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President Obama Brings Hope to Future Space Exploration.

Monday, April 19, 2010

President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 about the new direction for NASA and America's Space Program.

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Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p1014_19.html
Time Stamp: 4/19/2010 at 4:22:55 AM UTC
 

NASA's Wise Gets Ready to Survey the Whole Sky

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or Wise, is chilled out, sporting a sunshade and getting ready to roll. NASA's newest spacecraft is scheduled to roll to the pad on Friday, Nov. 20, its last stop before launching into space to survey the entire sky in infrared light.

Wise is scheduled to launch no earlier than 9:09 a.m. EST on Dec. 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will circle Earth over the poles, scanning the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months. The mission will uncover hidden cosmic objects, including the coolest stars, dark asteroids and the most luminous galaxies.

"The eyes of Wise are a vast improvement over those of past infrared surveys," said Edward "Ned" Wright, the principal investigator for the mission at UCLA. "We will find millions of objects that have never been seen before."

The mission will map the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths with sensitivity hundreds to hundreds of thousands of times greater than its predecessors, cataloging hundreds of millions of objects. The data will serve as navigation charts for other missions, pointing them to the most interesting targets. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, and NASA's upcoming Sofia and James Webb Space Telescope will follow up on Wise finds.

"This is an exciting time for space telescopes," said Jon Morse, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Many of the telescopes will work together, each contributing different pieces to some of the most intriguing puzzles in our universe."

Visible light is just one slice of the universe's electromagnetic rainbow. Infrared light, which humans can't see, has longer wavelengths and is good for seeing objects that are cold, dusty or far away. In our solar system, Wise is expected to find hundreds of thousands of cool asteroids, including hundreds that pass relatively close to Earth's path. Wise's infrared measurements will provide better estimates of asteroid sizes and compositions -- important information for understanding more about potentially hazardous impacts on Earth.

"With infrared, we can find the dark asteroids other surveys have missed and learn about the whole population. Are they mostly big, small, fluffy or hard?" said Peter Eisenhardt, the Wise project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Wise also will find the coolest of the "failed" stars or brown dwarfs. Scientists speculate it is possible that a cool star lurks right under our noses, closer to us than our nearest known star, Proxima Centauri, which is four light-years away. If so, Wise will easily pick up its glow. The mission also will spot dusty nests of stars and swirling planet-forming disks, and may find the most luminous galaxy in the universe.

To sense the infrared glow of stars and galaxies, the Wise spacecraft cannot give off any detectable infrared light of its own. This is accomplished by chilling the telescope and detectors to ultra-cold temperatures. The coldest of Wise's detectors will operate at below 8 Kelvin, or minus 445 Fahrenheit.

"Wise is chilled out," said William Irace, the project manager at JPL. "We've finished freezing the hydrogen that fills two tanks surrounding the science instrument. We're ready to explore the universe in infrared."

JPL manages Wise for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Video Caption: This animation illustrates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer's 11-second data-taking exposure cycle. The cycle is synchronized with the orbit to generate total sky coverage with overlap between orbits in six months following launch. There will be eight or more exposures at every position for more than 99 percent of the sky.
Video Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Source: NASA
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p936_18.html
Time Stamp: 11/17/2009 at 6:20:15 PM UTC
 

NASA Scientists Find Clues to a Secret of Life

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NASA scientists analyzing the dust of meteorites have discovered new clues to a long-standing mystery about how life works on its most basic, molecular level.

"We found more support for the idea that biological molecules, like amino acids, created in space and brought to Earth by meteorite impacts help explain why life is left-handed," said Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "By that I mean why all known life uses only left-handed versions of amino acids to build proteins." Glavin is lead author of a paper on this research appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences March 16.

Proteins are the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Just as the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in limitless combinations to make words, life uses 20 different amino acids in a huge variety of arrangements to build millions of different proteins. Amino acid molecules can be built in two ways that are mirror images of each other, like your hands. Although life based on right-handed amino acids would presumably work fine, "you can't mix them," says Dr. Jason Dworkin of NASA Goddard, co-author of the study. "If you do, life turns to something resembling scrambled eggs -- it's a mess. Since life doesn't work with a mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, the mystery is: how did life decide -- what made life choose left-handed amino acids over right-handed ones?"

Over the last four years, the team carefully analyzed samples of meteorites with an abundance of carbon, called carbonaceous chondrites. The researchers looked for the amino acid isovaline and discovered that three types of carbonaceous meteorites had more of the left-handed version than the right-handed variety – as much as a record 18 percent more in the often-studied Murchison meteorite. "Finding more left-handed isovaline in a variety of meteorites supports the theory that amino acids brought to the early Earth by asteroids and comets contributed to the origin of only left-handed based protein life on Earth," said Glavin.

All amino acids can switch from left-handed to right, or the reverse, by chemical reactions energized with radiation or temperature, according to the team. The scientists looked for isovaline because it has the ability to preserve its handedness for billions of years, and it is extremely rarely used by life, so its presence in meteorites is unlikely to be from contamination by terrestrial life. "The meteorites we studied are from before Earth formed, over 4.5 billion years ago," said Glavin. "We believe the same process that created extra left-handed isovaline would have created more left-handed versions of the other amino acids found in these meteorites, but the bias toward left-handed versions has been mostly erased after all this time."

The team's discovery validates and extends the research first reported a decade ago by Drs. John Cronin and Sandra Pizzarello of Arizona State University, who were first to discover excess isovaline in the Murchison meteorite, believed to be a piece of an asteroid. "We used a different technique to find the excess, and discovered it for the first time in the Orgueil meteorite, which belongs to another meteorite group believed to be from an extinct comet," said Glavin.

The team also found a pattern to the excess. Different types of meteorites had different amounts of water, as determined by the clays and water-bearing minerals found in the meteorites. The team discovered meteorites with more water also had greater amounts of left-handed isovaline. "This gives us a hint that the creation of extra left-handed amino acids had something to do with alteration by water," said Dworkin. "Since there are many ways to make extra left-handed amino acids, this discovery considerably narrows down the search."

If the bias toward left-handedness originated in space, it makes the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system more difficult, while also making its origin a bit more likely, according to the team. "If we find life anywhere else in our solar system, it will probably be microscopic, since microbes can survive in extreme environments," said Dworkin. "One of the biggest problems in determining if microscopic life is truly extra-terrestrial is making sure the sample wasn't contaminated by microbes brought from Earth. If we find the life is based on right-handed amino acids, then we know for sure it isn't from Earth. However, if the bias toward left-handed amino acids began in space, it likely extends across the solar system, so any life we may find on Mars, for example, will also be left-handed. On the other hand, if there is a mechanism to choose handedness before life emerges, it is one less problem prebiotic chemistry has to solve before making life. If it was solved for Earth, it probably has been solved for the other places in our solar system where the recipe for life might exist, such as beneath the surface of Mars, or in potential oceans under the icy crust of Europa and Enceladus, or on Titan."

The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the NASA Cosmochemistry program, and the NASA Astrobiology: Exobiology, and Evolutionary Biology program.

Image Caption: This artist's concept uses hands to illustrate the left and right-handed versions of the amino acid isovaline.
Image Credit: NASA / Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith
Source: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center / Bill Steigerwald
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p886_17.html
Time Stamp: 3/18/2009 at 4:24:23 AM UTC
 

The Day the Sun Brought Darkness

Friday, March 13, 2009

On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout. Hundreds of blackouts occur in some part of North America every year. The Quebec Blackout was different, because this one was caused by a solar storm!

On Friday March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun. Within minutes, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at a million miles an hour. The solar flare that accompanied the outburst immediately caused short-wave radio interference, including the jamming of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia. It was thought that the signals had been jammed by the Kremlin, but it was only the sun acting up!

On the evening of Monday, March 12 the vast cloud of solar plasma (a gas of electrically charged particles) finally struck Earth's magnetic field. The violence of this 'geomagnetic storm' caused spectacular 'northern lights' that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. The magnetic disturbance was incredibly intense. It actually created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators. Most people woke up to cold homes for breakfast. The blackout also closed schools and businesses, kept the Montreal Metro shut during the morning rush hour, and closed Dorval Airport.

The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event. Some of the U.S. electrical utilities had their own cliffhanger problems to deal with. New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time. Service to 96 electrical utilities in New England was interrupted while other reserves of electrical power were brought online. Luckily, the U.S. had the power to spare at the time…but just barely. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm. Fortunately none of these caused a blackout.

In space, some satellites actually tumbled out of control for several hours. NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded over 250 anomalies as high-energy particles invaded the satellite's sensitive electronics. Even the Space Shuttle Discovery was having its own mysterious problems. A sensor on one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to a fuel cell was showing unusually high pressure readings on March 13. The problem went away just as mysteriously after the solar storm subsided.

Twenty years later, the March 1989 'Quebec Blackout' has reached legendary stature, at least among electrical engineers and space scientists. It is a dramatic example of how solar storms can affect us even here on the ground. Fortunately, storms as powerful as this are rather rare. It takes quite a solar wallop to cause anything like the conditions leading up to a Quebec-style blackout. Typical solar activity 'sunspot' cycles can produce least two or three large storms, so it really is just a matter of chance whether one will cause a blackout or not. As it is for hurricanes and tornadoes, the more we can learn about the sun's 'space weather,' the better we can prepare for the next storm when it arrives!

Image Caption: Artist rendition of the 1989 blackout.
Image Credit: NASA
Source: Goddard Space Flight Center / Rani Gran
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p878_16.html
Time Stamp: 3/13/2009 at 5:44:20 PM UTC
 

Blind Engineer Finds Solution That Could Provide Insight into Soyuz Capsule Re-entry Issues

Friday, November 7, 2008

A blind engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., had the vision for a solution to a problem that ultimately required him to fly to Europe to obtain potentially important data on the flight of a Soyuz capsule returning two International Space Station crew members and spaceflight participant Richard Garriott to Earth.

Marco Midon is an electronics engineer in the Microwave and Communications Branch at NASA Goddard and has been with NASA for almost 11 years. He recently provided critical engineering support for the implementation of 18 meter Ka-Band antennas at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and also served as NASA systems engineer on a project to upgrade a NASA ground station at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Earlier this month, Midon read a memo from the head of space operations at NASA Headquarters asking for ideas on how the agency could respond to a request from the Russian Federal Space Agency to provide telemetry data on the Soyuz capsule during de-orbit and re-entry.

"I saw the e-mail asking for ideas about how data from the Soyuz could be received and recorded and right away I knew how it could be done" said Midon. "The real question was whether it could be done in the time that was available."

The agency-wide request from the head of all human spaceflight efforts came after it was determined that there were no commercial, or space station partner facilities that could provide the service needed because the downlink frequency (VHF) is not usually used for space telemetry. NASA and Russian partners agreed that providing data beyond that which is recorded just prior to separation of the Soyuz modules might be valuable in shedding light on the spacecraft’s past entry performance.

“In the spirit of the old NASA, the Goddard team responded to my request with an amazing 'can-do' attitude. The team was focused on the problem to be solved and let no hurdles stand in the way,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Space Operations. "Good Soyuz performance is important for International Space Station operations, and any help NASA could provide helps all of the partnership.”

Midon's proposal involved a low-cost mobile system that could be transported and deployed along the track of the separation and re-entry plan of the Soyuz vehicle.

"After getting the go-ahead to pursue my idea, my first course of action was to verify that we could obtain the necessary equipment" said Midon. "I called one vendor about the antenna needed and then another about the pre-amp that would be required to amplify signals tuned to this particular oddball frequency and how both items were needed immediately. The answer from everyone was 'yes,' so rush orders were placed."

With less than four days before Soyuz landing, the next step involved Midon contacting individuals at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to confirm that the center could support a test of the system being proposed. After getting confirmation, he traveled to Wallops and supported activities that simulated what the Russian signal would look like and verified it could indeed be received and recorded.

A day later, all the equipment ordered was in place, and the stage was set for the final test to prove that Midon's idea could indeed work.

"We took the equipment down to Wallops and set up everything," said Midon. "While we were busy doing that, other folks talked to the Russians who agreed to turn on the Soyuz that was docked to the space station for two communication passes. Basically we were 72 hours out from landing and knew we would only have these two short communication passes to prove the whole thing worked.”

As it turned out, the first pass wasn't all that successful with little or no signal received. But Midon came up with some tweaks to the system to make it a little more sensitive and during the second pass, good data was received.

While Midon and his group continued with their efforts, other NASA engineers were busy in determining the best location to place the portable system. Three potential locations were initially identified -- Turkey, North Africa and Greece. After reviewing flight path trajectories, it was decided that Athens would provide the best view to capture telemetry data.

So on Wednesday, October 22, with less than 48 hours before Soyuz landing, the site for the temporary station was set. Midon and Jim Evans, a Honeywell Technical Solutions employee at Wallops, traveled to Baltimore-Washington International airport with all the equipment.

A new challenge arose when one package was determined to be 12 pounds over the airline’s allowed limit. Midon and Evans decided to take most of the equipment on their flight to Greece, while others worked options for getting the remaining equipment delivered.

Because no commercial delivery service could guarantee the equipment would arrive in time, Harry Schenk, a Honeywell employee at Goddard who had helped with earlier efforts, volunteered to fly to Greece with the remaining items.

By the time Midon and Evans arrived in Athens, less than 24 hours remained before the Soyuz flyover would take place. The two went immediately to the American Embassy in Athens which was the chosen location for setting up their equipment.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, Midon and Evans worked to set things up while waiting for Schenk to arrive with the final pieces of equipment. By around 10 p.m. and less than eight hours before the event, all the equipment was powered up and verified ready to support.

After finally checking into the hotel and getting at least a few hours sleep, the three men were back at the embassy around 4 a.m., local time, for the Soyuz flyover which was planned for just after 6 a.m.

But there was still one more issue to work.

"When we got back to embassy for the event, we realized a recorder wasn't working," said Midon. "We realized that the likely cause was a heating problem because the room wasn't air conditioned. We found a marine who is one of the few people around at that time of day who found us a fan so we could circulate more air around the unit and that seemed to fix the problem."

Based on information provided by flight dynamics engineers, the antenna on the roof was positioned and just after 6 a.m., the system began receiving data from the Soyuz capsule as it traveled through the atmosphere.

"The pass was very low, only 8 1/2 degrees and we were in a valley so I wasn't sure we were going to get anything" said Midon. "At first, the signal was very weak. But then after two-to-three minutes the signal got much stronger, and it was clear we were getting good data. The strong signal lasted about a minute and with processing back in the lab, we're hoping there is at least 90 seconds of good data that can be utilized."

Later, Midon had a phone conversation with Gerstenmaier who thanked him and his group and said how much both the American and Russian flight control teams appreciated their incredible effort.

Midon remarked "I think the real story here is that we only had two or three days to come up with a solution to something and were then able to implement it in Europe. I may have been the technical guy who figured out how to do it but there were a lot of other folks whose willingness to pitch in provided us with an opportunity to succeed."

Image Caption: Harry Schenk (right), a Honeywell employee at Goddard, made a last-minute trip to Greece, to ensure final pieces of equipment were in place in time to collect data during the Soyuz re-entry.
Image Credit: NASA
Source: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center / Ed Campion
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p695_15.html
Time Stamp: 11/7/2008 at 6:23:44 PM UTC
 

NASA and ATK Investigate Failed Launch Of Hypersonic Experiments

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Alliant Tech Systems suborbital rocket carrying two NASA hypersonic experiments was destroyed shortly after liftoff from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Friday. No injuries or property damage were immediately reported.

Most debris from the rocket is thought to have fallen in the Atlantic Ocean. However, there are conflicting reports of debris being sighted on land. This debris could be hazardous. People who think they may have encountered rocket debris are advised not to touch it and to report it to the Wallops Emergency Operations Center at 757-824-1300.

NASA is very disappointed in this failure but has directed its focus on protecting public safety and conducting a comprehensive investigation to identify the root cause. NASA is assembling a multidiscipline team, along with the rocket's maker Alliant Tech Systems, or ATK, of Salt Lake City, to begin the investigation promptly.

The exact launch time was 5:10 a.m. EDT. The anomaly that caused the failure occurred approximately 27 seconds into flight and is not known.

Source: NASA
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p507_14.html
Time Stamp: 8/22/2008 at 11:34:08 AM UTC
 

NASA Evaluates Sensor Technology for Future Aircraft Efficiency

Monday, July 14, 2008

NASA is evaluating an advanced, fiber optic-based sensing technology that could aid development of active control of wing shape. Controlling a wing's shape in flight would allow it to take advantage of aerodynamics and improve overall aircraft efficiency.

The Fiber Optic Wing Shape Sensor system measures and displays the shape of the aircraft's wings in flight. The system also has potential for improving aircraft safety when the technology is used to monitor the aircraft structure.

Flight tests on NASA's Ikhana, a modified Predator B unmanned aircraft adapted for civilian research, are under way at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The effort represents one of the first comprehensive flight validations of fiber optic sensor technology.

"Generations of aircraft and spacecraft could benefit from work with the new sensors if the sensors perform in the sky as they have in the laboratory," said Lance Richards, Dryden's Advanced Structures and Measurement group lead.

The weight reduction that fiber optic sensors would make possible could reduce operating costs and improve fuel efficiency. The development also opens up new opportunities and applications that would not be achievable with conventional technology. For example, the new sensors could enable adaptive wing-shape control.

"Active wing-shape control represents the gleam in the eye of every aerodynamicist," Richards said. "If the shape of the wing can be changed in flight, then the efficiency and performance of the aircraft can be improved, from takeoff and landing to cruising and maneuvering."

Six hair-like fibers located on the top surface of Ikhana's wings provide more than 2,000 strain measurements in real time. With a combined weight of less than two pounds, the fibers are so small that they have no significant effects on aerodynamics. The sensors eventually could be embedded within composite wings in future aircraft.

To validate the new sensors' accuracy, the research team is comparing results obtained with the fiber optic wing shape sensors against those of 16 traditional strain gauges co-located on the wing alongside the new sensors.

"The sensors on Ikhana are imperceptibly small because they're located on fibers approximately the diameter of a human hair," Richards explained. "You can get the information you need from the thousands of sensors on a few fibers without the weight and complexity of conventional sensors. Strain gauges, for example, require three copper lead wires for every sensor."

When using the fiber optic sensors, researchers do not require analytical models for determining strain and other measurements on the aircraft because data derived with the sensors include all of the actual measurements being sought.

Another safety-related benefit of the lightweight fiber optic sensors is that thousands of sensors can be left on the aircraft during its lifetime, gathering data on structural health and performance. By knowing the stress levels at thousands of locations on the aircraft, designers can more optimally design structures and reduce weight while maintaining safety, Richards explained. The net result could be a reduction in fuel costs and an increase in range.

Further, intelligent flight control software technology now being developed can incorporate structural monitoring data from the fiber optic sensors to compensate for stresses on the airframe, helping prevent situations that might otherwise result in a loss of flight control.

By extension, the application of the technology to wind turbines could improve their performance by making their blades more efficient.

"An improvement of only a few percent equals a huge economic benefit," Richards said. "The sensors could also be used to look at the stress of structures, like bridges and dams, and possibilities extend to potential biomedical uses as well. The applications of this technology are mind-boggling."

Image Caption: A Predator B unmanned aircraft system has joined the inventory of research aircraft at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif. Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, NASA took possession of the aircraft during the fall of 2006. The aircraft has been given the Choctaw Nation name "Ikhana"(pronounced ee-kah-nah), which means intelligent.
Image Source: NASA / Dryden
Source: NASA
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p474_13.html
Time Stamp: 7/14/2008 at 4:24:09 PM UTC
 

Orion Launch Abort System Jettison Motor Test

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NASA successfully tested the Launch Abort System jettison motor, the first full-scale test for the Constellation Program's Orion crew exploration vehicle. The jettison motor is a solid rocket motor designed to separate the Launch Abort System from the crew module on a normal launch and to safely propel the abort system away from the crew module during an emergency.

The static test firing was conducted by Aerojet Corporation in Sacramento, Calif. NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin Corporation, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Aerojet Corporation to supply the jettison motor.

"This was a major success for the Orion Launch Abort System team," said Mark Cooper, NASA's integrated product team lead for LAS Propulsion at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "The test provided valuable data on motor performance that will allow design and analytical refinements by our contactor team. The test is the culmination of intense and focused work by the entire jettison motor team."

Demonstrating the jettison motor performance is critical to the development of the crew module's launch abort system, which will offer a safe escape in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the climb to a low Earth orbit. The jettison motor test was a critical demonstration milestone in the Orion Project's preparations for the first of a series of flight tests of the Launch Abort System currently scheduled for late 2008.

NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., manages the launch abort system design and development effort with partners and team members from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. Langley’s Launch Abort System Office performs this function as part of the Orion Project Office located at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. The abort system is a key element in NASA's continuing efforts to improve safety as the agency develops the next generation of spacecraft to return humans to the moon.

Image Caption: Orion Launch Abort System jettison motor test.
Image Credit: AeroJet
Source: NASA
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p388_12.html
Time Stamp: 4/16/2008 at 8:50:56 AM CST
 

NASA Team Demonstrates Robot Technology For Moon Exploration

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

During the 3rd Space Exploration Conference Feb. 26-28 in Denver, NASA will exhibit a robot rover equipped with a drill designed to find water and oxygen-rich soil on the moon.

"Resources are the key to sustainable outposts on the moon and Mars," said Bill Larson, deputy manager of the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) project. "It's too expensive to bring everything from Earth. This is the first step toward understanding the potential for lunar resources and developing the knowledge needed to extract them economically."

The engineering challenge was daunting. A robot rover designed for prospecting within lunar craters has to operate in continual darkness at extremely cold temperatures with little power. The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so a lightweight rover will have a difficult job resisting drilling forces and remaining stable. Lunar soil, known as regolith, is abrasive and compact, so if a drill strikes ice, it likely will have the consistency of concrete.

Meeting these challenges in one system took ingenuity and teamwork. Engineers demonstrated a drill capable of digging samples of regolith in Pittsburgh last December. The demonstration used a laser light camera to select a site for drilling then commanded the four-wheeled rover to lower the drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock.

"These are tasks that have never been done and are really difficult to do on the moon," said John Caruso, demonstration integration lead for ISRU and Human Robotics Systems at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.



In 2008, the team plans to equip the rover with ISRU's Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction experiment, known as RESOLVE. Led by engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., the RESOLVE experiment package will add the ability to crush a regolith sample into small, uniform pieces and heat them.

The process will release gases deposited on the moon's surface during billions of years of exposure to the solar wind and bombardment by asteroids and comets. Hydrogen is used to draw oxygen out of iron oxides in the regolith to form water. The water then can be electrolyzed to split it back into pure hydrogen and oxygen, a process tested earlier this year by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"We're taking hardware from two different technology programs within NASA and combining them to demonstrate a capability that might be used on the moon," said Gerald Sanders, manager of the ISRU project. "And even if the exact technologies are not used on the moon, the lessons learned and the relationships formed will influence the next generation of hardware."

Engineers participated in the ground-based rover concept demonstration from four NASA centers, the Canadian Space Agency, the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology in Sudbury, Ontario, and Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Mellon was responsible for the robot's design and testing, and the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology built the drilling system. Glenn contributed the rover's power management system. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., built a system that navigates the rover in the dark. The Canadian Space Agency funded a Neptec camera that builds three-dimensional images of terrain using laser light.

All the elements together represent a collaboration of the Human Robotic Systems and ISRU projects at Johnson. These projects are part of the Exploration Technology Development Program, which is managed by NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Image Caption 1: While designing the lunar truck, JSC engineers threw out some traditional assumptions on what a vehicle needs -- for instance, doors and seats -- and added interesting new capabilities such as active suspension, six-wheel drive with independent steering for each wheel.

Image Credit 1: NASA
Image Caption 2: This robot shares some features with the lunar truck, but is equipped with a drill designed to find water and oxygen-rich soil on the moon.
Image Credit 2: Carnegie Mellon University
Source: NASA
Permalink: http://www.sflorg.com/comm_center/nasa/p292_11.html
Time Stamp: 2/27/2008 at 12:08:15 PM CST

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