Monthly Archives: August 2012

Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Mission Day 2

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By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member David Coan, an engineer with United Space Alliance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Mission Day 2 was an exciting day for the pilot in all of us. We changed plans up from our usual days of collecting rocks out on a “spacewalk” (Extra Vehicular Activity or EVA) to do some more challenging flying tasks. Our new mission today was to pilot the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) down to several different asteroids that spin at a variety of rates. These asteroids varied from relatively easy, slowly spinning objects to ones that moved at rates such that the ground seemed to whiz by quickly underneath the spacecraft.

The Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) viewed from outside during the RATS simulated mission; video screens in front of the MMSEV windows project images of the asteroid as crew members pilot the MMSEV. Photo credit: NASA

The Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) viewed from outside during the RATS simulated mission; video screens in front of the MMSEV windows project images of the asteroid as crew members pilot the MMSEV. Photo credit: NASA

Once we rendezvoused with our target on the ground, we had to manually pilot the MMSEV to station keep, or in other words hold the spacecraft in one small spot such that an EVA crewmember on the end of the arm could collect samples. Our station keeping goal was to keep the spacecraft to within a half meter of a given location. While that may sound easy, when the ground is moving quickly under you in unexpected directions, and you have limited visual cues out the windows, it becomes challenging to hold position in one spot. This is made even more complicated by trying to maneuver the spacecraft manually in all six axis (forward/back, left/right, up/down, roll, pitch, and yaw).

Once we completed our planned flying evaluations, we even had the opportunity to try out some potential techniques for holding the MMSEV steady at a worksite. This technique had us use a telescoping pole (‘stinger’) sticking out the front of the vehicle to help ‘stick’ us to the ground. Basically, we flew the MMSEV directly at the asteroid and pushed the ‘stinger’ into the ground, using light thrust to keep it buried. In theory, this would help us stay in one location, though the asteroid rotation rates made it challenging to stay balanced on our spacecraft sized pogo stick. But, it all made for a fun and exciting of day of piloting on an asteroid.

Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: The Asteroid Out Our Window

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By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member Trevor Graff (Planetary Geologist)

Although we are living and working within the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) located within the Building 9 hi-bay of the Johnson Space Center (JSC), you would never know it from our perspective inside the vehicle. Our view out the windows of the MMSEV is a fantastic representation of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. Surrounded by a high-resolution video wall that displays the asteroid in front of us, we are totally immersed in this simulated environment. Here inside the MMSEV, we use the displays, controls, and views out the windows to operate the vehicle within this amazing environment. One of the other great aspect are the sounds; not only are we surrounded by the whirl of electronics and communication systems, we can hear the simulated thrusters firing outside as we maneuver the MMSEV.

What’s really remarkable is that the shape, motion, and imagery of the asteroid Itokawa that we see out our windows are all derived from actual mission data from the Hayabusa mission. This spacecraft, developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), launched in 2003 and arrived at Itokawa in 2005. After a few months in orbit surveying and studying the asteroid from a distance, it landed and collected samples which were returned to Earth in 2010 (for more information on the Hayabusa mission see the JAXA website). Some of those samples returned from the surface of Itokawa are now located at JSC, just a short distance from where I currently sit in the MMSEV. For its support of the Hayabusa mission, NASA will eventually receive approximately 10% of the returned samples; the first 15 particles were delivered in late 2011. This material is curated at JSC and made available to the scientific community for research (get more information on these samples and their curation at JSC).

RATS crew members see a visualization of asteroid Itokawa from the windows of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

RATS crew members see a visualization of asteroid Itokawa from the windows of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

Itokawa is a stony (or S-type) asteroid that is shaped sort of like a potato. Its length is approximately five football fields long; the actual dimensions are 535 x 294 x 209 meters. It has been described as a rubble-pile, and looking at it from our view in the MMSEV I can see why. It has a very rough rocky appearance with many large boulders perched on the surface; there are also a few areas where it appears smooth. From the data collected during the Hayabusa mission, we know that Itokawa has a low bulk density and high porosity – indicating that it is likely made up of material previously broken up by other asteroid impacts that loosely reformed to make Itokawa as we see it today.

Viewing screen showing the asteroid simulation. Photo credit: NASA

Viewing screen showing the Itokawa asteroid simulation. Photo credit: NASA

Exploring and learning about an asteroid utilizing data from a robotic precursor spacecraft, as we are during this year’s RATS test, is exactly the strategy that we would likely use to eventually send humans to an asteroid in the future. This analog test and others like it are a great step in achieving that goal. As great as this view is today within this simulation, the view and knowledge we would get from sending humans on an actual mission to an asteroid in the future will be spectacular.

Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Mission Day 1

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By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member David Coan, an engineer with United Space Alliance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Trevor and I started the day by getting sealed up in the Multi-MissionSpace Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) to kick off the RATS 2012 simulated asteroid mission. Thevehicle looks rather small from the outside, but on the inside it seemsto be just roomy enough. Packing can be a little tricky, since there’sjust enough space crammed into every conceivable location, but we got itall in with the help of our Human Factors guru. Once settled in thecabin, we got down to the day’s mission.

Our goal was to virtually “fly” down to theasteroid and have one of us go out on a spacewalk (an Extra Vehicular Activity or EVA) to collect some rock samples. I started off flying theMMSEV, and Trevor headed out the door. To go on an EVA, Trevor used thesuitports in the back of the MMSEV, where his spacesuit was attached onthe outside. He opened the inner hatch, climbed into the suit, closedthe hatch, and then was off on his EVA.

View from inside the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) as the simulated asteroid mission is running. Photo credit: NASA

View from inside the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) as the simulated asteroid mission is running on video screens. Photo credit: NASA

To simulate being on EVA,Trevor headed up to the Virtual Reality Lab, where he donned goggles thatmade it appear to him as if he were near the asteroid. Having Trevorsettled on the front of the MMSEV, I then flew it down to each of thesample sites. With the virtual simulation projected out my frontwindows, it seemed as if I was really on the asteroid. Liz, Allison, andMarc helped a lot by choreographing our mission from the Deep Space Habitat.

Flying the MMSEV was great. It reacted really well to all controlinputs, and it wasn’t too difficult to precision fly near the asteroid surfacewith Trevor’s helmet just inches from the rocks. We worked like that fora couple of hours, and then switched places. Climbing into the Mark IIIspacesuit to egress for my EVA was definitely fun, even though I was onlyin the suit for a few minutes.

Having trained in the space shuttle andspace station airlock mockups, I found using the suitport to be veryquick and easy. Once we were done with our flying tasks, we settled infor our evening tasks. That involved making a freeze dried dinner,setting up our cycle and exercising, and filling out a bunch of datasheets. Exercising in the confined quarters was challenging, and wemostly stuck with using the cycle. We finished the night by configuringour bunks for sleeping, and shutting things down for the night.

Suitports on the outside of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

Suitport with spacesuit on the outside of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). Photo credit: NASA

Research and Technology Studies (RATS) 2012: Virtual Field Work

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By 2012 Research and Technology Studies (RATS) crew member Trevor Graff (Planetary Geologist)

This is my third year as part of NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team. In 2010, I was a member of the science team and supported the GeoLab operations in the Deep Space Habitat (DSH). I was part of the field science team in Arizona again in 2011, in addition to having the unique opportunity to train and prepare as a backup crew member. This year I’m one of the prime crew members for RATS 2012.

As a geologist, I greatly enjoy being in the field – exploring, mapping, sampling and analyzing the rocks, soil, and terrain. Geologist crew members for RATS get to apply the years of knowledge and experience we’ve gained from our field and lab work to exploration missions beyond our Earth. Our “field” environment for this year’s test is extremely unique.

Unlike many of the previous RATS tests conducted in the field in Arizona, this year we are exploring an actual asteroid. Well… sort of. Let me explain. This year’s test, conducted here at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), has us exploring the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. This is accomplished in a few very cool ways. First, our vehicle (the Generation 2A Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle or MMSEV) is in front of a large simulation screen that displays the asteroid in front of us. Using data and imagery from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa mission – that visited, landed, and returned samples from Itokawa – the simulated asteroid looks and moves just like the real thing.

RATS crew members Marc and Trevor running an asteroid mission simulation from within the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

This extremely realistic simulation allows us to fly around, approach, and anchor to the asteroid, all while monitoring our flight controls, propellant usage and many other factors. Once we approach or anchor to the asteroid, one or more of us will perform a simulated spacewalk, also known as an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). This involves two additional very cool aspects of this year’s testing.

For EVAs, we either go to the Virtual Reality Laboratory (VR Lab) or to the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS). In the VR Lab, we put on a special set of glasses that allows us to view and explore the asteroid as if we were in a space suit external to the MMSEV. From here we can fly to and sample the asteroid – getting our “hands dirty” in the virtual reality world. The other EVA option is to get strapped into ARGOS. The ARGOS facility provides the ability to offload our weight to simulate weightlessness, all while conducting our exploration and sampling of the simulated asteroid surface.

RATS crew member performs a simulated spacewalk using the ARGOS system.

RATS crew member performs a simulated spacewalk using the ARGOS system.

Analog missions like this one are vital in providing the data that will influence the development of mission architectures and technology critical to future human spaceflight. As a scientist, it’s great to be a part of helping evaluate and develop the equipment, techniques, and strategies that will eventually take us to places like asteroids and on to Mars!

What Would We Mine in Space?

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NASA is actively planning to expand the horizons of human space exploration, and with the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, humans will soon have the ability travel beyond low Earth orbit. But before we send humans to explore deep-space destinations — like near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and Mars and its moons — we need to demonstrate and refine capabilities here on Earth.

Image at right: The RESOLVE experiment package atop CSA’s Artemis Jr. Rover.

Each potential destination contains a vast spectrum of resources that space architects, engineers, and mission planners can work into spacecraft designs and operations to make a mission more safe, cost-effective, and efficient. Harnessing local resources is a practice called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), and it offers very attractive benefits for human space exploration, including mass reduction for the payload – and therefore cost reduction, since the number of launches will be fewer and size of launch vehicles could be smaller. ISRU also reduces risk for crew members, increases mission flexibility, and encourages commercialization of space by blazing a trail and demonstrating a market that is waiting to be cornered.

But What Would We Mine at Each Destination?

 

The Moon

Earth’s moon offers four major resources. The regolith, or layer of loose soil overlying rock beds, has a rich mixture of oxides and metals. The lack of atmosphere on the moon exposes the regolith to solar wind volatiles, including hydrogen, helium, and carbon. And recent robotic missions have proven that the shadowed polar craters have water-ice. NASA and its partners have already demonstrated the technology and proven the capabilities necessary to harness all of these resources for sustainable human exploration of the lunar surface.

Asteroids

Near-Earth asteroids present a unique challenge for space explorers. There are several types and classes of asteroids and the compositions vary greatly; some are very iron-rich, with magnesium, nickel, water, rare platinum groups, and varieties of silicates, while others will be rich with oxygen, water, and other volatiles. The rotation and spin rates can be erratic and unpredictable, making anchoring and mining precarious for humans. During the past two NEEMO analog missions, astronauts practiced different navigation and translation techniques for asteroid exploration, including human-robotic sampling and translation techniques in which the astronauts could deploy robotic systems to mine the asteroid resources.

Mars

The red planet’s atmosphere contains 95.5% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, and 1.6% argon. We know from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that water concentration varies by location, but we have proof of significant ice beneath the regolith at the poles. Mars also has oxides and metals in the soil, making it yet another resource-rich destination that we hope one day will be home to humans.

Could Planetary Resources Really Sustain Humans Away from Earth?

Robotic precursor missions can help prepare an extraterrestrial destination for a long-duration human visit. A system the size of RESOLVE, mounted on a rover like the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Artemis Jr., would be used to locate resources that could be used by the crew for life support, protection, power, and propulsion.  With the information, another small rover and processing plant can be delivered to mine an area less than 1 inch deep the size of a soccer field for one year prior to humans arriving in order to have enough initial resources to sustain a crew of astronauts when they arrive. If we had a shorter precursor timeframe, the robotic hardware would have to be much bigger in order to produce and store an initial repository of consumables for when the astronauts arrive. Another advantage of early robotic deployment, also known as a robotic precursor mission, is that it enables us to do more science experiments to learn about the area before the astronauts get there.

To learn more about In-Situ Resource Utilization, visit www.nasa.gov/exploration/analogs/isru.