A new camera designed for upcoming crewed missions to the moon has been tested by astronauts in lunar-like environments on Earth.
The Handheld Universal Lunar Camera (HULC) is being developed by NASA's Artemis imagery team with input from international space agencies. The prototype is a customized off-the-shelf camera being tested as part of the European Space Agency (ESA)'s PANGEA training program, which prepares astronauts for future missions to the moon according to a statement from ESA.
As part of field science training, an international crew tested the capabilities of the camera in simulated lunar scenarios ranging from broad daylight to dark volcanic caves, both of which resemble the lunar environment's extreme conditions.
NASA aims to land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972 with the launch of its Artemis 3 mission, currently scheduled for 2025. The mission will land astronauts on the moon’s south pole region near permanently shadowed craters, where the crew will search for evidence of water. Being able to photograph the lunar landscape will be key for documenting scientific discoveries during future missions to the moon, ESA officials said in the statement.
The off-the-shelf cameras used for HULC were modified to withstand extreme conditions on the moon, which includes thermal variations — temperatures ranging from minus 328 to 184 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 200 to 120 degrees Celsius) — a lack of atmospheric pressure, radiation effects and abrasive lunar dust. To combat these challenges, the camera was outfitted with a blanket for dust and thermal protection, as well as with ergonomic buttons designed specifically to aid astronauts using the camera while wearing gloves in bulky spacesuits.
"The lunar camera will be one of many tools they will need to handle on the moon, so it should be easy to use," Jeremy Myers, NASA’s lead for the HULC camera, said in the statement. "The human factor is a big deal for us, because you want the camera to be intuitive and not taxing on the crew."
During PANGAEA, one of the crew’s objectives was to select the most suitable lenses and corresponding settings. Using the camera in the field allowed the team to test that the photos had the right resolution, depth of field and exposure to maximize science results, according to the statement.
The Apollo-era camera was a standalone, mechanical Hasselblad with a Harrison Schmidt 60 millimeter lens. Comparatively, the Artemis camera will be able to provide superior image quality in low light situations — and will also be able to record video.
"Conditions for photography will be tricky in many ways, from operating the camera with the gloves on, to very low light levels and big contrast between bright and dark sources," ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet said in the statement. "I spent a lot of time learning what you can do with the cameras available in orbit. It is not just point and shoot. On the moon, just pressing the buttons in auto mode won’t be good enough."
Further testing of the lunar camera prototype is expected, with one version slated to fly to the International Space Station for additional experimentation in orbit. The interface and housing for the camera has already changed as a result of being tested in various conditions, and will continue to evolve in preparation for NASA’s Artemis 3 mission, ESA officials said.
"We are trying to choose the best lenses for the moon shots and optimize the settings in a smart way," Myers said in the statement. "We want astronauts to be able to take a detailed image of a crystalline structure in a rock and to capture landscapes, all with the right exposure."
Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 30 to clarify that NASA's Artemis imagery team is developing the Handheld Universal Lunar Camera (HULC).