UMass professor aids NASA bid to develop moon, Mars rovers
As a young pilot, Christopher Condit helped transport geologists and crew members working on NASA’s Apollo missions, sparking a lifelong fascination with space exploration.
Now the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and field geologist is using his skills to help train the next generation of astronauts and scientists.
Condit is spending two weeks in northern Arizona’s San Francisco volcanic field working with dozens of other scientists and engineers to develop manned rovers that could one day tour the surface of the moon or Mars.
“We test out the hardware, the software,’’ Condit said. “A lot of what goes on in this test is assessing what works and what doesn’t and trying to get better at it.’’
Condit’s role is as a geologic observer, keeping an eye on the rovers and evaluating how the on-board geologists are succeeding.
Those involved in the program — dubbed RATS, for Research and Technology Studies — chose the basaltic lava flows in part because of their otherworldly landscape, one that best mimics the moon or Mars.
It’s the 13th excursion as the team continues to hone both the technology and skills needed for future missions.
Among the pieces of space equipment being tested are a pair of rovers that astronauts will live in for seven days at a time. One goal is to give explorers the freedom to range over longer distances of the moon or Mars.
The rovers are equipped with fuel cells and spacesuits to allow those inside to step out of the vehicle.
Other pieces of equipment being put through their paces in Arizona include a simulated habitat where the rovers can dock to allow the crew to perform experiments or deal with medical issues, and two heavy-lift rover platforms that allow the habitat, or other large items, to be moved.
One goal of the mission is to closely mirror the realities of space exploration.
During the two weeks of testing, which conclude Sept. 15, there will be four crew members living in the two rovers. They will practice driving up and down steep slopes and over rough terrain at different speeds.
They will also test out a slew of new geology sample collection tools, including what NASA describes as a “self-contained GeoLab glove box for conducting in-field analysis of various collected rock samples.’’