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September 21, 2022

In October 2022, the USGS Astrogeology Science Center will team up with NASA and Babbitt Ranches to help test space suits and pressurized rovers in the San Francisco Volcanic Field north of Flagstaff. These activities will help ensure the success and safety of the Artemis missions to the south pole of Earth’s moon in a few years.

Every astronaut who walked on the Moon trained with Astrogeology in Flagstaff and northern Arizona first. NASA is returning to the moon, so we are continuing that tradition of astronaut training and hardware testing. USGS Astrogeology, with help from Babbitt Ranches who manage and ensure the stewardship of the test site, will help coordinate activities to test NASA’s space suits, communication scenarios, and pressurized rovers in preparation for humanity’s return to the surface of the Moon. NASA has not yet identified the Artemis crew, but like all moonwalkers before them, all astronaut candidates get detailed geologic training to ensure they can be knowledgeable “boots on the ground” when visiting the lunar surface.

Cinder Lake Field training for Apollo 15
Jim Irwin (left) and Dave Scott taking samples at Cinder Lake Crater Field during field training for Apollo 15 (circa 1970).

Testing grounds to count on

NASA has relied on the unique geologic character of northern Arizona as a testing ground for lunar exploration since the Apollo-era, and it will continue to do so for the upcoming Artemis missions. Although there are test sites that are very remote where astronauts can practice skills like working in an isolated environment and building teamwork skills, northern Arizona provides the opportunity to use tried-and-true sites with a wide range of terrain in a controlled environment.

NASA test run making field observations in a simulated shadowed region in northern Arizona
NASA suited subjects during a 2021 test run making field observations in a simulated shadowed region in northern Arizona. (image credit: NASA Johnson Space Center)

Traversing the Moon in Arizona

The October tests will help examine and then refine the role that science plays in devising and conducting both suited and rover traverses across the lunar surface. The first part of these tests will focus on performing a series of four, multi-hour walking traverses by a pair of crew members in non-pressurized prototype space suits with the same range of motion that crew members are likely to experience on the lunar surface. The second part of these tests will focus on conducting four multi-day traverses using a pressurized rover. Like traverses on the moon by Apollo astronauts, the October 2022 tests will follow pre-planned routes guided by mission control in Houston to traverse, sample, and photographic the analog “lunar” surface. The astronauts will use geologic maps made by Astrogeology to help guide their traverses. The entire series of tests will take about three weeks.

Jim Skinner
USGS Astrogeology's involvement in the field tests is led by Jim Skinner.

Watching for shadowy hazards

The first crewed Artemis missions will land at the lunar south pole, where the sun is at a very low angle on the horizon (check out this map for NASA’s selected proposed landing sites). Because of this low angle, shadows cast by surface features like boulders and the lander will be very long. Parts of the Moon near the south pole never see sunlight. These “permanently shadowed regions” contain ice, and with the coldest recorded temperatures in the Solar System, pose serious hazards to astronauts. How do you make safe, scientific observations in these conditions? While northern Arizona in October is considerably warmer than the Moon’s shadowed craters, the field tests will help the Artemis crew to safely explore the Moon’s south pole.

The field tests will occur at night with a false sun illuminating the terrain at a very low angle to simulate the unusual lighting that astronauts will encounter on the Moon. The tests will also help to determine whether the crew is able to safely make the necessary geologic observations to achieve the mission’s science goals using geologic maps made from spacecraft data.

By testing the technology and mission architecture in the field, we will help NASA learn what needs to be improved to ensure mission success when the astronauts are on the Moon.

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