may even sport pedometers similar to those worn by runners.

A lunar communication system consisting of beacons could also help pinpoint the location of astronauts and vehicles for LAOIS.

Navigation tools such as these should help the Constellation astronauts avoid the confusion reported by some Apollo moonwalkers, who had difficulty eyeballing distance and size on the lunar surface without familiar visual benchmarks such as buildings or streets.

"When they land, they kind of lose the sense of orientation, size and shape of objects," Li said. "Usually you overestimate size on the lunar surface."

Getting into the mindset of astronauts requires more than just knowing engineering. Li's interdisciplinary team will examine how best to communicate information to the astronauts from a "cognitive science point of view," and hopefully prevent problems of disorientation.

The system will get its true test within three years, when Li's team will take it out for a test run in the Mojave Desert. A successful demonstration could lead to a flight-ready version getting developed.

LAOIS seems to represent the best immediate solution for moonwalkers, given that the moon lacks the fleet of satellites that make Earth's Global Positioning System (GPS) possible. NASA or other space agencies may eventually launch additional communication and navigation satellites to the moon, but until then astronauts will find their way one step at a time.