Lunar Backpack Could Aid Astronauts on Future Missions to the Moon

The pack can create 3-D maps in real-time of uncharted terrain

An image of a planetary scientist walking in a mountainous region with a yellow backpack on. The backpack has a camera attached to it.
Reseachers tested out the backpack dubbed KNaCK in a volcanic field in New Mexico, and are hoping the tech can support astronaunts on future lunar missions. NASA/Michael Zanetti

Exploring unmapped territory on the moon could soon be as easy as slipping on a backpack. NASA researchers and industry collaborators designed a new high-tech pack for navigating uncharted territories in outer space. The backpack, dubbed the Kinematic Navigation and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK), uses a remote-sensing mapping system to create high-resolution, 3-D maps that astronauts could use to explore the southernmost point on the moon, according to a statement.

KNaCK works by measuring the distances of surfaces and nearby objects with a pulsed laser, reports Gizmodo's Passant Rabie. The laser, a frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) lidar, can measure millions of points per second. The lidar then creates a map of the surrounding terrain. As a result, it will allow astronauts to scout less-explored regions on the moon. NASA's dynamic technology is like the technology used by smart cars to alert their drivers of potential collisions, reports Loukia Papadopoulos for Interesting Engineering. The laser can pick up details like the landscape's topography, such as deep ravines, caves and mountains, even in complete darkness.

"Basically, the sensor is a surveying tool for both navigation and science mapping, able to create ultra-high-resolution 3-D maps at centimeter-level precision and give them a rich scientific context," tells Michael Zanetti, planetary scientist and project lead of KNaCK, in a statement. "It also will help ensure the safety of astronauts and rover vehicles in a GPS-denied environment such as the Moon, identifying actual distances to far-off landmarks and showing explorers in real time how far they've come and how far is left to go to reach their destination."

As part of the Artemis program, NASA plans to have astronauts return to the moon by 2025. The team is set to land near the lunar south pole because previous evidence suggests that the area may contain subsurface water ice, per Gizmodo. Part of the reason astronauts would need a GPS tracking backpack like KNaCK is because the area on the moon's south pole is shrouded by shadows, making it difficult for space explorers to estimate distances on the moon. KNaCK will also let astronauts estimate the exact amount of oxygen they will need to complete missions while on the moon, Gizmodo reports.

"As human beings, we tend to orient ourselves based on landmarks—a specific building, a grove of trees," Zanetti says in a statement. "Those things don't exist on the moon. KNaCK will continuously enable explorers traversing the surface to determine their movement, direction, and orientation to distant peaks or to their base of operations. They can even mark specific sites where they found some unique mineral or rock formation, so others can easily return for further study."

Next, NASA is working on bringing the backpack's weight and size down. Currently, KNaCK weighs 40 pounds, but the team is envisioning that the tech could be small enough to fit on an astronaut's helmet, per Interesting Engineering.

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