Nasa has sent two robots to an isolated rocky polar desert within a crater in the Arctic Circle as part of a training exercise to help scientists learn how robots could evaluate potential outposts on the Moon or Mars.
Scientists chose the region because of the extreme environmental conditions, its lack of infrastructure and resources, and its geological features.
Haughton Crater is geographically similar to Shackleton Crater at the south pole of the Moon, in that both are impact craters that measure roughly 12.4 miles in diameter.
"We are learning about the awesome potential of human and robot teams," said Pete Worden, director of Nasa's Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California, where the group conducting the survey is based.
"Studying how humans and robots can maximise scientific returns in sites such as Devon Island will prepare us to walk on the Moon and Mars."
Nasa is planning to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020, but wants to conduct detailed surveys at a variety of locations to produce maps, look for minerals and water, and learn other details prior to establishing a lunar outpost.
The space agency plans to accomplish its surveys with an automated orbiting spacecraft, not a robotic lander, but the agency still has a keen interest in advancing the laser scanning technology.
Most of the lunar sites are on harsh terrain and in permanently shadowed areas so it is not unusual for site surveys to require thousands of measurements and hundreds of hours to complete.
A robot can reduce mission cost and improve effectiveness by allowing ground control to conduct surveying tasks.
"A typical scenario involves multiple rovers autonomously surveying a region while humans supervise and assess data from a remote location," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robots Group at Ames.
The robots are using different techniques to the goal-directed traverses and isolated sampling tasks that scientific rovers have used to explore Mars.
The 3D laser scanner can map topographic features as far as 3,280 feet away, while the ground-penetrating radar can map as deep as 16.4 feet.
"The robots are covering the area in lawnmower-like paths at human walking speeds to systematically map above and below ground," explained Fong.
The flight will take off from California's Mojave Air and Space Port and could happen as soon as 13th December
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