Black’s vision would see participants driving the rovers over real planets and moons, and collecting samples for analysis, all via a virtual-reality (VR) headset.
Installed in galleries, universities or other public places, the VR experience would function as an engagement mechanism during future interplanetary missions by NASA and other space agencies.
Black – a masters student in Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) – titled his project the Overview Effect, after a phrase used to describe the awe and change in attitude that astronauts commonly report experiencing once they see the earth from orbit.
He said: “I started with a question. What if there was a way to increase understanding? To give the public an experience that provokes a mental
shift the same way astronauts have that first time they look back upon the earth?”
“From space, astronauts tell us national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”
“Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience,” he continued.
For the purposes of the project, Black used Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as an example, because its earth-like qualities have made it a subject of interest for scientists.
Anticipating that a one-and-a-half-hour time delay in the transmission between Titan and earth would make real-time exploration impossible, Black proposes that the VR experience take place in a pre-scanned environment, with the terrain mapped using an orbital probe or data that the rover has already collected.
To avoid running into unforeseen obstacles, the rovers would also need to be equipped with autonomous technology.
In Black’s demonstration for The Overview Project, users of the VR headset saw the terrain mapped as a simple point cloud, but he said that more detailed visualisations could ultimately be developed, such as those developed by 3D-scanning company ScanLAB.
Brian Black demonstrated a version of The Overview Effect virtual-reality interface at the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition
An accompanying concept space rover called Creos is also part of the Overview Effect. It is designed around its power source, an advanced radio isotopic generator (ASRG), a highly efficient kind of generator that is currently under development at NASA.
Around this, Black has imagined a “rugged” body suitable for exploration. The rover has a high clearance but is otherwise low and flat, with a nearly square shape.
The rover uses lidar (like radar, but using pulsed laser light) to visualise its environment – the same technology as in today’s self-driving vehicles. This module is situated on the rover’s roof.
For users on earth, the vehicle also captures a soundscape using binaural audio receivers embedded in its front side panels. Scientific instruments like sampling tools and probes are all loaded into the front of vehicle.
Clément Balavoine has imagined flight suits precisely tailored to support the musculoskeletal system of SpaceX travellers, while one of 2016’s Designs of the Year was a Space Cup emulating a natural drinking experience for astronauts.
Black, who is originally from the US, studied at the Art Institute of Colorado before beginning his studies at the RCA. His work was included at the school’s graduate exhibition, which ran from 24 June to 2 July at the Kensington campus in London.
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