The Roving Adventures of Team LiDAR

The Roving Adventures of Team LiDAR

NASA planetary geologist Patrick Whelley carries the LIDAR into Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Nicola Shannon

Walking across a volcanic desert in New Mexico under a 105 degree sun isn’t easy. It’s even harder carrying a 50-pound black plastic box full of expensive technology on your back.

That was the task of Patrick Whelley, a planetary geologist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, as the point man of what the rest of the RIS4E researchers know as Team LiDAR.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is an instrument that scans and detects its surroundings by bouncing a laser beam in very small increments, and then collecting these distances from where it stands on a tripod in a cloud of millions of points. These points are assembled to create a detailed, 3D map of the surroundings, and can even be colored to match the surroundings using a series of pictures that the instrument takes after its scan.

LiDAR can be used on spacecraft, aircraft, or even pointed upward to scan clouds, but the specific type of LiDAR instrument that the RIS4E team uses scans the ground around it, and is called a Terrestrial Laser Scanner.

At Aden Crater, LiDAR operators left portable stations like these around the volcanic field. Deploying these stations dramatically improves the fidelity and accuracy of the point-cloud images that the LiDAR produces. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

Whelley has led Team LiDar on RISE4E’s recent research missions to the volcanic fields of New Mexico and Hawaii. On this year’s trip, Whelley operated and carried the instrument for much of the five field days. The LiDAR technology’s accuracy helps him with his research of the origins and processes behind volcanic features.

“It gives us the ability to look at very small features of lava flows, little bubbles, or little grains of lava, pebbles, that sort of thing,” Whelley said. “All the way up to very big lava flows or larger features like the insides of lava tubes.”

Whelley has been collecting LiDAR data inside and around lava tubes for the past two years. He believes this technology would be useful on future rovers to help search for tubes on the moon and Mars that could be used for protection by astronauts.

What stands in the way, Whelley says, is that the camera instruments now being used on Mars rovers work fine for now. “It’s just a matter of getting the instrument hooked up with the right mission team and actually put on a rover,” he said.

View a short clip of what a three-dimensional scan of data points looks like.

NASA planetary geologist Patrick Whelley carries the LIDAR into Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Nicola Shannon

Walking across a volcanic desert in New Mexico under a 105 degree sun isn’t easy. It’s even harder carrying a 50-pound black plastic box full of expensive technology on your back.

That was the task of Patrick Whelley, a planetary geologist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, as the point man of what the rest of the RIS4E researchers know as Team LiDAR.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is an instrument that scans and detects its surroundings by bouncing a laser beam in very small increments, and then collecting these distances from where it stands on a tripod in a cloud of millions of points. These points are assembled to create a detailed, 3D map of the surroundings, and can even be colored to match the surroundings using a series of pictures that the instrument takes after its scan.

LiDAR can be used on spacecraft, aircraft, or even pointed upward to scan clouds, but the specific type of LiDAR instrument that the RIS4E team uses scans the ground around it, and is called a Terrestrial Laser Scanner.

At Aden Crater, LiDAR operators left portable stations like these around the volcanic field. Deploying these stations dramatically improves the fidelity and accuracy of the point-cloud images that the LiDAR produces. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

Whelley has led Team LiDar on RISE4E’s recent research missions to the volcanic fields of New Mexico and Hawaii. On this year’s trip, Whelley operated and carried the instrument for much of the five field days. The LiDAR technology’s accuracy helps him with his research of the origins and processes behind volcanic features.

“It gives us the ability to look at very small features of lava flows, little bubbles, or little grains of lava, pebbles, that sort of thing,” Whelley said. “All the way up to very big lava flows or larger features like the insides of lava tubes.”

Whelley has been collecting LiDAR data inside and around lava tubes for the past two years. He believes this technology would be useful on future rovers to help search for tubes on the moon and Mars that could be used for protection by astronauts.

What stands in the way, Whelley says, is that the camera instruments now being used on Mars rovers work fine for now. “It’s just a matter of getting the instrument hooked up with the right mission team and actually put on a rover,” he said.