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This NASA 'lunar backpack' will help Artemis astronauts explore the moon

Michael Zanetti, a NASA planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, testing the Kinematic Navigational and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK) in late 2021. Zanetti was at the Cinder cone in Portillo volcanic field in New Mexico.
Michael Zanetti, a NASA planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, testing the Kinematic Navigational and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK) in late 2021. Zanetti was at the Cinder cone in Portillo volcanic field in New Mexico. (Image credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti)

As future Artemis astronauts explore the moon, a new high-tech backpack will assist their mapping as they step into the unknown.

NASA does have high-definition lunar maps of the surface, from orbit, to assist in landing activities. But ground surveys of the moon will need a helping hand to assist astronauts with selecting rocks for samples and putting them in their geological context.

To do so, NASA has invented the Kinematic Navigation and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK). The backpack will use lidar, or light detection and ranging laser light, to generate centimeter-level 3D maps of the moon's surface as Artemis program astronauts do their activities. Lidar will especially be a benefit even in low lighting conditions such as what astronauts will encounter near the south pole, their planned landing zone. 

"The sensor is a surveying tool for both navigation and science mapping," KNAcK project leader Michael Zenetti stated of the backpack in a NASA statement (opens in new tab). Zanetti is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

KNAcK's work not only places local features into a larger geologic context, but also will assist with astronaut safety, he said. With no GPS within range to map features, the backpack will show actual distances to landmarks, which was something that bedeviled astronauts during the Apollo surface missions of the 1960s and 1970s. 

The backpack can even mark features for astronauts to return to later, much like geocachers do for fun using GPS satellites on Earth.

Related: NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission explained in photos

KNacK can combine high-definition video (upper left) with lidar ranging data (upper right), along with lidar Doppler velocity data. These all give different data streams showing a UAV drone landing in the New Mexico desert. (Image credit: NASA/Michael Zanetti)

KNaCK, in consultation with vendor Aeva Inc. of Mountain View, California, has been field-tested on Earth. Projects it has worked on include mapping dunes near NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and exploring an ancient volcanic crater at Kilbourne Hole, New Mexico. 

Zanetti says the backpack still has developmental issues to address, however, before it takes off for moon missions. The rig will need to be smaller and less massive yet than its current mass of 40 pounds (18 kg), and the electronics are not quite strong enough  to withstand solar radiation nor lunar gravity conditions.

The aim is to eventually make the backpack about the size of a soda can, Zanetti said, for a more flexible set of deployments. Astronauts could place it on the side of their helmets, or stack it onto a rover, as they do their excursions. 

While a new field test is planned at Kilbourne Hole in late April, NASA has not yet disclosed when the backpack would be ready for lunar missions. The first lunar landing excursion, Artemis 3, will take place in 2025 or 2026, NASA has said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.