At Masten, we expect lunar landings to become commonplace by 2030, and we’ll play a big role in enabling that future. Ideally, each landing will be more efficient and streamlined than the last. So how do we achieve that? We learn from each lunar landing by capturing video footage and studying things like lunar regolith disturbances caused by rocket plume.

That’s where Lunar ExoCam can help. Developed by researchers at Zandef Deksit, Lunar ExoCam is a remotely deployed camera and sensor payload system designed in partnership with Honeybee Robotics. It can capture video during a lander’s final descent on the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. The 360° cameras are housed inside a protective cage to capture the entire field of view. That means the cameras can also be used to track assets on the lunar surface or monitor the cislunar environment.

Through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, Masten has been testing Lunar ExoCam on our Xodiac vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicle since 2020. These flight tests help mature the payload and advance its technology readiness for space.

Xodiac operations

In fact, we just wrapped up the latest series of flights at our test site in Mojave, CA, including nine Xodiac tether tests and two free flights. The Masten team created a custom trajectory using our proprietary flight software and tested the trajectory several times before integrating the ExoCams on Xodiac. These pre-flight tests helped prepare us for the final test on October 14, 2021. During that final test flight, Xodiac simulated the movement of a lunar landing and ejected two ExoCams onto the surface just before landing.

How’d it go? The team nailed it… as usual. We successfully executed the first deployment of a remote sensing payload that captured the landing of a VTVL rocket in real-time.

Xodiac deployment of Lunar ExoCam

We jettisoned the first ExoCam 25 meters above the surface, and then rotated Xodiac 22.5° before ejecting the second ExoCam 15 meters above the surface. This allowed us to deploy an ExoCam on both sides of the vehicle, landing within centimeters of our target landing site.

See for yourself in our video of the free flight. At 00:26 and 00:42, you’ll see the ejection module jettison the cameras and particle sensors, simulating the forces they’ll experience on the Moon!

Ultimately, this flight test helped the team understand a few important things:

  • The maximum distance an ExoCam can be ejected on a lunar or planetary surface while still surviving the landing and functioning properly.
  • The speed at which ExoCams travel as the lander descends onto the surface, allowing the team to make calculations that account for lunar gravity.
  • The quantity of regolith particles kicked up by the vehicle’s rocket plume to help researchers understand the effects of harmful lunar dust.
Xodiac and Lunar ExoCam

And there’s more where that came from! The Zandef Deksit team put together a behind-the-scenes look of the mission operations. “This is history in the making… and it’s rad.”

What’s next? We expect to see Lunar ExoCam on the Moon soon…

Ad lunam!