Space exploration poses significant challenges for the scientists, engineers, and astronauts involved. Space technology has come a long way and has allowed the space industry to achieve incredible feats, including the moon landing, the International Space Station, and space vehicles exploring the solar system.
Novel research and solutions are necessary to tackle existing problems and attain new space-related goals. Developments in Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) enable space industry professionals to manage some of these challenges. Below is an overview of how VR and AR are used innovatively to supplement critical functions pivotal to space exploration.
A team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) demonstrated the exploration and research capabilities of VR and AR in space using Microsoft HoloLens (a headset that projects virtual images over the real world). One of the award-winning projects referred to as ‘Onsight’ involved a virtual reconstruction of the surface of Mars where researchers could operate collaboratively.
Among the tasks they could complete included plotting courses and targets for the Mars rover. This tech was unveiled at Kennedy Space Center, where you can go on a tour of Mars. Before this breakthrough, space researchers had to plot Mars locations on surface panoramas taken by rovers.
With the VR headsets, the researchers improved their accuracy in determining distances and angles between Martian locations. This demonstration showcased the potential of VR in planetary exploration. Now you can execute planetary exploration functions in a virtual environment and develop spatial awareness of the scenery before undertaking the real missions in the future.
Virtual Aid for Astronauts
VR and AR provide opportunities for engineers and experts to aid astronauts on the International Space Station with complex procedures. NASA and Microsoft developed project Sidekick for this exact purpose. NASA tested Sidekick at the Aquarius Laboratory as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) 20 expedition.
This application helps support functions, including equipment setup and checks. Utilizing Remote Expert Mode, a ground operator employs real-time virtual annotation, video, and voice chat to collaborate on what an astronaut on the ISS is seeing. Ground experts can offer interactive guidance and create imagery into the environment of the astronaut.
In Procedure Mode, the astronaut can see virtual animated illustrations on the objects they interact with. This VR and AR space application can help with inventory management, reduce crew training, and increase efficiency.
VR and AR technologies allow for immersive life-like experiences. For this reason, they are invaluable tools that you can use to create simulations to prepare astronauts for real-life mission scenarios. One notable application is stimulating reduced gravity environments.
One of the facilities and techniques NASA employs to train astronauts in this regard is the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS). As you know, developing such facilities is very resource-intensive and expensive. VR and AR functionalities can help ease this burden through high accessibility and manageable costs.
A good example is the VR space simulator (Titan Lake) that Raytracer developed. Titan Lake utilizes a swimming pool and VR technology to simulate the space environment. Such facilities enable astronauts to experienced microgravity environments and train in different VR space environments.
NASA Space Center in Houston has been applying VR in space simulations in their Virtual Reality Laboratory (VRL) for several years to acclimatize astronauts to the conditions experienced outside Earth’s boundaries.
Space exploration needs a very particular skill set. Astronauts are exposed to extreme conditions. Training programs involving physical and mental tests are necessary to ensure they can handle the demands of space travel. VR and AR offer innovative ways to train astronauts.
A European Space Agency (ESA) project known as GRIP employs VR to assess the effects of spaceflight on gripping and object manipulation. This investigation may highlight the challenges astronauts face when moving between environments with varying gravity levels. In the future, these developments will help train astronauts to handle moves from microgravity environments (such as the ISS) to environments with low gravity, such as Mars or the Moon.
NASA is also conducting a study (VECTION) using VR to determine the effects of microgravity on the motion, distance perception, and orientation of astronauts. With this technology, you can assess how astronauts adapt to these effects and formulate training programs accordingly. NASA states that VECTION may aid pilots, drivers, and robotic handlers to better control vehicles in environs with low gravity.
Overall, there is great potential for the application of VR and AR in space exploration and the complementary functions. Other notable applications include VR robotic control, VR space analogs, AR maintenance assists, space experimentation and upgrades, space safety training, and space grasp training. The space industry has lots to gain from the virtual and augmented simulation approach. This includes improved mission planning, critical flight and ground operations simulation, collaborative engineering tasks, and digital representation.