In preparation for future human spaceflight and robotic exploration beyond low Earth orbit, NASA identifies remote field test locations based on their physical similarities to the extreme space environments of a target mission. These analog missions provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.
The Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) tests offer a chance for a NASA-lead team of engineers, astronauts, and scientists from across the country to come together to conduct technology development research in the Arizona desert. The Black Point Lava Flow location is a good stand in for destinations for future planetary missions. The goal is to develop the architecture, tools, and operational protocols that create the most efficient and productive surface operations for future destinations that may include the moon, near Earth asteroids, and Mars and its moons. Tasks involve the development of analogue study sites, the simulations of missions in those study sites, and trade studies that investigate different hardware and operational options. Team members are also involved in the analysis of sample and remote sensing data to better inform landing and operational site selection for future missions.
In 2009 and 2010, scientists from USRA's Lunar and Planetary Institute played crucial roles in the Desert RATS program involving a series of multi-center NASA activities to test surface systems operations. USRA Lunar Scientists also co-hosted planning workshops in December 2009 and March 2010, took the lead in expanding the test area far to the west so that it involved a volcanic explosion crater and over a dozen volcanic lava flows, and served in several senior management positions during the actual 'real-time' tests in northern Arizona. These field tests, weeks long each, were conducted in August and September 2010. USRA Lunar Scientists also assisted the Ames Research Center with its K-10 robotic precursor simulations.