A fleet of 4 cars — two big vans, a motor house, and a car — carefully cut the curves of Teide National Park breaking the silence of very early morning. Sun was still resting behind the horizon but the sky in the East started to melt into orange colors and moon was setting on the other side. These vans carried rather unordinary things – a prototype of a lunar rover and 4 engineers. They carried them to their beds, that’s what they desired most, after a night of moon exploration.
There is literally zero time to keep our promise and update the blog daily. It’s been third night of night and day work and we are finally becoming adjusted for the full night work. When I say we, I admit Spanish do not have a problem to change they daily routine and sleep any time they want. On the other hand, me — a northerner not hardened by night life of Spain — suffer a bit more. Thus you are lucky, I woke up early and I can use this time to update the blog!
The basic question is: What for god sake are you guys doing by night at a Volcano with a robot? That’s at least what most people ask. Well, I will try to make it clear in this post.
There is a great interest to explore the South Pole of Moon where we believe are big sources of frozen water. There is only so much we can do from the orbit and that is the reason to send a remotely operated robot directly to the surface to touch the rocks and analyze the water ice. While there were already teleoperated rovers running on the Moon — Russian two Lunokhods and China’s Yutu — it is however a different challenge to send the rover to the South Poles. Temperatures are extremely low and we need to do exploration in craters which are permanently shadowed so there is no light. This is a challenge for how to get the power for the robot but also for how to operate it when it is dark.
Given the proximity of the Moon we can actually teleoperate the rover. And here comes LUCID. It is an European Space Agency project executed by 3 companies — GMV from Spain, Trasys from Belgium, and JR from Austria. We are evaluating how to operate the rover and what kind of information from what kind of sensors are useful for the operator. It is actually the first time when someone tries something like this: teleoperate a rover in darkness on other celestial body. It brings challenges like delay, limited operator awareness and that is what we are trying to tackle with this field test.
So, why to do a night field test of a robot in Canary Islands? No, it’s not that we want to have nice vacation and enjoy the mojitos on the beaches. El Teide is a great geological analog of the South Pole of Moon — one of the few places like that on Earth. It is very important to test the robot in the environment similar to which we would encounter in the actual place because many algorithms and sensors are very dependent on the environment.
The fact that we want to move the rover in permanently shadowed areas is the reason why we work by night. We in fact have artificial sun so we can emulate the low position of the sun above the horizon. This is very important for the camera sensors.
But more about all the sensors in the next post!