22.05.2023 Space ESA Space VR

Virtual reality brings ESA’s Argonaut Moon lander to life

argonaut moon lander esa

A team of students and researchers are using virtual reality (VR) to bring ESA’s Argonaut lunar lander concept to life at the European Astronaut Centre.

Argonaut is a lunar lander that will deliver scientific instruments and cargo to the Moon at the end of this decade. Interns and scientists involved in the simulations are part of ESA’s Extended Reality (XR) laboratory, German Aerospace Centre DLR and the Spaceship EAC initiative.

Lunar basis

As we seek to further explore our universe and gain independent access to space, lunar exploration remains an important part of ESA’s ambitions and a good basis for testing cargo operations, in-situ resource technologies, rovers and more.

The Argonaut lander is in an intensive study phase, and the XR team uses the latest technologies to develop, test, and study its capabilities to support future missions on the Moon.

We’re using VR simulations to test design ideas for lunar systems like Argonaut, avoiding the usual cost and logistics of building and deploying real-world prototypes,” says ESA research fellow Tommy Nilsson. “By simulating parts of Argonaut’s operation and getting input from experts, we’re figuring out how VR can help shape its development“, he adds.

Build your own moonscape

The first step was to create a realistic VR representation of the lunar South Pole region – a probable convenient landing site for the first Artemis mission landing humans on the Moon.

The flexibility of VR allowed us to create a realistic depiction of the lunar terrain and reproduce the unique lighting conditions of the South Pole of the Moon, providing us with a figurative ‘sandbox’ in which we could visualise, simulate and evaluate any hypothetical lunar surface scenario,” says ESA doctoral student Florian Dufresne.

The team created a detailed virtual model of a hypothetical Argonaut lander configuration to study how it would work and whether it would be user-friendly. “We made sure the lander had a lot of detail to evaluate how it would function and the challenges it may pose for people using it,” he says.

The virtual lander was then put into the simulated lunar environment and 20 experts, including astronauts, instructors, engineers, and scientists, were invited to try out simulations, such as receiving and unloading cargo, and give feedback on the lander’s design.

Our work demonstrated that VR technology can help engineering teams anticipate and fix problems during early design and development stages, saving time and resources in the future”, explains DLR doctoral student Leonie Bensch.

Pushing the limits

While using VR simulations in the development of space systems has many advantages, they also present some challenges.

VR simulations mainly rely on audio and visual cues, which may not accurately convey certain tactile responses, such as the weight and resistance of physical objects. VR also struggles to simulate astronaut spacesuits and low gravity.

To better understand these limitations, the XR team tested their Argonaut simulation in reduced gravity conditions on a parabolic flight. This will help investigate the impact of lunar gravity on VR-based design assessments and develop more accurate simulations in the future.

In the future, we also aim to use the LUNA facility to emulate and assess our VR scenarios in a real-world lunar testbed simulated Moon environment. This will help us compare the effectiveness of VR-based studies with real-world prototype testing. Eventually, by combining both methods, we hope to compensate for the limitations of VR, such as the lack of physical interaction,” explains LUNA science and operations manager Andrea Casini.

Ultimately, our goal is to integrate VR technology into human exploration projects for the Moon and to promote Europe’s leadership in lunar exploration,” he concludes.

The team has recently published a paper, providing further detail concerning the study and its findings.

Source: European Space Agency (ESA)