Luna and Artemis – goddesses of the moon and the wilderness
The future of humans in space is looking brighter than ever. NASA, ESA, JAXA, and a whole host of other national and private space organisations, are taking humanity back to the moon – and staying, this time – with the long-term goal of sending crewed missions to Mars. The Artemis missions are some of the most ambitious and exciting projects ever conceived and they’re already well underway – humankind is taking its first steps to returning to our natural satellite since 1972. While technology has advanced hugely since our last jaunt to Luna, we are yet to overcome one of the biggest obstacles between human beings and extra-terrestrial living.
Space is really, really, bad for humans
The human body has evolved to exist perfectly in a very particular environment and, when you take us out of the pleasant bubble of the Earth, we tend not to thrive. Our eyes work differently, our blood pumps strangely, we get battered by cosmic radiation – space is a hostile place to be. When human beings travel to extreme environments, we do not alter ourselves to better suit the environment, nor do we change the environment to be more hospitable to our fleshy exteriors. Instead, we carry elements of survivable atmospheres with us through technology; from space suits to diving suits to artificial gravity, or even life support systems in science fiction.
One of the bigger problems we’re facing, that perhaps doesn’t get the same kind of media attention that radiation and gravity enjoy, is that extra-terrestrial living affects the way we perceive our surroundings and this can have disastrous consequences.
“On the moon it’s very difficult to not only perceive the actual size of an object, but also differentiating which one’s closer to you is something that has been a pretty big challenge”.
Katherine Rahill, senior scientist in NASA’s Human Research Division (and Data Summit 2023 keynote speaker), specialises in Lunar Psychophysics – the study of perceptual distortions that occur in the extra-terrestrial environment of the moon’s surface. In a nutshell, the combination of dust particles and the composition of the lunar regolith can result in a very ununiform scattering of the sun’s light across the lunar surface.
This can lead to astronauts experiencing unusual perceptual distortions which can have drastic impacts on their ability to complete tasks. In training, and in practice, there have been numerous accidents and close calls caused by distances being judged incorrectly or obstacles being obscured by unusual shadows cast by the sun. Katherine is developing revolutionary virtual reality training techniques to help astronauts acclimatise to the unusual lunar terrain in advance of the Artemis missions establishing a permanent human presence on the moon. This virtual reality training will allow astronauts to better plan tasks throughout their days (following the angle of the sun), practice the perception of distances, and acclimatise to long-term off-Earth living while establishing a lunar base.
The Future of Humans in Space
Humanity has long dreamt of living among the stars and now this dream seems closer than ever. The challenges faced by the astronauts attempting to live off-Earth and the ground crews helping them are significant, but not insurmountable. Advancements in data processing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are allowing us to do things that once seemed impossible and people like Katherine are at the forefront of humanity’s efforts to slip the bonds of Earth. There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the space industry and our upcoming events are your opportunity to be at the forefront of the conversation.
You can see Katherine Rahill talking about the Artemis missions and lunar psychophysics at Data Summit 2023. Don’t forget that premium Data Lab Community members get 50% off their in-person tickets and free access to the livestream of the event. You can also see Katherine at a special DataFest Fringe event – find out more about the challenges of extra-terrestrial living with NASA, epigenetics experts, and other exciting guests at The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on the 30th of Edinburgh.
You can hear Katherine discussing her lunar psychophysics research on The Last Question – a science and technology podcast by DataFest and The Data Lab.