NASA has coughed up $1.2 million for a navigation system that will help astronauts find their way around the lunar surface when they return in 2020. The Lunar Astronaut Spatial Orientation and Information System (LASOIS) is designed to function  much the same way as a global positioning system (GPS). The major difference: the moon version will rely on signals from lunar beacons, stereo cameras, and orbital imaging sensors instead of from satellites (there are none drifting around the moon) to map coordinates. These signals will be picked up by sensors onboard roving lunar vehicles, robots traversing the moon's surface and sensors mounted on astronaut space suits.

This artist's rendering shows an astronaut's-eye view of the lunar navigation system that Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues are developing. Courtesy of Kevin Gecsi, Ohio State University

A group of The Ohio State University (OSU) researchers are working with NASA Glenn Research Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, to develop the LASOIS. This is old hat for Ron Li, an OSU professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science heading up the project, who was part of a team that developed software that helps NASA scientists guide the Spirit and Opportunity as they roam the Martian landscape. NASA mapped portions of Mars by comparing images taken by a high-resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with those snapped by Spirit and Opportunity on the Red Planet's surface.

Li explained how the system works this week during a conference held at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California: Images taken from  space will be combined with surface shots to create maps of lunar terrain; motion sensors on lunar vehicles and clipped on to the astronauts' spacesuits will help computers pinpoint locations; signals from lunar beacons, the lunar lander, and base stations will give astronauts a picture of their surroundings similar to what drivers see when using a GPS device on Earth.