Wednesday, August 3, 2011
By George Hatcher

HOUSTON — NASA is once again taking human space exploration to the Arizona desert in tests to simulate conditions on other worlds. News media representatives are invited to two opportunities to learn more about the upcoming Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) field tests.

On Thursday, Aug. 4, journalists can visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2:30 to 4 p.m. CDT for the Desert RATS team’s final dry run before next month’s mission. On Sept. 12, reporters at Black Point Lava Flow in northern Arizona can talk with team members and see mission hardware from 9 to 11:30 a.m. MDT.

To attend either opportunity, reporters must contact Brandi Dean at The deadline for the Johnson event is 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 3. For the desert media day, reporters must RSVP by Sept. 2.

For the past 14 years, teams of engineers, scientists, astronauts and technicians from across NASA centers and throughout industry and academia have simulated missions to distant destinations to answer questions about future exploration. This year, for the first time, the desolate desert landscape will stand in for an asteroid. Visiting an asteroid presents NASA with challenges the agency is only beginning to tackle. Among them are how to travel between sites of interest on an asteroid’s surface and how to conduct spacewalks in its microgravity.

Desert RATS will investigate these issues and others applicable to future exploration such as crew size and bases; making the best use of astronauts’ time when faced with extensive time delays in communication from Earth; and efficiently controlling robotic technology during surveys and scouting expeditions.

Technologies being tested in the 2011 Desert RATS mission include: — The Deep Space Habitat, which combines NASA’s Habitat Demonstration Unit with a student-built X-Hab inflatable loft. The habitat provides crew living and work space.
— NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle. Although its wheels would not be needed on the surface of an asteroid, the vehicle cabin could be mounted on a flying platform to provide astronauts transportation between sites of interest.
— Robonaut 2/Centaur 2. Mounted on a wheeled base called Centaur 2, NASA’s Robonaut 2 robotic astronaut assistant becomes R2C2. It can remotely scout areas for potential crew visits or assist astronauts in spacewalks.
— The Deep Space Network. The size and capability of communications and data network links will have far-reaching impact on day-to-day existence of explorers on distant surfaces. Testing various scenarios in the desert will help identify requirements for such systems.
— The Extravehicular Activity Information System. Spacesuits will not be worn during the planned field test activities, but a suite of prototype electronic tools have been developed to help plan for efficient, autonomous work during future spacewalks. The tools are packaged as a small system for test and evaluation on conceptual lightweight backpacks. They will be connected to displays worn on the astronauts’ wrists and incorporate high definition video cameras.

Participants in the 2011 Desert RATS mission include Johnson and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.; Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
Calif.; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; Kennedy Space Center in Florida; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland ; Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; NASA Headquarters in Washington; the European Space Agency; the Canadian Space Agency; the U.S. Air Force; the U.S. Army; the U.S. Geological Survey; the Lunar and Planetary Institute; the Planetary Science Institute; University of Texas, El Paso; Hamilton College of Clinton, N.Y.; Brown University; Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Colorado State University; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Berkeley Heights, N.J., Public Schools; and Penn Manor School District of Millersville, Pa.

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