LPI Internship - Lunar Exploration and Regolith Trafficability

August 14, 2018




     My most recent blogs have covered some events that occurred during my internship at LPI based in Clearlake Texas this summer. Some of the opportunities I had include visiting the robotic, and StarDust labs at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC), attend numerous seminars and lectures by LPI and JSC scientists, and one of the highlights was visiting the Apollo sample laboratory and vault! A couple of years ago I never would have thought I would get these opportunities in my life. Having the support from my supervisors, friends, and family to apply for the internship, work hard throughout the summer to prove I can establish a career in planetary science, and achieve my PhD kept me motivated and straight headed. Working along side incredible M.Sc and PhD students from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany during the internship was a memorable experience. I learned a lot from all of them, from image processing to working efficiently as a team. I hope I will cross paths with all of them again, I know most of them are planning on presenting their research at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in March 2019.


     I have given a quick summary of my overall thoughts about the internship but really want to give you guys a little more detail. Let's start with what the internship was all about. The objective of the internship is to train the next generation of planetary scientists for lunar exploration and research. Our focus was to utilize the Orion and/or Deep Space Gateway element for human-assisted robotic rover missions and study the physical properties of the lunar regolith in pyroclastic deposits and permanently shadowed regions (PSR). In total there were ten graduate student interns from across North America and Europe: Canada (2 students including myself), Germany (1 student), United Kingdom (3 students), and the United States (4 students). All ten of us have really diverse research backgrounds from studying the potential of resource extraction from the lunar South Pole to studying evaporates on Titan using FTIR. Let me introduce everyone:

  • Sam Bell, PhD student at the University of Manchester.

  • Valentin Bickel, PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

  • Ellen Czaplenski, PhD student in Space and Planetary Science at the University of Arkansas.

  • Ben Farrant, PhD student at the University of Manchester.

  • Elise Harrington, recent M.Sc graduate from Western University in Canada.

  • Casey Honnibal, PhD student at the University of Hawaii in Geology and Geophysics.

  • Sabrina Martinez, M.Sc student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

  • Hannah Sargent, PhD student at the Open University, UK.

  • Alex Rogalisk, M.Sc student at the South Dakota School of Mines.


We split into two groups of five this year to cover two major topics: study an alternative landing site in Schrodinger basin and create a detailed geologic map of the southwest peak ring, and investigate the trafficability of pyroclastic deposits and PSRs in order to determine how a rover will traverse on the lunar surface. 


     I was a part of the group that was tasked with selecting an alternative landing site and human-assisted robotic traverse path in Schrodinger basin, create a detailed geologic map of the southwest peak ring (Figure 1), which included identifying outcrops on the lunar surface using a variety of remote sensing datasets, and become the beta-testers for the Moon Trek software created by NASA JPL. The southwest peak ring offers us a chance to sample rock units that have been excavated from the lunar crust, study the structural geology of the peak ring in detail, and address high priority National Research Council concepts and science goals, published in 2007, regarding the evolution of the Moon and constraining the timing of the impact history of the early solar system.


 Figure 1. LRO WAC mosaic of Schrodinger basin on farside of the Moon near the South Pole. The red box outlines the study and mapping area.


     Our other task involved beta-testing the Moon Trek web-based program created by NASA JPL, by creating a fly-by video of the long traverse path proposed by Steenstra et al. (2016). Moon Trek was created to provide scientists an interactive method of studying the lunar surface. The program incorporates a variety of remote sensing datasets from lunar missions such as LRO, Clementine, and Kaguya/SELENE. Other features included 3-D visualization, solar irradiance of the lunar surface, virtual reality, calculate slope, distance and rock abundance, and create 3-D models of selected areas. The features I really want to address is the 3-D visualization and solar irradiance tool. With the 3-D visualization tool you can create fly-by videos over the lunar surface and view geological features in 3-D! I wanted to put an example video up on the blog but since the work is still new and not released publicly I cannot show you the video. If you would like to learn more about the 3-D visualization tool for yourself then you can get more information by clicking on the following link: https://moontrek.jpl.nasa.gov/


     The solar irradiance tool provided us information on the amount of illumination of the lunar surface during a certain time period. We needed to know when the southwest peak ring area was most illuminated so we could decide when the human-assisted robotic traverse mission would occur. Over the course of the internship we requested more than 100 Gbs worth of data from JPL. We are ever so grateful for there hard work processing the data and being very responsive about questions we had throughout the summer. 


The returned product comes in the form of numerous png images with tagged dates. We created GIFs to visual show the change in surface lighting. Below is a greyscale GIF showing the change in the illumination during a 4 Earth-year period.





 Greyscale GIF of the southwest peak ring in Schrodinger basin showing the change in surface illumination. Images supplied by the JPL Moon Trek web-based program, GIF created by Sam Bell and Ben Farrant, University of Manchester.




     Moon Trek was an entirely new program for me to learn. I had no prior experience using it, nor even knew it was a free accessible program. Along with learning new programs I was able to improve my image processing skills, particularly using the USGS Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS3). Before my internship, I went through the ISIS3 workshop and tutorial available on the USGS Astrogeology website, and I am thankful I did because ISIS3 became essential tool for processing LRO NAC images. We needed NAC images to map out geologic features such as outcrops in detail, keeping to images with resolutions 0.5-1 m/pixel. I also got to develop my Adobe Photoshop and ArcGIS skills. What I discovered during the summer is that if you want to project NAC images over WAC or LOLA digital elevation models and keep their original resolution, you need to use Arc Pro. Arc Pro was able to keep the 0.5-1 m/pixel resolution and did not crash as frequently as ArcScene. I went through a lot of crashed sessions with ArcScene 10.5.1 and coffee to figure out Arc Pro could solve everything.


     On the penultimate day of our internship, we had to present the final products of our work, which included a detailed geologic map of the southwest peak ring, an alternative landing site traverse path in Schrodinger basin, a Moon Trek demonstration video following the rover traverse path proposed by Steenstra et al. (2016), and the trafficability of lunar regolith in pyroclastic and permanently shadowed regions. Our audience, in-person and online, included scientists and staff from LPI, JSC, JPL, NASA Headquaters, and universities from the US, Canada, and UK. I am not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous. Our teams had practiced the presentations over and over again and we were afraid of going over our maximum presentation time of 45-50 minutes. Thankfully, we were able to end on time, a few minutes under the max time if I am not mistaken. It was also our best run through the presentation so I could not have been happier!


     This is was when we all realized that the internship was coming to an end and we had to depart ways... It was a sad thought but became friends throughout the summer experience, and will in no doubt cross paths again in the future.


     You might be thinking, "Gavin, this seems like a short blog that talks about a ten week internship at LPI?". Well yes, yes it is. I realized trying to cover every single part of my work at LPI would take up so much time. So if you are reading this you will be happy to know that I might be presenting a summary of my experience at one of the CPSX research forums at Western University in September. If you would like to know about the experience then please come along to the presentation.


Just to finish the blog off, I thought I would add a few photos of the JSC tours and outside of LPI adventures!


See you all soon! 



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