Skip to main content

NASA’s high-tech lunar backpack aims to map surface of moon

NASA is testing a high-tech backpack containing technology that could be used by astronauts to create highly detailed maps of the lunar surface.

A KNaCK backpack prototype undergoing testing.
Michael Zanetti, a NASA planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, hikes the Cinder cone in the Portillo volcanic field in New Mexico in late 2021, testing the backpack-sized prototype for NASA’s Kinematic Navigational and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK), a mobile lidar scanner now in development to support lunar exploration and science missions. NASA/Michael Zanetti

NASA and industry partners Torch Technologies and Aeva have developed a remote-sensing mapping system called the Kinematic Navigation and Cartography Knapsack (KNaCK) that uses mobile lidar scanner technology to create ultra-high-resolution maps in real time as an astronaut walks across the surface of the moon. The gear can make millions of measurement points per second and can also be used for navigation to improve safety for astronauts crossing the lunar surface on foot and also in a rover.

Related Videos

The technology is set to be used in the upcoming Artemis missions that will see the first crewed lunar landings since 1972, and while it’s currently carried in a backpack, the plan is to incorporate it into a smaller device that can attach to an astronaut’s helmet.

KNaCK is expected to play an important role on lunar missions as astronauts will be exploring the moon’s south pole, much of which is in deep shadow and therefore hard to easily see.

“Basically, the sensor is a surveying tool for both navigation and science mapping, able to create ultra-high-resolution 3D maps at centimeter-level precision and give them a rich scientific context,” said planetary scientist Dr. Michael Zanetti, leader of the KNaCK project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “It also will help ensure the safety of astronauts and rover vehicles in a GPS-denied environment such as the moon, identifying actual distances to far-off landmarks and showing explorers in real time how far they’ve come and how far is left to go to reach their destination.”

Zanetti said that humans tend to use landmarks like buildings and trees to orient themselves, but as those things don’t exist on the moon, KNaCK technology will enable lunar explorers “to determine their movement, direction, and orientation to distant peaks or to their base of operations. They can even mark specific sites where they found some unique mineral or rock formation, so others can easily return for further study.”

Engineers have already tested a prototype of KNaCK to map an ancient volcanic crater in New Mexico, and also to create a 3D reconstruction of the six-mile-long sea barrier dunes at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The team is now working to miniaturize the hardware and make it robust enough to comfortably deal with the challenges of microgravity and solar radiation.

Editors' Recommendations

NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite suffered another wobble but is now working again
Artist's illustration of CAPSTONE approaching the moon.

NASA's CAPSTONE satellite, in an experimental orbit around the moon, has been experiencing communications problems but is now back and running as it should be. The small CubeSat was designed to test out an experimental fuel-efficient orbit around the moon to pave the way for future moon-based infrastructure.

Artist's illustration of CAPSTONE approaching the moon. Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter

Read more
NASA’s experimental electric plane takes ‘major step’ toward first flight
An illustration of NASA's experimental X-57 electric airplane.

NASA says its experimental electric airplane has taken a "major step" toward its maiden flight after successfully completing thermal testing of its cruise motor controllers.

The space agency has been working on the fully electric X-57 Maxwell aircraft since 2016 with the goal of creating an efficient and quiet flying machine that’s kinder to the environment.

Read more
NASA Mars rover has discovered an alien rock
A meteorite discovered on Mars in 2023.

While NASA’s newer Perseverance rover usually gets all the headlines, 11-year-old Curiosity continues to trundle across the surface of Mars in search of interesting discoveries. And it’s just made one.

Ashley Stroupe, mission operations engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Curiosity mission, said on JPL’s website last month that the rover had happened upon a 1-foot-wide rock that “seems to have come from elsewhere.”

Read more