Desert RATS: Field tests simulating NEO and Mars Missions

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) are working through a series of tests in Flagstaff, Arizona – tests which will provide the opening baselines for manned missions to Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and a base on Mars. The latest “runs” are involving the use of the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV), Habs, and a remote Mission Control Center (MCC).

Desert RATS:

NASA’s D-RATS evaluate technology, human-robotic systems and extravehicular equipment in the high desert, providing research and development prototypes to help scientists and engineers design, build and operate better equipment, and establish requirements for operations and procedures.

Although there is no official relation, the NASA team carries the name made famous by the British Army’s 7th Armoured Division – which saw service during the Second World War – since carried on by the 7th Armoured Brigade – which led the involvement of nearly 300 British tanks entering Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Desert RATS field tests have been going on for more than a decade now, with ever-increasing fidelity. This year the team – consisting of engineers, astronauts, scientists, and technicians from across NASA and throughout industry and academia – are conducting integrated mission simulations in the Arizona desert near the Black Point Lava Flow.

These simulations will evaluate the varying conditions that will enable multiple destinations for future human exploration including high earth orbit, Lagrange points, the Moon, near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), Mars moons, and ultimately the surface of Mars.

Training for a mission to an asteroid will also take place during October’s NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission, which will be based at the Aquarius underwater habitat in Key Largo, Florida.

Because the latest simulations now involve “MCC style” coordination between hardware, procedures, crew operations, mission control operations – NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) have been integrated into the testing, which resulted in an expansive overview presentation highlighting their support role this month.

“Overview: Simulated Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) and Deep Space Hab (DSH) mission to a Near Earth Object (NEO) – Integrated test operations & DSH standalone operations. Includes field geology, navigation, and other potential space exploration systems. Combined use of audio and text communications in delayed comm environment,” noted the presentation – available on L2.

“Various teams to obtain data for human factors, EAMD, science, engineering, & MOD. Multiple combinations of assets and operational techniques. (To take place at) Blackpoint Lava Flow, AZ, August 24th – September 14th.”

Notably, the Deep Space Habitat (Habitat Demonstration Unit-Deep Space Habitat – X-Hab incorporating inflatable structures) is shown to be an exploration element which could provide a home station in deep space for both NEO missions and Mars missions, showing how both mission profiles will gain from the experience of the D-RATS simulations.

The two storey ground test Deep Space Hab (DSH) model features an integrated loft, an International Space Station (ISS) style module on one side, and an airlock on the opposite side.

MOD’s initial role will be to plan out the requirements – part of their famous “Plan, Train, Fly (PTF)” approach – such as the coordinated development of operational products, procedures, Flight Rules, Ground Rules and Technical References Databooks.

MOD will also carry out the coordinated creation of RMCC (Remote Mission Control Center) flight control room structure and organization, with the definition of RMCC console support positions, and RMCC layout & console tools part of the plan.

The definition of the communication loops – within the RMCC and between the RMCC & crew – is also being planned, utilizing one of the reasons the Flagstaff location was originally chosen, due to the realistic communication scenarios such a remote location provides.

Four asteroid mission scenarios are planned, listed as Condition 4 through 7, opening with three crewmembers heading out into deep space – one remaining in the Deep Space Hab (DSH), while the remaining two conduct an EVA on the NEO, prior to moving up to the involvement of a SEV hosting the two crewmembers excursion to the asteroid’s surface.

The Condition 6 and 7 mission profiles are based on a crew of four, with one scenario seeing three crewmembers work inside the SEV at the asteroid, whilst one remains in the DSH. The other scenario involves all four crewmembers heading to the asteroid, in two SEVs.

Per MOD’s “Train” element of their PTF approach, mock ups of the SEV and DSH on the ground have allowed for an element of training for crews involved in the Desert Rat simulations. Known as “Dry Runs” – three simulations have already been carried out.

“Three Dry Run weeks conducted: Dates: June 20 – 24: Crew A. July 11 – 15: Crew B. August 1 – 5: Crews A & B,” added the presentation. “Study/reference products delivered to crews. Provided crew training support. Operational techniques & protocols. Flight rules & ground rules review. Timeline training. Field geology operations procedures.

“Executed dry runs of field test conditions. Executed & refined procedures. Exercised RMCC & crew comm coordination & protocols. Provide flight controller training. Science team. Engineering support teams.”

With RMCC observation dates set for between August 30 and September 2, September 4 – 6, and September 8 – 9, MOD will provide Mission Control Structure for execution of the field test mission timeline. This will include console manning via a Flight Director, CAPCOM and Ops Planners.

MOD note that the data gathered by the teams will be more applicable to future missions – ranging from NEO missions to Mars missions – by test objectives having been integrated into a realistic mission scenario, and the field test being executed under manned spaceflight operational conditions.

It would also provide MOD with a selling point of being involved in a potential commercial mission into deep space.

“These teams are unfamiliar with mission operations and mission development, and as experts in these, MOD provides the necessary realism to the field test,” the presentation notes.

“Flight-like flight control structure used to coordinate realtime execution of the timeline in the RMCC. Flight-like console products used for pre-mission planning and realtime execution. Flight-like coordination between RMCC and crew.

“Examination of significant EVA operations: Multiple EVA team sorties per day. Design inputs into future electronic EVA Information System (EVAIS) (electronic cuff). Demonstrate to the private sector the capability to integrate a unique mission into MCC.”

The presentation also notes the future applications of the simulations, ranging from ISS Test bed for Analog Research (ISTAR) to NEO and Mars missions which require exploration-centric field geology tasks.

“Data points for potential ISTAR Objectives: Examination of operational concepts for delayed comm operations. Use of new protocols & tools for coordinating between MCC & crew in a delayed comm scenario. Autonomous Crew Scheduling (independent DSH test operations). Explore processes for plan development and execution: Define the roles and responsibilities of the planning community. Identify crew training to execute autonomous planning.

“Early introduction of operational experience to the Engineering & Science communities allows us to aid development & improve mission architecture studies & protocols for exploration based on our expertise. Opportunity for Mission Operations to understand scientific requirements to conduct exploration field geology.”

Also taking part in the tests will be Robonaut 2’s twin “R2 unit A”, which is being shipped out to Arizona this week for the D-RATS tests. R2 is currently on the ISS after arriving via shuttle Discovery during STS-133’s mission.

(Images: L2 Content, and SEV image via

(As the shuttle fleet retire, NSF and L2 are providing full transition level coverage, available no where else on the internet, from Orion and SLS to ISS and COTS/CRS/CCDEV, to European and Russian vehicles. 

(Click here to join L2: )

Related Articles