Augmented Reality Supports Space Advances

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is using a 3D visualization tool to design innovative space probes, including the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover and its Ingenuity helicopter. The same tool can help researchers plan work in space’s complex environment.

The mixed reality, computer aided design (CAD) 3D visualization tool is known as ProtoSpace. It has been crucial to the lab’s collaborative development of spacecraft, says the technical lead for ProtoSpace, Benjamin Nuernberger.


Nuernberger, a mixed reality researcher and developer who guides the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL’s) related software architecture design and implementation, explains that ProtoSpace allows scientists to see 3D CAD models of the spacecraft through augmented reality. To use ProtoSpace, researchers employ the Microsoft HoloLens, a commercial off-the-shelf mixed reality head-mounted display device combined with the JPL’s augmented reality application to superimpose a 3D digital image into the real world—as opposed to a virtual reality environment that creates an entire digital world.


“ProtoSpace has been used for various stages of the mission life cycle, all the way from the stage where you have an initial CAD design and you want to communicate that design to other people, to the early design stage and trying to figure out the design decisions, then to find the optimal design and to validate those designs, and for planning and troubleshooting,” Nuernberger notes.


“It’s really great because all the different scientists and engineers can collaborate and see this spacecraft spatially, stereoscopically, floating in a conference room, or maybe overlaid onto the actual hardware in a clean room. It allows them to talk about it as if it was physically there.”

In February, NASA deployed Perseverance to Mars for two Earth years to search for signs of ancient life, collect rock and soil samples, demonstrate technology and advance the possibility of human exploration on the planet. In April and May, NASA conducted several successful demonstration flights of Ingenuity, first verifying that powered, controlled flight was even possible on the Red Planet, and later testing how aerial reconnaissance and other tasks could aid in the exploration of Mars.


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