Hawaii Used as Testbed for Lunar Exploration Systems

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  Space News Business

Hawaii Used as Testbed for Lunar Exploration Systems

By LEONARD DAVID
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 12 March 2008
03:19 pm ET




ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scientists and engineers will gather in Hawaii later this year to evaluate technology and techniques that could be used to produce resources such as oxygen, water and propellant that otherwise would have to be launched from Earth to future lunar bases.

The newly formed Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) at the University of Hawaii at Hilo is supporting a major display of equipment in November to showcase in situ resource utilization – techniques to use material already on the Moon to produce items that are expensive to transport from Earth. Such testing could lead to true independence from Earth, advocates suggest, enabling explorers to “live off the land” by manufacturing their own drinking water, oxygen to breathe, and fuel to extend operations on the Moon.

Leaders in the building and testing of in situ resource utilization hardware took part in the Space Technology and Applications International Forum, held here Feb. 10-14. Using volcanic-rich soil sites of Hawaii as an analog to the Moon offers several benefits, said Gerald Sanders, NASA’s project manager for in situ resource utilization at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It forces us to get out of the lab and think about how we would operate on the Moon. It cuts the umbilical cord of all that nice equipment around you in the lab,” Sanders told Space News. Additionally, working out in the field, he said, promotes team-building with other partners keen on pursuing similar goals.

By sharing costs with PISCES and gaining infrastructure support, the Regolith & Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction equipment – dubbed RESOLVE for short – will be one hardware package evaluated, Sanders said. It will be installed on the Scarab rover, a combined drilling and science rover platform for lunar exploration developed by the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh.

“We’ve been looking at what is a relevant site for the Moon. While there’s no one place on Earth that simulates the Moon well … obviously, the volcanic material in Hawaii is similar to some places on the Moon,” Sanders said.

In working with PISCES, Sanders said the idea is to eventually test the RESOLVE package’s ability to drill into hard, ice-rich lunar surface material, known as regolith – a simulation that could mimic conditions found near Shackleton Crater, which NASA planners consider a possible locale for a human outpost on the Moon.

Sample acquisition and pre-processing gear will be integral to the RESOLVE package, said Dale Boucher, director of product development for the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology Inc., Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. Their hardware will drill down a meter, capture a sample, and transfer that material into a crusher for discharge into an oxygen-making processing unit, he said.

Boucher said the Canadian Space Agency also is adding hardware onto the equipment to be evaluated in Hawaii – a TriDAR scanner built by Neptec of Ottawa, Ontario, that will be used to find appropriate drill spots.

During the Hawaii field experiments, Boucher said the Scarab drilling runs will be linked via Telesat Canada’s Anik F2 satellite to geologists situated at a Canadian Space Agency mission control center in Montreal. This Canada-Hawaii communications link is expected to sharpen skills in how best to control automated equipment within permanently shadowed craters on the Moon, he said. In terms of off-Earth resource utilization, “we’re chipping away at it, literally,” Boucher said.

“In my mind, there’s not going to be a long-lived mission of humans anywhere without some form of resource utilization,” Boucher said. “The minute you try and get into a sustainable presence of any kind, beyond three, four or five days, you have to think about extracting needed resources from the surface or sub-surface … and that’s what mining is all about.”

Another demonstration test in Hawaii involves the Pre-cursor In situ Lunar Oxygen Testbed, or PILOT, said Larry Clark, program manager for in situ resource utilization at Lockheed Martin Space Systems near Denver.

PILOT involves an autonomous excavator, a mock lunar lander, a bucket and lift system, including processing gear that recycles hydrogen to make more oxygen. “It’s a full-size, complete end-to-end system,” Clark told Space News.

This type of hardware approach can be sent to the Moon prior to human arrival, Clark said. “It can percolate away and make liquid oxygen … a safety cache of liquid oxygen before the astronauts even get there.”

Clark said the PILOT equipment is a first technology step that can create an economy on the Moon. “This could be the basis for a whole lunar commerce, one that sells product back to Earth like oxygen for use in satellite propulsion systems or for future NASA human missions to Mars.”

The PISCES-supported activity later this year is key to learning operations by practicing, said lunar exploration expert, Mike Duke, a PISCES advisor based in Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin.

Duke said PISCES was created in March 2007 as an official center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and was funded by the Hawaii State Legislature in June 2007. PISCES was conceived by the Japan-U.S. Science, Technology and Space Applications Program under the auspices of the State of Hawaii.

“What’s envisioned for PISCES is that it will eventually become a pretty full-scale simulation of a lunar outpost … a place where you can plug and play component hardware, leaving it there to become part of the overall facility,” Duke added. Lunar research under the auspices of PISCES is not necessarily to be conducted entirely on Hawaii’s Big Island, he said, but at other Hawaiian island locations too. At the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, the simulated lunar activities are set to begin in early November.