This Map-Making AI Could Be the First Step Towards GPS on the Moon
For years, scientists have been working out ways to navigate across the lunar surface, a task that’s been a herculean undertaking without tools like the GPS we have on Earth.
Since the moon has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, it’s difficult to judge both the distance and size of faraway landmarks as there’s a lack of perspective from the horizon.
Trees or buildings on Earth offer hazy but helpful points of reference for distance, but such an illusion is impossible on the moon.
Additionally, without an atmosphere to scatter light, the sun’s bright rays would skew the visual and depth perception of an astronaut on the moon, making it a real challenge to get around the vast, unmapped terrain.
On Earth, “we have GPS, and it’s easy to take advantage of that and not think about all the technology that goes into it,” says Alvin Yew, a research engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.“But now when we’re on the moon, we just don’t have that.”
Inspired by previous research on lunar navigation, Yew is developing an AI system that guides explorers across the lunar floor by scanning the horizon for distinct landmarks.
Trained on data gathered from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the system works by recreating features on the lunar horizon as they would appear to an explorer standing on the surface of the moon.
“Because the moon has no atmosphere, there’s not a lot of scattering of the light,” says Yew.But by using the outline of the landscape, “we’re able to get a very clear demarcation of where the ground is relative to space.”
Yew’s AI system would be able to navigate using geographic features like boulders, ridges, and even craters, whose distance would normally be difficult to accurately locate for a person.
These measurements could be used to match features identified in images already captured by astronauts and rovers, in a similar way to how our GPS spots locations on Earth.
Developing GPS-like technology that’s specifically tuned to help explorers get around the moon is especially important for supporting autonomous robotic operations, Yew says.
Now that NASA’s Artemis I mission recently finished with a successful splashdown earlier this month, such technology will also be needed for humans to return to the moon in the not-so-distant future.
When astronauts of the upcoming Artemis III mission make landfall, having handheld or integral systems to help conquer the new terrain could be the deciding factor in how far (and how well) they can explore, both on the moon and beyond.
“NASA’s focus on trying to get to the moon, and eventually to Mars someday, requires an investment of these vital technologies,” says Yew.His work is also planned to complement the moon’s future “internet,” called LunaNet.
The framework will support communications, lunar navigation operations, as well as many other science services on the moon.
According to NASA scientists, the collection of lunar satellites aims to offer internet access similar to Earth’s, a network that spacecraft and future astronauts can tap into without needing to schedule data transfers in advance, like space missions currently do.
Cheryl Gramling, the associate chief for technology of the mission engineering and systems analysis division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says the moon is a testbed where we can take lessons learned from our planet, and see how they translate to deeper space exploration.
“You also don’t have the fundamental infrastructure that we’ve built up on the Earth,” she says.The moon is like a blank slate: “You have to think about, well, ‘what is it that you need?’”
Much like how different internet providers allow their customers access to the web and other services, Gramling says that NASA, as well as other space agencies, could come together to comprise LunaNet.“It’s extending the internet to space,” she says.