BORDEAUX, France — European scientists used a parabolic flight mimicking lunar gravity to test a wheelbarrow-like device that might one day help astronauts transport material on the moon. You can watch the first-of-its-kind experiment in Space.com's exclusive video.
The wheelbarrow, officially named LESA for Lunar Equipment Support Assembly, or Lunar Evacuation System Assembly (as it can also be used to rescue injured crew members) is being developed by a team of researchers from the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. Although it may seem like just a somewhat more high-tech version of an ordinary wheelbarrow, the device requires a lot of testing and fine-tuning. That's because operating a wheelbarrow on the moon, where gravity is only one-sixth that of Earth, can be a little tricky.
"This equipment should be able to carry on top of it payloads, tools, spacewalk tools, cameras, antennas — anything that you would need on a worksite on the moon," Hervé Stevenin, the chief instructor of European astronauts and the driving force behind the European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut training, told Space.com in an exclusive interview during a weeklong test campaign that he and his team conducted in Bordeaux, France, in late April.
During that week, Stevenin and his team loaded three versions of their wheelbarrow on board a customized Airbus A310 plane operated by French company Novespace. This aircraft, in the past used to transport the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is currently the only plane in the world capable of performing parabolic flights that can generate scientific-grade lunar gravity and Martian gravity conditions. And Space.com had the great opportunity to take part in one of those flights, together with the lunar wheelbarrow.
Stevenin and his team previously tested the LESA wheelbarrow in 2019 at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, as part of the NEEMO 23 simulation led by NASA. However, moving through ocean water and operating in lunar gravity don't feel the same, so the team was keen to test their device on board a parabolic flight.
"On the moon, you weigh one-sixth of your weight, so the standard strategy is that when you move, you jump from one foot to another one, or on both feet like a kangaroo," said Stevenin. "We want to test how an operator, an astronaut in lunar gravity, will walk with this type of a locomotion while pushing or pulling this type of equipment and how the equipment will react on an uneven terrain. This will give us some feedback to improve the future generation [of our vehicle] and see whether it's better with four wheels or three wheels, with one handle or two handles."
Researchers know that wheeled vehicles might become unstable on rough lunar terrain, as the force of the moon's gravity is not strong enough to keep them glued to the surface. In fact, the crew of NASA's Apollo 14 mission used a similar, but simpler, two-wheel cart during their lunar surface exploration in 1971.
"We know from that mission that it was sometimes difficult for the astronauts to maintain stability of the carrier, and that they sometimes struggled to get over complex terrain," said Stevenin.
To prepare for such challenges, the team created a little obstacle course inside the plane by placing simulated moon rocks in the vehicle's path. During the flight, which involved 30 parabolas flown at steep angles that generate up to 30-second bouts of lunar or Martian gravity, Stevenin and his colleagues pushed or pulled LESA over the rocks. As you can see in the video, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who served as one of the flight's pilots, came to have a try during his piloting break.
"This is the only place on Earth that you can test with people, around their experiments and experience how it feels like to walk on the moon," Pesquet told Space.com during the flight. "So this is where it starts and it's all going to happen up there."
Yes, I celebrated my 40th birthday on a lunar parabolic flight piloted by @Thom_astro, reporting for @SPACEdotcom . Not kidding. Now beat that! Thank you @AirZeroG, the throwing up was worth it... pic.twitter.com/FKPMmxN9uiApril 25, 2023
Parabolic flights are the only option to generate lunar gravity on Earth in a way that humans can experience, Neil Melville, ESA parabolic flight coordinator, told Space.com.
"There are a few drop tower solutions that can do lunar gravity on a very, very small scale but only for a couple of seconds and only for hardware," Melville said. "If you want to get yourself, to get people into lunar gravity, you have two options — you can either come on this aircraft or you can go to the moon. That's it."
Novespace, for 30 years Europe's only operator of parabolic flights, prides itself on its ability to recreate reduced gravity conditions with utmost precision that meets the needs of scientific research. This precision is achieved through a sophisticated piloting technique that requires three pilots actively involved during the parabolic phase of the flight, controlling separately the pitch, roll and thrust of the plane. A fourth pilot is present in the cockpit to replace a colleague after each set of parabolas.
Stevenin and his team hope to expand their tests in the future by adding a virtual reality dimension that would allow the test subjects to not only operate the equipment in lunar gravity but also feel as if they were doing it on the moon thanks to a VR headset and gloves. In fact, during the recent flight campaign, the researchers already tested simple tasks, such as moving a box of tools, using a VR headset running a high-fidelity simulation of the moon created from satellite images.
No European astronaut so far has been assigned to any of the upcoming NASA-led Artemis missions, but ESA hopes to get European feet on the moon surface within the next 10 years. Novespace Zero G Airbus will likely serve as the prime training facility to prepare the European spacefarers for the adventure of their lifetime.
Stay tuned for more of Space.com's coverage of this unique experience.
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Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.