We could end up getting an amazing ground-level view of the first crewed moon landing since 1972.
NASA's Flight Opportunities program has just awarded a $650,000 grant to the team behind Lunar ExoCam, an imaging system designed to eject from moon landers during descent and record video of their touchdowns from the otherworldly gray ground.
If development continues to go well, Lunar ExoCam could be ready to fly on some of the private robotic landers that are scheduled to launch toward the moon in the next few years, said the project's principal investigator, Jason Achilles Mezilis. And he'd love to get the camera system aboard NASA's Artemis 3 mission, which aims to land two astronauts near the lunar south pole in 2024.
Related: What is NASA's Artemis program?
Lunar ExoCam's observations would help researchers better understand how lander engines kick up moon dirt and rock, as noted by NASA's award announcement, which was released on Wednesday (Oct. 14). The deployment system the team is developing could also be used to get other payloads down on the lunar surface, Mezilis said. But the motivations for the project extend beyond scientific and engineering gains.
Watching a moon lander come down toward you, especially one carrying astronauts, "would just be really, really cool," Mezilis told Space.com. As would watching those astronauts step down onto the gray dirt, imagery that Lunar ExoCam could provide as well.
Mezilis is a professional musician, but he's not a space neophyte. He's on the team that informed the design of a microphone built into the entry, descent and landing (EDL) system of NASA's Mars 2020 rover Perseverance. If that microphone works, it will record the sounds of Perseverance screaming through the thin Martian atmosphere and touching down inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater in February 2021. (Perseverance carries another microphone, too, which is part of its rock-zapping SuperCam instrument.)
The Lunar ExoCam project is a team effort as well, pulling in people from Arizona State University, Honeybee Robotics, Ecliptic Enterprises Corp. and Masten Space Systems. The lead organization, Zandef Deksit Inc., is a company that Mezilis set up in 2017 to handle his consulting work with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Perseverance's EDL microphone; he's the sole employee. (The name means nothing but still seems appropriate, Mezilis said. He described it as "a little Zaphod Beeblebrox-y," referring to a character from Douglas Adam's famed "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series.)
Though work began on Lunar ExoCam less than a year ago, the Southern California-based team already has some milestones under its belt. For example, the researchers have built and tested a prototype system, which consists of a GoPro MAX 360-degree camera encased in a cushioning wire cage.
In one of those tests, Mezilis and his colleagues used a drone to drop the prototype from a height of about 150 feet (46 meters). It survived the fall just fine and recorded video as planned.
In another trial, team members took three of the caged cameras to Masten's facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Southern California desert. They arrayed the cameras around a test stand holding a Masten vehicle, which fired up and hovered for more than a minute. The prototypes recorded the resulting dust plumes, as operational Lunar ExoCams would on the surface of the moon.
The newly awarded NASA funding will allow the team to take the testing to another level. Sometime next year, Mezilis and his team will put a Lunar ExoCam prototype on a Masten Xodiac vehicle, which will lift off into the Southern California sky. The camera will eject at an altitude of 50 feet (15 m), hitting the ground at about the same speed it would during a landing on the moon, whose gravitational pull is just one-sixth that of Earth.
An operational Lunar ExoCam system would ideally employ at least three cameras, Mezilis said. The imagers would eject in the final moments of the moonward descent — probably 10 to 15 seconds before touchdown at most — and capture the descent and touchdown process in unprecedented detail.
"We'll start filming before we release it," Mezilis said. "So, basically, you'll be able to watch it fall off the lander, which is pretty insane."
Though the project's official name is Lunar ExoCam, Mezilis' ambitions extend beyond Earth's nearest neighbor. He'd like to get a version of the touchdown camera aboard Mars missions someday — especially a lander carrying astronauts down to the Red Planet's surface.
The coolness factor of that Mars imagery would be off the charts. It would create a lasting impression in the minds of many, which is what Mezilis aims to do.
"Ultimately, my goal is to inspire all the five-year-old kids out there — plant that seed for a lifelong love of science and space," he said.
Lunar ExoCam is one of 31 projects to receive funding in the latest round of Flight Opportunities awards. You can read about all of them — including the experiment that New Horizons mission principal investigator Alan Stern will conduct in suborbital space — in the NASA award announcement here.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.