Students working on Carnegie Mellon University’s Moon Buddy likely won’t walk on the lunar surface on NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions. But their technology could find its way into space as part of the agency’s next generation of spacesuits.
The Moon Buddy team is part of the 2022 NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students (SUITS) challenge. The CMU team was one of 10 selected to participate and will test their design in May at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Teams participating in the challenge must develop an augmented reality (AR) interface that will help astronauts during moonwalks. The interface is expected to help astronauts navigate the lunar surface by plotting routes and avoiding obstacles, assisting with science experiments and providing critical support in emergencies.
“NASA doesn’t yet have a system that puts all of this information in one place where it’s easily accessible by astronauts. Augmented reality like this hasn’t existed before in space travel,” the chief executive said. team Angie Bonilla, a junior from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and Computer Science and Art program at CMU. “We are developing a new interface that could actually be used in space exploration.”
NASA’s Artemis missions aim to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2025. The spacesuits worn by Artemis astronauts will be very different from those worn by the Apollo crews who walked for the last times on the moon in the 1960s. The suits will incorporate the latest technology, fit better and offer more mobility and protection.
The team’s approach integrates voice control into the AR interface. With Moon Buddy, an astronaut could request their location or that of crew members and see that information overlaid on a heads-up display. When collecting samples, an astronaut could ask Moon Buddy to record a stone in his hand and display the data for a visual analysis on the screen. In an emergency, Moon Buddy could share vital information and locations of crew members.
Older spacesuit designs relied on gestures, buttons, LED lights that show vital signs, and notepads with critical information scribbled on them.
The CMU team – which includes students studying augmented and virtual reality, human-computer interaction, information systems, cognitive science, computer science and art – worked with NASA personnel all along the project. Their mentor is actively testing prototype spacesuits for the Artemis missions.
“We work with primary researchers, with people who have actually tried this technology,” said Ron Chew, an HCII senior who also studies information systems at Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. .
The team also spoke with Jay Apt, a NASA astronaut in the 1980s and 1990s who completed two spacewalks. Apt is a professor at CMU’s Tepper School of Business and co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. He explained to the team the limitations astronauts face inside a spacesuit. Pressing buttons, accessing a touch screen or making hand gestures can be incredibly difficult.
“In space, you have these huge gloves. Trying to close your fist might feel like trying to squeeze a plastic gallon of milk,” Bonilla said. “That’s when we realized it might be easier to switch to a voice interface.”
Even though none of their work ends up in NASA’s new spacesuits, the challenge was a valuable experience for the students. Matthew Komar, whose studies focus on the development of augmented and virtual reality, said Moon Buddy gave him a chance to apply his work to a real-life solution. Bonilla said that by watching the Artemis missions over the next decade, she will know she played a role.
“It’s going to be monumental,” Bonilla said.