In 2015, NASA opened the Hybrid Reality Lab, to allow NASA engineers to train in simulated environments that are as realistic as possible. The lab provides an immersive experience by combining consumer virtual reality technology with tracked 3D objects for both realistic visuals and tactile feedback. The lab uses off-the-shelf virtual reality headsets, Unreal Engine 4 and NASA-specific content to build the virtual training environments.
One challenge is simulating reduced gravity. Currently, NASA’s Johnson Space Center operates the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS).
“It is essentially a smart tether which attaches to your back, offloads your body weight and accounts for your momentum in the vertical and horizontal directions to make you feel like you are in Lunar gravity, Martian gravity, microgravity or anywhere in between,” said Matthew Noyes, Software Lead at NASA’s Hybrid Reality and Advanced Operational Concepts Lab.
The Hybrid Reality Lab environment has been merged with the ARGOS so that the user can move through a virtual representation of the International Space Station. Multiple users can train together in the same virtual reality environment, working together even if they’re not in the same physical location.
The Hybrid Reality Lab also contains virtual representations of tools that NASA uses, such as a space drill called the Pistol Grip Tool, which is used for drilling bolts. Several other tools are also under development for future missions, such as an X-Ray Fluorescence Tool used to determine soil/rock composition on Mars. These and other tools were 3D scanned using an Artec Space Spider 3D scanner, and the scans were imported into the virtual reality environment.
“Now, when collecting samples on the Martian surface you would most likely use a tool like this to tell you what the mass ratio of the different elements inside that sample is, and using 3D scanning we’re able to make this model look extremely realistic, so you can learn how to use the tool inside virtual reality,” said Noyes. “Rather than painstakingly modeling these tools/assets from physical measurements and photographs, or working from textureless CAD files, we thought that using a 3D scanner to create millimeter-precise models from real objects was a much better solution.”
We were given a chance to hear directly from Artyom Yukhin, CEO of Artec 3D, about Artec 3D scanners and the future of 3D scanning in space, as we had A Few Questions For him about the work.
Why is NASA a good fit for Artec scanners?
“3D scanners are indispensable tools during space missions. Just like here on Earth, they are needed to take accurate measurements and detect possible changes in the shape of objects in time, for example, changes in the construction of various systems on the ISS and other spacecraft, which could be caused by overheating. It’s like taking several snapshots over a period of time and comparing them against each other. Scan the area of interest to get its precise shape and then compare the resulting 3D model with a previous ‘snapshot’ using the surface distance map in Artec Studio software. This tool will superimpose the two models against each other and highlight deviations between their shapes.
Likewise, you can control changes in the shapes of astronauts’ bodies. Artec scanners are very well suited for this purpose since they are precise and totally safe for scanning people. You could possibly scan aliens with Artec scanners if you ever get to meet them!”
How do you think this technology can come into play for space exploration in the future?
“You never know what may break on the spacecraft, but you sure know that if something breaks, you’ll need a replacement. 3D scanning and printing is the solution that saves you the need to have a stock of spare parts on the spacecraft, where every extra pound counts. Scan the broken part along with the area where you need to install a replacement part, reverse engineer the 3D model of the broken part, print a replacement on a 3D printer, and put it where it belongs. Even if an astronaut ‘breaks,’ let’s say if he or she has had a piece of their ear bitten off by a colleague during a fight, it’s also possible to make a replacement and implant it into the astronaut’s body.
In fact, you can scan just about anything during your mission. If you’re conducting a scientific experiment to grow a crystal or a plant on the orbit, scan it on a regular basis to track its development – 3D scanning will give you invaluable research data. That’s also the best way to capture the shape of rock, footprints or any objects that could be found on the surface of Mars or other planets astronauts may go to. Besides superb precision, which allows for scanning objects with complex geometry, our scanners are very lightweight and could be used on planets where gravity is stronger than here on Earth. Last but not least, Artec 3D scanning technology is very easy to pick up, which cuts down training time to the minimum. Thanks to these advantages, Artec scanners are successfully used by NASA in their space exploration projects.”
We talk a lot about 3D printing in space, including for those all-important replacement parts (and, separately, 3D printing to help in making new ears) – but 3D scanning is of equal importance, as Yukhin describes. Overall, 3D technology is vital to the future of space exploration – whether it’s being used in space itself, or in virtual representations of it here on Earth. Discuss in the Artec 3D forum at 3DPB.com.
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