Whenever astronauts eventually return to the moon or explore the surface of Mars, they’ll need plenty of resources to sustain them while away from Earth.
A prototype interplanetary mining rover visited the NASA Glenn Research Center last week as part of the space agency’s effort to prepare for such trips.
“We are very convinced that the only way to make space travel for humans and robots long-term is to use natural resources wherever we go,” said Kurt Sacksteder, director of Glenn’s Space Environment and Experiments Branch.
The Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, a Canadian mining and space technology firm, brought the rover to conduct tests in Glenn’s Simulated Lunar Operations, or SLOPE, facility. Referred to as “the sandbox,” the 20-foot by 60-foot structure simulates extra-terrestrial planetary soil conditions for vehicle traction and excavation experiments.
The sandbox contains a combination of sand and clay silt that reproduces soil characteristics measured by the Apollo astronauts who explored the moon.
The tests conducted while the rover is in the sandbox will determine how such machines can best collect materials from an extraterrestrial surface, such as the moon or Mars, and process those materials to extract water and oxygen.
“The vacuum [of space], the temperature extremes and the low gravity require that we get very specialized equipment there,” Sacksteder said. “We can’t bring great big earthmovers like are used on Earth. We have to figure out how to make these vehicles and these excavation devices as lightweight and low-power consuming as possible. That’s why making these measurements is critical.”
Specifically, the tests will measure how much force is necessary to excavate the materials.
“We’re actually measuring the forces that are on these excavation devices and the traction on the vehicles,” Sacksteder said. “We’ll put that information into a very complex computer simulation model. And then we’ll use that model to help us design equipment that we’ll eventually be able to fly to the moon or Mars to keep our astronauts breathing and drinking water and making propellant to bring them home.”
Last week’s tests mark the start of a three-year collaboration between Glenn and NORCAT to develop mining and processing technology for future space exploration. Results from NORCAT’s tests done in Glenn’s “sandbox” will be compared to results NASA obtained from similar experiments held in the Arizona desert earlier this year.
“If you want to spend long amounts of time in any place other than earth, you really need to make use of the lone resources,” said Phil Abel, deputy chief of Glenn’s Tribology and Mechanical Components Branch. (Tribology is the study of friction and wear.) “And so this research is part of the effort to make that a reality.”