Revolutionizing Lunar Exploration: NASA’s New Lidar Technology

“Discover how NASA’s innovative lidar technology, the CASALS system, is set to transform lunar exploration and Earth science remote sensing. Learn about its potential to enhance the modeling of the Moon’s terrain, aid in the search for Artemis landing sites, and revolutionize space navigation and mapping with advanced 3D imaging capabilities.”

NASA's New Lidar Technology
NASA’s New Lidar Technology

NASA’s team is gearing up to conduct field tests on innovative laser technologies aboard an aircraft for Earth science observations. These technologies, known as lidar, could enhance the modeling of the Moon’s terrain and support the selection of landing sites for the Artemis missions.

Lidar works similarly to sonar but uses light instead of sound waves, measuring distances by calculating the time it takes for a laser beam to bounce back after hitting a surface. This method enables the creation of 3D representations and provides vital data on the movement of the observed objects, playing a crucial role in NASA’s efforts to navigate, map, and gather scientific information.

At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, teams are making progress in developing compact, efficient, and versatile lidar instruments. These advancements are supported by contributions from small businesses and academic institutions.

Jeffrey Chen, a NASA engineer, highlighted the need for advanced 3D-imaging lidar systems to ensure precise landings for future space missions. The objective is to achieve high-resolution hazard detection and navigation, which current systems cannot fully accommodate.

The Concurrent Artificially intelligent Spectrometry and Adaptive Lidar System (CASALS), a product of Goddard’s internal research and development initiatives, represents a significant leap forward. CASALS employs a tunable laser and a prism-like mechanism to vary the laser beam’s wavelength. This approach differs from traditional lidars that use fixed-wavelength lasers and complex optics. CASALS can survey larger planetary areas in a single pass compared to conventional lidars.

CASALS stands out for its compact design, reduced weight, and low energy consumption, making it suitable for small satellite missions and portable devices for lunar exploration, according to Guangning Yang, the project’s lead engineer at Goddard.

With funding from NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office, the CASALS team plans to test their system via airplane in 2024 to advance its readiness for space missions.

CASALS’s versatility extends to its ability to use different laser wavelengths, catering to various applications like Earth science, space exploration, and navigation tasks.

Goddard’s collaboration with industry partners, including Axsun Technologies and Freedom Photonics, has led to the development of new, fast-tuning lasers within the 1-micron infrared spectrum, aimed at both Earth and space exploration.

Ian Adams, Goddard’s Earth sciences chief technologist, explained that near 1-micron wavelengths are effective for distinguishing vegetation from soil on Earth and providing insights into atmospheric water vapor.

Additionally, a partnership with Left Hand Design Corporation resulted in a steering mirror that enhances CASALS’s imaging capabilities, allowing for detailed range and velocity measurements over extensive distances.

For Artemis missions, especially those targeting the Moon’s South Pole, CASALS’s refined imaging will be crucial in evaluating the safety of landing zones.

Erwan Mazarico, a Goddard planetary scientist, is leading efforts to utilize CASALS for generating precise 3D lunar models. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the Moon’s internal composition and its temporal changes.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been mapping the Moon’s surface for years, but CASALS’s technology promises to capture finer details by producing significantly more laser pulses per second, thus offering a much more detailed view of lunar features. This advancement could revolutionize our understanding of lunar geology and the Moon’s response to gravitational influences.

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