It’s kind of hard to believe that, of all the wheeled rovers and robots that have been sent from Earth to other places — three crewed Apollo-era lunar rovers to the moon, two Soviet Lunokhods, a Chinese lunar rover-bot, and five wheeled American robots to Mars (one of which is en route) — none of them have actually had headlights of any kind. That’s unexpected, right? I mean, it’s not like there are lots of streetlights on the Moon or Mars. NASA’s next lunar rover, VIPER, is going to change that, so calm down.
The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (I bet they came up with VIPER first) is being sent to the Moon’s South Pole, where it’ll be looking for water. The rover is about the size of a golf cart and will use a novel sort of wheel-based locomotion, which I’ll let NASA describe:
During normal operations, the rover will roll across the surface. Should it encounter extremely fluffy soil, VIPER can lift each of its wheels independently, almost like feet, and use them to dig into and sweep along the surface. This gives it a swimming-like motion capable of pulling the rover out of even very soft soils.
Capable of traversing an incline of as much as 15 degrees, the rover’s four wheel modules are designed with both an active suspension and independent steering. This means VIPER can drive sideways or diagonally and even spin in a circle. VIPER can move in any direction without changing the way it’s facing, so its science objectives and solar-panel charging can be optimized.
It can lift its wheels like feet! That’s pretty exciting, and something I feel like Jeep should be looking into licensing.
That’s all very cool, but the innovation I want to talk about here is this first-ever application of headlights to a wheeled vehicle that won’t be driving on Earth. Sure, other rovers have had small lights for individual instruments, and spacecraft, including the Lunar Lander, have had lights, but this will be the first time automotive-style headlights will be needed.
Why has it taken so long? Mostly because this is the first time humans will be really driving in the dark off-world. Water may be in dark craters or other murky chasms, so rovers need to be able to see. NASA has even built a dark-moon-area simulated “sandbox”:
NASA’s lighting development on VIPER is using LED arrays for lights, much like many modern cars use, and will have a pair of light arrays mounted on masts, and up to six individually-controlled lights around the base of the rover, which I like to imagine looking like those ’90s-era underbody neon dealies.
NASA is still developing the lighting system, which you can see being tested in the special dark-Moon-sandbox above there.
The challenges are pretty much the same as automotive lighting challenges. According to Uland Wong, VIPER’s navigation hardware lead at NASA’s Ames’s laboratory,
“We face similar challenges as any car designer. Whether it’s on a rover or the next model of sedan, a bad lighting design means a driver can’t see details in the landscape. We have to pay extra attention to these challenges on the Moon because once VIPER gets there, there’s no coming back.”
One issue that’s a much bigger deal on the Moon than on Earth is backscattering, as dust on the lunar surface tends to reflect a lot of light back, making the rover’s navigational cameras useless, and there’s just hardly any paved roads on the Moon where that can be avoided.
This is a big deal, the first headlights on the Moon because that means it’s just a matter of time before there are turn indicators and marker lamps and taillights, and we can finally take the amber-rear-indicator argument into space, where it can thrive, forever.