Deep space exploration

NASA’s lunar rover could enable deep space exploration

Even as President Donald Trump signed a directive last Monday to put the boots back on the moon, a team of NASA researchers continued work on a low-key project to send an unmanned rover there.

The project began three years ago, when several NASA centers, including the Johnson Space Center, embarked on a quest to learn more about the availability of water on the moon. If there is enough water that can be collected easily, the elements could be broken down to create rocket fuel, for example, or an astronaut life support system.

The result of their efforts, so far, is Resource Prospector: a 6-square-foot rover equipped with a drill and a mini science lab built to find and process water on the moon.

“Our mission is to take the next step toward pursuing water” on the moon, said Bill Bluethmann, rover element lead at Johnson Space Center.

Touting his new directive last week, Trump said: “This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will lay the groundwork for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps one day to many worlds beyond. -of the.”

The rover’s launch is still about five years away, but Bluethmann said if recent federal excitement helps get the rover off the ground, “we’ll be very excited.”

A Lunar Discovery

In November 2009, NASA officials made an announcement that fundamentally changed the way people viewed the moon: water existed in a permanently shadowed lunar crater.

Many in the scientific community assumed that the moon was a dry, desolate place. But data from NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite indicates otherwise.

“Until then, everyone was certain the moon was absolutely dry, and that turned it around,” said Dan Andrews, project manager for the rover at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. . This discovery “really changed the game in the way we think about the moon”.

Scientists began to seriously pursue this new discovery. About five years later, NASA researchers began developing a rover capable of finding and capturing this water.

Their budget is $250 million — a small-scale project, Bluethmann said.

Fast forward to 2017 and the rover is still in the technology development phase. But the researchers have an idea of ​​how it will work.

Using mapping technology, the rover will determine areas of the moon that are saturated with hydrogen. These are the areas where the rover will drill into water in chunks of 4 inches, Bluethmann said, going down to one meter.

Soil samples will be brought inside the rover whenever water – usually in the form of ice – is detected, he said, and machines that will test the soil.

Astronauts fly to the space station

A capsule carrying three astronauts from Russia, Japan and the United States has lifted off for a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The Soyuz capsule starring Anton Shkaplerov, Norishige Kanai and Scott Tingle launched at 1:23 p.m. Sunday from the Russian Manned Space Launch Complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The capsule is due to dock Tuesday with the space lab in orbit. The three will join Russians Alexander Misurkin and Joe Acaba and NASA’s Mark Vandde Hei.

Meanwhile, at the space station, a recycled SpaceX capsule has returned just in time for Christmas.

NASA astronauts used the space station’s big robotic arm to lift the Dragon capsule out of orbit on Sunday. It’s the second visit for this particular supply vessel, which made a delivery for NASA in 2015, and only the second time a Dragon has had a repeat performance at 250 miles.

SpaceX launched the Dragon from Cape Canaveral on Friday, using a previously piloted Falcon rocket. It was the first time SpaceX had flown a recycled rocket with a recycled capsule on top, central to the company’s efforts to cut launch costs.

The Dragon holds nearly 5,000 pounds of station goods. As for Christmas gifts, NASA doesn’t say, in true Santa Claus style. But NASA shared that it electronically sent a copy of the new “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on Friday, as a special holiday gift for astronauts.

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The soil will be weighed and heated, he added, and anything that comes off the sample will be captured.

Scientists want to understand “whether (the water) is on the surface for us to access it, whether we have to dig down to get it…whether it’s distributed as nice bricks or channels,” Bluethmann said.

Discoveries made during this mission, scheduled for 2022 or 2023, could have serious ramifications for deep space travel, he said.

If enough water is found, the hydrogen could be used to refuel rockets en route to Mars, for example, and the oxygen could be used to refuel astronauts, he added.

This would not only make deep space travel easier, but would make it cheaper.

“To launch 1 pound of any material into space costs thousands of dollars,” NASA’s website says. “A gallon of water weighs over 8 pounds, so the ability to generate water, air and fuel in space could represent huge cost savings for future deep space missions.”

The possibilities, Andrews said, have caught the attention of many commercial manufacturers.

“Really, I think the commercial world depends on what (Resource Prospector) finds out about the nature of lunar resources,” Andrews said. “If they are accessible and if smart people can find methods to extract them that are financially viable, this could be a new market.”

The rover is built to last a full lunar day: about two weeks on Earth. It will remain on the moon, with its samples, after the mission is complete, Bluethmann said.

“Mars and Beyond”

Johnson’s lunar rover could gain traction under the Trump administration, which has expressed renewed interest in human lunar exploration.

That interest was cemented Dec. 11 when Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, urging NASA to send Americans back to the moon.

The directive “marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use,” Trump said.

The Trump administration has been working all year up to this announcement.

Vice President Mike Pence expressed interest in returning to the Moon in October during the National Space Council, according to The New York Times.

The council, created to coordinate policies between NASA and other agencies involved in space, was disbanded in 1993. But last summer Trump reinstated it by executive order.

“We will send American astronauts back to the moon, not just to leave footprints and flags behind, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said, according to the Times.

On the day of Trump’s announcement in December, Johnson Space Center officials said it was too early to “understand how implementing the new directive might affect our work.” The center will undoubtedly be impacted: Johnson is where astronauts live and train before embarking on space missions.

The decision to return to lunar exploration comes after the Obama administration spent eight years pushing Mars above the moon. It is unclear how or when any lunar exploration attempt will be executed by the current administration. Funding for the directive was not addressed in the December 11 presidential announcement.

Although Andrews, the lunar rover project manager, did not directly comment on the Trump administration’s renewed interest in the Moon, he said NASA’s focus on lunar missions and in deep space would be useful for their mission.

“I don’t even think you have to be interested in the moon to see the value of Resource Prospector,” he said. His discoveries “could enable so many other destinations as well.”