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Jonathan Erickson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

GPS Gets Mooned

July 21, 2008

I don't know about you, but when it comes to finding your way from Point A to Point B, I often need help here on Earth, something I recently confessed to in Getting There Is Half the Fun.

Thanks to American Express Online Portal, the online, do-it-yourself travel agent I have to use, I made it to Chicago yesterday for Dr. Dobb's Architecture and Design World, and made it to Portland for O'Reilly's Open Source Conference last night. Where things went catawampus was getting from the airport to the hotel -- the cab driver took me to the right name, but wrong address. Which led to a post midnight hike on the mean streets of Portland. I wish American Express had been there for that.

Which brings me back to GPS. The thing I didn't have was GPS (although I do have Nokia Maps on my cell phone; I was just to tired to fire it up). Now if I'd been, say, on the moon -- yes, the moon! -- I might have GPS helping me get from Point A to Point B if Ron Li, a professor at Ohio State University, had his say. Thanks to a $1.2 million NASA grant, Li will be building a GPS-like navigation system for the moon called the "Lunar Astronaut Spatial Orientation and Information System" (LASOIS), that relies on signals from a set of sensors including lunar beacons, stereo cameras, and orbital imaging sensors, instead of the GPS satellites that we use on Earth.

People are used to having certain visual cues to judge distances, such as the size of a building or another car on the horizon, explains Li. But the moon has no such cues. Getting lost, or misjudging a distant object's size and location would be easy -- and dangerous. Same here.

As Li described in the paper Enchancement of Spatial Orientation of Spatial Orientation Capability of Astronauts on the Lunar Surface Supported by Integrated Sensor Network and Information Technology, here's how the system will work: Images taken from orbit will combine with images from the surface to create maps of lunar terrain; motion sensors on lunar vehicles and on the astronauts themselves will allow computers to calculate their locations; signals from lunar beacons, the lunar lander, and base stations will give astronauts a picture of their surroundings similar to what drivers see when using a GPS device on Earth.

LASOIS partners at NASA Glenn Research Center will convert a pre-existing communications beacon to do double-duty for communication and navigation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers will design the touch-pad that astronauts will wear -- possibly on the arm of their space suits, Li said -- to view their location and search for new destinations. University of California, Berkeley, researchers will work out the visual cues that astronauts will need to find their way, and study the kinds of psychological stress they will experience.

According to Li's plan, the team will create a prototype navigation system, then travel to the Mojave Desert to test and refine it. The third year would possibly be spent testing the system on NASA astronauts.

And by then, I might have figured out how to use the American Express online travel portal.

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