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Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
When NASA sends astronauts to the South Pole region of the Moon for the first time with its Artemis campaign, they will capture photos with a handheld camera to help advance scientific research and discovery for the benefit of all. NASA and Nikon Inc. recently signed a Space Act Agreement that outlines how they will work together to develop a handheld camera that can operate in the harsh lunar environment for use beginning with Artemis III.
Photographing the lunar South Pole region requires a modern camera with specialized capabilities to manage the extreme lighting conditions and temperatures unique to the area. The agreement enables NASA to have a space-rated camera ready for use on the lunar surface without needing to develop one from scratch.
Prior to the agreement, NASA performed initial testing on a standard Nikon Z 9 camera to determine the specifications a camera would need to operate on the lunar surface. With the agreement in place, teams at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, along with Nikon, have started working to implement the necessary adjustments and develop the HULC (Handheld Universal Lunar Camera), the agency’s next-generation camera astronauts will use on the Moon.
NASA astronauts Zena Cardman and Drew Feustel practice using an early design of the Handheld Universal Lunar Camera during the Joint Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Test Team (JETT) Field Test 3 in Arizona. NASA / Bill Stafford The resulting design consists of a modified Nikon Z 9 camera and Nikkor lenses, NASA’s thermal blanket, which will protect the camera from dust and extreme temperatures, and a custom grip with modified buttons developed by NASA engineers for easier handling by suited crewmembers wearing thick gloves during a moonwalk. In addition, the camera will incorporate the latest imagery technology and will have modified electrical components to minimize issues caused by radiation, ensuring the camera operates as intended on the Moon.
The camera will be the first mirrorless handheld camera used on the Moon, designed for capturing imagery in low-light environments. Prior to Artemis missions, the camera will be used at the International Space Station to demonstrate its capabilities.
For over 50 years, NASA has used a variety of cameras in space, including the cameras crewmembers currently use at the International Space Station to take photos of science experiments, day-to-day operations, and during spacewalks while they orbit about 250 miles above Earth.
NASA astronaut Jessica Wittner uses an early design of the Artemis lunar camera to take photos during planetary geological field training in Lanzarote, Spain.European Space Agency / A. Romero During the Apollo program, crewmembers took over 18,000 photos using modified large-format, handheld cameras. However, those cameras didn’t have viewfinders, so astronauts were trained to aim the camera from chest-level where it attached to the front of the spacesuit. In addition, Apollo crewmembers had to use separate cameras for photos and video. The new lunar camera will have a viewfinder and video capabilities to capture both still imagery and video on a single device.
To ensure camera performance on the lunar surface, NASA has begun thermal, vacuum, and radiation testing on the lunar camera to see how it behaves in a space-like environment. Suited NASA crewmembers have used the camera to capture imagery of geology tasks during simulated moonwalks in Arizona, and an international crew of astronauts from NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) used it during geology training in Lanzarote, Spain.
NASA crewmembers will use the camera during the Joint Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Test Team Field Test #5, an upcoming analog mission in Arizona where teams will conduct simulated moonwalks in the desert to practice lunar operations.
Through NASA’s Artemis campaign, the agency will land the first woman, the first person of color, and its first international partner astronaut on the surface of the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence and serving as a steppingstone to send the first astronauts to Mars.
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SpaceX and NASA recently performed full-scale qualification testing of the docking system that will connect SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS) with Orion and later Gateway in lunar orbit during future crewed Artemis missions. Based on the flight-proven Dragon 2 active docking system, the Starship HLS docking system will be able to act as an active or passive system during docking.SpaceX As part of NASA’s Artemis campaign that will establish the foundation for long-term scientific exploration at the Moon, crew will need to move between different spacecraft to carry out lunar landings. NASA and SpaceX recently performed qualification testing for the docking system that will help make that possible.
For the Artemis III mission, astronauts will ride the Orion spacecraft from Earth to lunar orbit, and then once the two spacecraft are docked, move to the lander, the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) that will bring them to the surface. After surface activities are complete, Starship will return the astronauts to Orion waiting in lunar orbit. During later missions, astronauts will transfer from Orion to Starship via the Gateway lunar space station. Based on SpaceX’s flight-proven Dragon 2 docking system used on missions to the International Space Station, the Starship docking system can be configured to connect the lander to Orion or Gateway.
The docking system tests for Starship HLS were conducted at NASA’s Johnson Space Center over 10 days using a system that simulates contact dynamics between two spacecraft in orbit. The testing included more than 200 docking scenarios, with various approach angles and speeds. These real-world results using full-scale hardware will validate computer models of the Moon lander’s docking system.
This dynamic testing demonstrated that the Starship system could perform a “soft capture” while in the active docking role. When two spacecraft dock, one vehicle assumes an active “chaser” role while the other is in a passive “target” role. To perform a soft capture, the soft capture system (SCS) of the active docking system is extended while the passive system on the other spacecraft remains retracted. Latches and other mechanisms on the active docking system SCS attach to the passive system, allowing the two spacecraft to dock.
Since being selected as the lander to return humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time since Apollo, SpaceX has completed more than 30 HLS specific milestones by defining and testing hardware needed for power generation, communications, guidance and navigation, propulsion, life support, and space environments protection.
Under NASA’s Artemis campaign, the agency will land the first woman, first person of color, and its first international partner astronaut on the lunar surface, and prepare for human expeditions to Mars for the benefit of all. Commercial human landing systems are critical to deep space exploration, along with the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, advanced spacesuits and rovers, exploration ground systems, and the Gateway space station.
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Jenalane (Rowe) Strawn
Marshall Space Flight Center
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