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A team of engineers prepares to integrate TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – into the belly of NASA’s first robotic Moon rover, VIPER – short for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. NASA/Bill Stafford A team of engineers prepares to integrate TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – into the belly of NASA’s first robotic Moon rover, VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover).
TRIDENT, designed and developed by engineers at Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California, is the fourth and final science instrument to be installed into VIPER. NASA engineers have already successfully integrated VIPER’s three other science instruments into the rover. These include: the MSOLO (Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations), NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System), and NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System).
Shortly after TRIDENT was integrated in the clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the team also successfully tested its ability to power on, release the locks that hold the drill in place during launch, extend to its full depth of more than three feet (one meter), perform percussive drilling, and return to its stowed position inside the rover.
TRIDENT will dig up soil from below the lunar surface using a rotary percussive drill – meaning it both spins to cut into the ground and hammers to fragment hard material for more energy-efficient drilling. In addition to being able to measure the strength and compactedness of the lunar soil, the drill also carries a temperature sensor to take readings below the surface. VIPER will launch to the Moon aboard Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. It will reach its destination at Mons Mouton near the Moon’s South Pole. Scientists will work with these four instruments to better understand the origin of water and other resources on the Moon, which could support human exploration as part of NASA’s Artemis campaign.
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Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
NASA’s Perseverance puts its robotic arm to work around a rocky outcrop called “Skinner Ridge” in a set of images captured in June and July 2022 by the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera system. SHERLOC is mounted on the end of the arm.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS Engineers are working to stabilize a dust cover on one of the science instrument’s cameras.
Data and imagery from NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover indicate one of two covers that keep dust from accumulating on the optics of the SHERLOC instrument remains partially open. In this position, the cover interferes with science data collection operations. Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) uses cameras, a spectrometer, and a laser to search for organic compounds and minerals that have been altered in watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.
The mission determined on Jan. 6 that the cover was oriented in such a position that some of its operation modes could not successfully operate. An engineering team has been investigating to determine the root cause and possible solutions. Recently, the cover partially opened. To better understand the behavior of the cover’s motor, the team has been sending commands to the instrument that alter the amount of power being fed to it.
With the cover in its current position, the instrument cannot use its laser on rock targets, and cannot collect spectroscopy data. However, imaging microscopy can still be acquired with WATSON, a color camera on SHERLOC used for taking close-up images of rock grains and surface textures. WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) operates through a different aperture.
SHERLOC is part of a seven-instrument suite on Perseverance. During development of the mission, the team designed the instrument suite such that the rover could still achieve its science objectives should any single instrument fail, as there is some overlap among the capabilities of the instruments. Along with SHERLOC, PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and SuperCam also perform spectroscopy.
Currently making its way to explore an area nicknamed “Beehive Geyser,” the rover marked its 1,000th Martian day, or sol, on the Red Planet on Dec. 12, 2023 – more than 300 sols beyond its initial prime mission. Since the rover’s landing Feb. 18, 2021, SHERLOC has scanned and provided rich data on 34 rock targets, creating a total of 261 hyperspectral maps of those targets. Featuring a radioisotope power system, Perseverance’s design is based on the agency’s Curiosity Mars rover, which is still going strong after more than 11 years (4,000 sols) on the Red Planet.
More About the Mission
A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith.
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.
For more about Perseverance:
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Last Updated Feb 13, 2024 Related Terms
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Laser Instrument on NASA’s LRO Successfully ‘Pings’ Indian Moon Lander
For the first time at the Moon, a laser beam was transmitted and reflected between an orbiting NASA spacecraft and an Oreo-sized device on ISRO’s (Indian Space Research Organisation) Vikram lander on the lunar surface. The successful experiment opens the door to a new style of precisely locating targets on the Moon’s surface.
At 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 12, 2023, NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) pointed its laser altimeter instrument toward Vikram. The lander was 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, away from LRO, near Manzinus crater in the Moon’s South Pole region, when LRO transmitted laser pulses toward it. After the orbiter registered light that had bounced back from a tiny NASA retroreflector aboard Vikram, NASA scientists knew their technique had finally worked.
ISRO’s (Indian Space Research Organization) Vikram lander, with a NASA retroreflector on it, touched down on the Moon on Aug. 23, 2023. The camera aboard NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) took this picture four days later. The lander is in the center of the image, its dark shadow visible against the bright halo around it. The halo formed after rocket plume interacted with the fine-grained regolith (similar to soil) on the Moon’s surface. The image shows an area that’s 1 mile, or 1.7 kilometers, wide. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University Sending laser pulses toward an object and measuring how long it takes the light to bounce back is a commonly used way to track the locations of Earth-orbiting satellites from the ground. But using the technique in reverse – to send laser pulses from a moving spacecraft to a stationary one to determine its precise location – has many applications at the Moon, scientists say.
“We’ve showed that we can locate our retroreflector on the surface from the Moon’s orbit,” said Xiaoli Sun, who led the team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, that developed the retroreflector on Vikram as part of a partnership between NASA and ISRO. “The next step is to improve the technique so that it can become routine for missions that want to use these retroreflectors in the future.”
Only 2 inches, or 5 centimeters, wide, NASA’s tiny but mighty retroreflector, called a Laser Retroreflector Array, has eight quartz-corner-cube prisms set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. The device is simple and durable, scientists say, requiring neither power nor maintenance, and can last for decades. Its configuration allows the retroreflector to reflect light coming in from any direction back to its source.
Only 2 inches, or 5 centimeters, wide, NASA’s Laser Retroreflector Array has eight quartz-corner-cube prisms set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. This configuration allows the device to reflect light coming in from any direction back to its source. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Retroreflectors can be used for many applications in science and exploration and, indeed, have been in use at the Moon since the Apollo era. By reflecting light back to Earth, the suitcase-size retroreflectors revealed that the Moon is moving away from our planet at a rate of 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) per year.
This new generation of tiny retroreflectors has even more applications than their larger predecessors. On the International Space Station, they’re used as precision markers that help cargo-delivery spacecraft dock autonomously.
In the future, they could guide Artemis astronauts to the surface in the dark, for example, or mark the locations of spacecraft already on the surface, helping astronauts or uncrewed spacecraft land next to them.
But there’s more work to do before retroreflectors can light up the Moon. The biggest hurdle to their immediate adoption is that LRO’s altimeter, which has operated for 13 years beyond its primary mission, is the only laser instrument orbiting the Moon for now. But the instrument wasn’t designed to pinpoint a target; since 2009, the altimeter – called LOLA – has been responsible for mapping the Moon’s topography to prepare for missions to the surface.
“We would like LOLA to point to this Oreo-sized target and hit it every time, which is hard,” said Daniel Cremons, a NASA Goddard scientist who works with Sun. It took the altimeter eight tries to contact Vikram’s retroreflector.
LOLA works by dispatching five laser beams toward the Moon and measuring how long it takes each one to bounce back (the quicker the light returns, the less distance between LOLA and the surface, and thus the higher the elevation in that area). Each laser beam covers an area 32 feet, or 10 meters, wide, from a 62-mile, or 100-kilometer, altitude. Because there are large gaps between the beams, there is only a small chance that the laser pulse can contact a retroreflector during each pass of the lunar orbiter over the lander.
Altimeters are great for detecting craters, rocks, and boulders to create global elevation maps of the Moon. But they aren’t ideal for pointing to within one-hundredth of a degree of a retroreflector, which is what’s required to consistently achieve a ping. A future laser that slowly and continuously rakes the surface without any gaps in coverage would help tiny retroreflectors meet their potential.
For now, the team behind NASA’s miniature retroreflectors will continue to use LRO’s laser altimeter to help refine the position of targets on the surface, especially landers.
Several NASA retroreflectors are slated to fly aboard public and private Moon landers, including one on JAXA’s (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) SLIM lander, due to land on the Moon on Jan. 19, 2024, and one built by Intuitive Machines, a private company scheduled to launch its spacecraft to the Moon in mid-February. Intuitive Machines will carry six NASA payloads, including the retroreflector, under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
Nancy Neal Jones,
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
Last Updated Jan 18, 2024 Related Terms
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