Tuesday, March 5, 2024
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Small NASA cameras to capture interaction between lander and moon surface


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Say cheese, moon. Let’s see a close-up. As Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander descends toward the moon, four small NASA cameras will focus on the lunar surface, collecting images of how the surface changes from interactions with the lander’s engine plume. spacecraft.

Developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS) are a set of cameras placed around the base of a lunar lander to collect images during and after descent. Using a technique called stereo photogrammetry, Langley researchers will use overlaid images from the Nova-C version of SCALPSS (SCALPSS 1.0) to produce a 3D view of the surface.

These images of the moon’s surface will not just be a surprising novelty. As trips to the moon increase and the number of payloads landing close to each other grows, scientists and engineers must be able to accurately predict the effects of landings.

How much will the surface change? When a lander descends, what happens to the lunar soil or regolith that it ejects? With limited data collected during descent and landing to date, SCALPSS will be the first instrument dedicated to measuring plume-surface interaction on the Moon in real time and help answer these questions.


Stereo cameras for lunar plume surface studies will help us land larger payloads as we explore space. Olivia Tyrrell from the SCALPPS photogrammetry team explains how a small array of cameras will capture invaluable images during the lunar descent and landing, and how those images can inform our future missions to the Moon and beyond. Credit: NASA

“If we put things (landers, habitats, etc.) close to each other, we could be sandblasting what’s next to us, so that will generate requirements to protect those other assets on the surface, which could add mass, and that mass propagates through the architecture,” said Michelle Munk, SCALPSS principal investigator and acting chief architect of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “It’s all part of an integrated engineering problem.”

Under Artemis, NASA intends to collaborate with commercial and international partners to establish the first long-term presence on the moon. In this installment of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, SCALPSS 1.0 focuses exclusively on how the lander alters the lunar surface during landing. It will begin capturing images from before the lander’s plume begins to interact with the surface until landing is complete.

The final images will be collected in a small onboard data storage unit before being sent to the lander for its return link to Earth. The team will likely need at least a couple of months to process the images, verify the data and generate 3D digital elevation maps of the surface. The expected depression they reveal will probably not be very deep; at least not this time.

“Even if you look at the old Apollo images (and the manned Apollo landers were larger than these new robotic landers), you have to look very closely to see where the erosion took place,” said Rob Maddock, director of the SCALPSS project in Langley. “We’re anticipating something on the order of centimeters deep, maybe an inch. It really depends on the landing site and the depth of the regolith and where the bedrock is.”

But this is an opportunity for researchers to see how well SCALPSS will work as the United States moves toward a future in which Human-Landing-Systems-class spacecraft will begin making trips to the Moon.

“Those are going to be a lot bigger than even the Apollo. They’re pretty big engines and could possibly dig some good holes,” Maddock said. “So that’s what we’re doing. We’re collecting data that we can use to validate the models that predict what will happen.”

SCALPSS 1.1, which will feature two additional cameras, is scheduled to fly on another CLPS delivery, Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost, later this year. The additional cameras are optimized to take images at higher altitudes, before the expected onset of plume-surface interaction, and provide a more accurate before-and-after comparison.

NASA is working with several American companies to bring science and technology to the lunar surface through the CLPS initiative.

These companies, of different sizes, bid to deliver payloads for NASA. This includes everything from payload integration and operations to launch from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon.



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