Want to walk on the Moon? NASA just built their own lifelike lunar surface in a lab

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA scientists are showing off their own fake moon — which they say mimics the real thing in every detail. The space agency adds that this updated lab model with ultra-realistic lighting and terrain closely simulates lunar conditions. Scientists now have two major types of lunar surfaces at their disposal to help train future robots, rovers, and astronauts traveling to the real Moon’s polar regions.

The so-called Lunar Lab and Regolith Testbed houses at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California house two large indoor “sandboxes” filled with tons of simulated lunar dust. With both testbeds, the team can simulate most areas on the Moon with a high degree of accuracy. NASA’s new Moon rover, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) team, has been able to use the Regolith Testbed to test how well the rover’s lighting systems and hazard avoidance cameras handle the very low-angle illumination it will experience while mapping the Moon’s South Pole.

While a first moonscape has been in use for several years, NASA recently upgraded the facility to include the second, larger testbed, filled with more than 20 tons of light grey Lunar Highlands Simulant-1 (LHS-1). It measures 62 feet by 13 feet by 1 foot, and can be reconfigured to be a smaller, but deeper, testbed.

VIPER light system prototype testing in the Ames Lunar Lab
Testing of the VIPER light system prototype in the Ames Lunar Lab (B503). The tests will evaluate if the design meets the requirements for VIPER navigation illumination. The results will be used to revise specifications for engineering and flight unit production. With Uland Wong and Massimo Vespignani. (Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart)

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The facility’s first sandbox measures approximately 13 feet by 13 feet by 1.5 feet and is filled with eight tons of Johnson Space Center One simulant (JSC-1A) – making it the world’s largest collection of the material. The JSC-1A simulant mimics the Moon’s mare basins and is dark grey in color.

Research scientists and engineers from NASA and the commercial space industry alike have been able to use the Lunar Lab to study how well science instruments, robots, and people might be able to safely work, manipulate, navigate, and traverse the tough lunar terrain. The Testbed also enables research applicable to places beyond the Moon, including Mercury, nearby asteroids, and regolith-covered moons like Mars’ Phobos.

The polar regions of the Moon are very different from the terrain Apollo astronauts experienced. When rovers and astronauts carry out missions at the lunar South Pole, they’ll have to navigate in low-angle lighting and overcome harsh solar glare that makes it difficult to see. Since the Sun will never rise overhead, even the smallest rock or crater will cast long shadows and cloak craters in darkness. At times, the Sun will blaze at eye-level as it reflects off the soil.

“Sometimes researchers painstakingly shape the dust with hand tools to recreate, as accurately as possible, features astronauts and rovers are likely to encounter,” the NASA team explains in a media release.

“These include tiny pits and small craters measuring as small as a couple feet to a few yards across. It may also mean placing small rocks and other debris to resemble actual places observed by Moon-orbiting spacecraft.”

Moon dust can be as sharp as glass

One feature that makes the Testbed unique, is a set of bright, high-power lights that simulate the Sun’s glaring rays as they are cast across the lunar landscape. Researchers can accurately recreate lighting conditions that are relevant to locations on the Moon’s poles and across a range of lunar times – past, present, or future.

“Future human and robotic explorers of off-planet polar regions will need to contend with the incredibly abrasive and ‘sticky’ lunar dust, known as regolith,” the NASA researchers note.

“Moon dust has grains as fine as powder, as sharp as tiny shards of glass, and a curious capacity to electrostatically cling to everything, due to the way it was formed. Add in the lack of an atmosphere and the fact that the Moon is home to some of the coldest places in our solar system, and the lunar environment will pose a challenge to machinery and spacesuits, at best. At worst, it could be a hazard.”

South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.

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