D-RATS astronauts test lunar technology in the desert

A team comprising people from NASA and its Japanese counterpart, JAXA, is currently in an Arizona desert carrying out tests of a rover and other technology that could one day be heading to the moon.

NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS) has been operating on an annual basis since the late 1990s, but the work is becoming increasingly important as the space agency is on the verge of launching a new era of lunar exploration through its Artemis program.

A lunar rover in an Arizona desert as part of tests for a lunar mission.NASA

Current D-RATS members include NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Stan Love, along with their Japanese colleagues Aki Hoshide and Norishige Kanai.

“D-RATS will consist of three simulated missions, each lasting three days, and will be located at Black Point Lava Flow, 40 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona,” NASA explained in a post on its website. “This unique location will allow teams to emulate conditions astronauts will experience near the lunar South Pole during Artemis missions including challenging terrain, interesting geology, and minimal communications.

The astronauts’ “day in the life” desert missions will run through October 22 and include thorough testing of JAXA’s pressurized rover. The astronauts will live and work inside the vehicle for 72 hours at a time so that engineers can determine if it’s able to safely handle the demanding lunar conditions.

“Operated like a real mission, the Desert RATS crews will carefully rove the desert, exiting the vehicle in their mock spacesuits when they come across scientifically intriguing regions to explore,” NASA said. “At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a Mission Control team will track crew movement and activities, help them stay on schedule, and troubleshoot for them if problems arise.”

The tests will help engineers to discover ways to design, build, and operate better equipment, as well as establish requirements for operations and procedures essential to any crewed lunar mission.

NASA’s Artemis program should get underway next month with the first launch of its next-generation Space Launch System rocket. The Artemis I mission has already suffered several delays due to technical issues, but when it finally gets underway it’ll send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a fly-by of the moon as part of a test flight.

If successful, Artemis II will send a crew on the same journey, while Artemis III, which could take place as early as 2025, will endeavor to put the first woman first person of color on the lunar surface. Following that, NASA and its partners will set about building a permanent moon base, which could act as a stepping stone for the first crewed mission to Mars, possibly in the late 2030s.

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