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TREX Team Tests Rover-Based Science Automation in Utah Desert

Trex rover

TREX rover Zoë. Credit: Sanlyn Buxner/PSI.


The Toolbox for Research and Exploration (TREX) team – led by PSI Senior Scientist Amanda Hendrix – has come together near Green River, Utah for its second field season testing rover-based science automation using a suite of scientific instruments.  A highlight of this field season is broad participation of early career scientists from across the United States. TREX is one of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) nodes that is working to contribute knowledge to prepare for future human exploration of the Moon.  Training the next generation of planetary scientists is an important component of preparing for lunar exploration.

Multiple scientific instruments, including a visible and infrared camera, along with a LIDAR and gamma ray spectrometer, are mounted on rover Zoë, built and managed by TREX partners from Carnegie Mellon University (led by TREX co-investigator David Wettergreen). The rover has autonomous capabilities which are a unique feature to this field work. In addition, the TREX field sampling team is taking measurements of rocks and soils with handheld instruments to learn about their composition using multiple wavelengths of light. 

The field work is being done by the 14 person TREX field team made up of PSI scientists Eldar Noe Dobrea, Neil Pearson, Amanda Hendrix, Roger Clark, and Sanlyn Buxner, and collaborators David Wettergreen, Maggie Hansen, Abby Breitfeld, Srini Vijayarangan from Carnegie Mellon University, Greg Holsclaw and Amanda Steckel from the University of Colorado, Melissa Lane from Fibernetics, Inc., Ernie Bell from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Gregg Swayze who is retired from USGS. Embedded with the field team is professional artist Lisa Blatt.

In addition to the field team is the TREX science team, led by PSI scientist Tom Prettyman and includes PSI scientist Faith Vilas, SSI scientist Mikki Osterloo, post-doctoral researchers Caitlin Ahrens from Goddard Space Flight Center, Audrey Martin from University of Central Florida, and Paul Knightly from Northern Arizona University, as well as graduate students Ruby Patterson (University of Houston), Nandita Kumari (Stony Brook University), McKayla Meier (University of Idaho), and PSI alumni scientist Maria Banks from Goddard Space Flight Center.

The TREX team is testing three different scenarios over two weeks to test scientific automation in the field with the support of an autonomous rover.  Each day, the field team collects images and other scientific data and relays them back to the science team for analysis. In the last scenario, Zoë will be accompanied by an “astronaut” to assist in data collection. The collected data are being used to build geologic maps of the region and are testing the efficiency of the different scenarios and data collection techniques. In two of the scenarios, the robot decides its own path using the collected data, the goal being to increase the knowledge (decrease the uncertainty) of its geologic map.

“It’s so exciting to test these autonomous science scenarios using the robot Zoë. This type of rover-based autonomous science can be used on the Moon in the future to maximize the efficiency of astronaut traverses,” said TREX team leader Hendrix during the first week of field work. “It’s really wonderful to work with such a fantastic team out here, and I’m pleased that we can involve the students and early-career scientists, to provide them with some hands-on field training.”

Field work is taking place from October 16 to October 30 at a site called Yellowcat, 30 miles northeast of Moab. 

TREX is a multi-institutional collaboration led out of the Planetary Science Institute. TREX is supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through Cooperative Agreement NNH16ZDA001N.

TREX 2022 fieldwork team

The Toolbox for Research and Exploration (TREX) 2022 field testing team. Credit: Sanlyn Buxner/PSI.

neil and sanlyn TREX fieldwork

PSI’s Sanlyn Buxner, right, and Neil Pearson collect samples alongside the rover. Credit: Sanlyn Buxner.

Oct. 23, 2022
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