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HoloLens for rover design
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory check the design of a rover assembly using Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality system. (Credit: NASA)

We’ve already seen how Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed-reality headset is helping folks fight off aliens on the International Space Station and take a virtual walk on Mars. Now check out how it’s being used to tweak the design for NASA’s next Mars rover.

Last week, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed off its ProtoSpace application, which superimposes a computer-generated version of space hardware over your field of view in the headset.

The application lets JPL’s engineers size up how components fit together in the design of the 2020 Mars rover, which is currently under development at the lab in Pasadena, Calif. They can also take real-world hardware and compare it against the ghostly design that’s floating before their eyes.

The beauty of the system is that they can push through the virtual parts on the outside and get into the guts of the rover, in what appears to be real physical space.

“It’s very important for engineers to gain intuition for the actual size, shape and arrangement of the spacecraft,” Jeff Norris, who leads JPL’s Mission Operations Innovation Office, told Engadget. “They need to see these designs at full human scale so they can use their natural abilities for the feeling of how large a part is or how tight the clearance might be. It’s difficult to access that when you’re looking at a model on a computer screen.”

The 2020 rover will use the same basic design as the Curiosity rover that’s currently operating on Mars, but it’ll have a different suite of scientific instruments and enhanced capabilities for collecting Red Planet samples. ProtoSpace will help engineers head off potential design conflicts as the new six-wheeled robot is assembled.

ProtoSpace is just one of the HoloLens apps being developed by NASA for space exploration and education. The headset was tested for use in space station operations (and a mixed-reality version of Space Invaders) during astronaut Scott Kelly’s “year in space” mission as part of an experiment called Project Sidekick.

NASA has also been using HoloLens to plan out the Curiosity rover’s next moves on Mars. The space agency is adapting that application, known as OnSight, for a “Destination: Mars” mixed-reality tour.

For more about ProtoSpace and OnSight, check out the reports from UploadTom’s HardwareVRScout and Wired.

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