When NASA established the Lunar Science Institute at the NASA Ames Research Center in 2008, the space agency was in the midst of the Constellation program with plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Since President Barack Obama announced plans in 2010 to refocus the U.S. human spaceflight program on travel to a near-Earth asteroid and ultimately to Mars, NASA officials have looked for ways to expand the mission of the institute to reflect the changing priorities of the space agency.

In late 2013, the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) officially took over the work of the Lunar Science Institute. SSERVI supports research designed to shed light on fundamental questions related to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos, and the space environments near each of those bodies.

Yvonne Pendleton, who became director of the Lunar Science Institute in 2010 and now leads SSERVI, is shepherding the organization through the transition. In November 2013, SSERVI selected nine teams to embark on five-year research projects. The teams are led by Bill Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute, Dan Britt of the University of Central Florida, Ben Bussey of the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Bill Farrell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Tim Glotch of Stony Brook University, Jennifer Heldmann of NASA Ames, Mihaly Horanyi of the University of Colorado, Carle Pieters of Brown University and David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

SSERVI also has international partners: the Canadian Lunar Research Network, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the Saudi Lunar and Near Earth Objects Science Center, the Israel Network for Lunar Science and Exploration, the German Network for Lunar Science and Exploration, Frascati National Laboratory of Italy’s National Nuclear Physics Institute, nine institutions that form a SSERVI node in the Netherlands, and 15 institutions that form the United Kingdom node.

Pendleton, an astrophysicist, decided she wanted to work for NASA when she was a child in Key West, Florida, watching rockets launch from the Kennedy Space Center. She obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering before shifting her attention to astrophysics and earning a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 2007 and 2008, Pendleton served as the senior adviser for research and analysis programs for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Pendleton spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

Why was SSERVI formed? 

The institute was created because complex science and engineering challenges require expertise and resources across many disciplines. By eliminating geographical constraints, the virtual institute model enables us to select the best investigations, teams and resources to address NASA’s current goals, regardless of where team members or infrastructure are located.

What do you focus on?

We tried to come up with questions we would need to answer before people travel beyond low Earth orbit. The topics include things like trying to understand how small bodies would outgas material. If you were approaching one, you would need to understand that. From a science perspective, volatiles are incredibly interesting to people who want to understand the origin, evolution and composition of these bodies.

How much funding does SSERVI have?

If you add up every single dollar, including the dollars for civil servant salaries, the total budget is $15.2 million per year. The central office gets roughly $2.8 million. The teams, on average, can expect to get about $1.2 million per year for five years.

Five years is a long time for a research project.

Yes. That is one of the reasons we have the flexibility and the stability that we have. Five years is a long enough time for someone to take a graduate student from the early days all the way through. We have seen students graduate from one team and become postdocs in another team. Students provide this unique glue that binds the institute together in a way I had not anticipated.

How often will SSERVI seek new research projects?

Every two-and-a-half years, we plan to have another call for proposals. That way we can add new teams before the old teams finish their five-year projects. That provides continuity and enables people to share the philosophy and culture of the institute.

What has SSERVI accomplished?

We picked teams in November. I got the teams together in December and asked them to come up with ideas for collaboration. They formed a long list and they’ve been marching right down that list.

One was the idea of having a shared repository of samples that team members collect. If they go into the field to collect meteorites or rock samples that other teams want to analyze, they work from the same rock. They also share facilities, laboratory resources and students. Some teams are taking other teams’ students with them on trips to analog work sites.

The teams are already publishing papers together. We use the publication rate to measure productivity. In six months this group has published 35 papers and there are more in the works.

What’s ahead for SSERVI?

At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 15, we will have an entire day dedicated to SSERVI research topics. We hope to draft a second Cooperative Agreement Notice to be released in late spring of next year.

We have recently been asked to take on management of NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project (LMMP), which includes data from multiple instruments on multiple lunar missions. All of this data is put into a system with very sophisticated modeling capabilities. It allows users to combine different layers of data. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is doing the work. Now that we’ve taken over management, we have asked them to expand beyond the Moon. As SSERVI’s scope grows, so should LMMP’s. We have included Vesta and Mars, and we hope to include the moons of Mars in the near future.

What role do SSERVI’s international partners play?

They play a huge role. On a no-exchange-of-funds basis, we collaborate. Some space agencies are making discoveries at a breakneck pace. Our job is to connect them, to help disseminate each country’s expertise and results across the globe in a way that makes them useful to everyone.

How do international partners join SSERVI?

They write proposals with an eye toward how they can fit into the kind of work our teams already are doing. They often offer to send students here or bring U.S. students there. Some of our teams do a lot of analog work, trying to understand the moons of Mars or asteroids by going to remote places on Earth. Canada has some ideal places for this kind of work. The partnership with Germany enabled one of our teams to build a dust accelerator in record time. Mihaly Horanyi’s German colleagues gave him the plans to build a duplicate of their accelerator. It is now open to the entire scientific community.

How many people work on the SSERVI staff and what role do they play?

There are 14 people on the SSERVI central staff. We oversee the teams and make sure they get their funding. We track their budgets and learn about their progress in monthly meetings. We enable a lot of the virtual communication both for our teams and for the whole community. NASA is getting very interested in using virtual tools for a number of meetings.

Why is SSERVI at NASA Ames?

Ames is home to all of NASA’s virtual institutes: the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute and SSERVI. Ames is an innovative center. People here are very interested in cost-savings approaches to exploration. I think the institutes are thriving because we are in the heart of Silicon Valley. We pick up a lot of virtual tools hot off the press and introduce them to our community.

What made you switch from aerospace engineering to astrophysics?

When I was 10 years old, I told anybody who would listen that I wanted to work for NASA and study the stars. I went into aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The year I graduated I had an opportunity to work for Ames and get my master’s degree at Stanford University. Once I got here, I realized Ames had a space science division. I wandered over there one day and fell in love with everything they were doing. This was the time of the Voyager and Pioneer missions. I was mesmerized. At the time, I was working in a wind tunnel. Fortunately, human resources let me switch, and the rest is history. NASA put me through to get my Ph.D. in astrophysics. I ended up having the career that was right for me.

So now you work for NASA and study the stars? 

That’s right. In my personal research, I look for the cosmic origins of life in a grain of interstellar dust. Now I have the joy of directing an institute focused on our place in the solar system. I believe the Moon and other small bodies in our solar system hold the pieces of the puzzle we need.

You also have your own asteroid, 7165 Pendleton.

I was blown away when that happened. It was a huge honor.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...