A team made up of people from NASA and its Japanese counterpart, JAXA, is currently in an Arizona desert testing a rover and other technologies that may someday be heading for the moon.
NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS) has operated on an annual basis since the late 1990s, but work is becoming increasingly important as the space agency is on the verge of launching a new era of lunar exploration across the his Artemis program.
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 the conditions astronauts will experience near the lunar South Pole during Artemis missions, including difficult terrain, interesting geology and minimal communications.
The astronauts’ “day of life” desert missions will run until October 22 and will include extensive 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 can safely handle the harsh lunar conditions.
“Operated as a real mission, the Desert RATS crews will travel carefully across the desert, exiting the vehicle in their mock spacesuits as they come across scientifically intriguing regions to explore,” said NASA. “At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a mission control team will track crew movements and activities, help them stick to schedules, and troubleshoot for them in the event of a problem.”
The tests will help engineers discover ways to design, build and operate better equipment, as well as establish the requirements for essential operations and procedures for any manned lunar mission.
NASA’s Artemis program is expected to begin next month with the first launch of its next-generation Space Launch System rocket. The Artemis I mission has already experienced several delays due to technical issues, but when it finally gets underway it will send an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a moon overflight as part of a test flight.
If successful, Artemis II will send a crew on the same voyage, while Artemis III, which may take place as early as 2025, will strive to put the first black woman on the moon’s surface. Next, NASA and its partners will begin building a permanent moon base, which could serve as a stepping stone for the first manned mission to Mars, possibly in the late 1930s.