Roving for resources on an analog Moon

Humans history is a story of exploration and expansion, whereby we have used our resourcefulness to settle nearly every environment on Earth. To accomplish these migrations, people have had to live off the land by hunting for food, gathering building materials, and mining resources needed for survival. It just wouldn't be practical or economical to bring everything you need with you. Space is the same way. Like on Earth, we will have to learn to use materials found in the space environment to become permanent residents of the extraterrestrial realm, rather than temporary campers.
As I mentioned in the last post, I went to Hawai'i Island last week to take part in NASA's in situ resource utilization (ISRU) lunar rover field testing, facilitated by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) on the flank of Mauna Kea. The mission simulation successfully showed that a rover arriving on the surface of the Moon can find and verify the existence of subsurface water ice within a 5-7 day timeframe expected for a lunar polar mission. NASA is gearing up to fly this prospecting mission around 2017 to confirm the presence of water ice and other volatiles. Once we know for sure that there is accessible water on the Moon, the next step will be designing more sophisticated missions to harvest the resource on a larger scale to make consumables that will drive down the cost of space exploration.

This field campaign consisted of two projects carried out at two nearby Mauna Kea locations. The main project was RESOLVE, which stands for "Regolith and Environment Science & Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction." RESOLVE represents the third generation of ISRU technologies previously tested in 2008 and 2010. This time, the systems were completely integrated onto one rover, which was remotely controlled with lunar-like communications, power, and other operational constraints. NASA conducted the demonstration as if it were a real mission with control centers in Hawaii, Texas, Florida, and Canada, along with an additional science backroom in California. The Hawaii control center was a bustling room with about 30 people sitting at computer terminals in constant communication working on an array of tasks to keep the systems running smoothly. Here I am sitting at the real-time science desk.

NASA conducted the 9-day RESOLVE field operations at Pu'u Haiwahine, which is located about a mile west of Hale Pōhaku about 9000 feet in elevation. It's a very dusty place with volcanic ash deposits that resemble lunar basaltic plains - at least it did after we cleared away all of the grass and brush. As part of the PISCES field logistics team, one of my jobs was helping move vegetation and large rocks from the planned rover traverses. The plants were non-native invasive species, so we were actually doing the ecosystem a favor by clearing them. The PISCES crew and I also helped map out and deploy RESOLVE drilling targets, ensured the generators kept running, facilitated local transport of equipment, and otherwise kept the field operation running smoothly. It was invigorating being outdoors in the picturesque setting supporting the operation of the state-of-the-art prototype lunar rover. Here are some behind-the-scenes photos of the Pu'u Haiwahine field camp where I worked most of the time.

The Artemis Jr. rover, built by Ontario Drive and Gear for the Canadian Space Agency, carried the RESOLVE payload. Moving at a clip of 10 centimeters per second, the rover's neutron spectrometer continuously looked for hydrogren in the regolith below. When it located a "hot spot" of interest, the rover scientists would instigate a search pattern to locate the maximum neutron anomaly where they would then drill. The drill (made by NORCAT) takes up to an hour to reach 1 meter in depth, which is the maximum target for this mission. You can view a time-lapse video of the drill in action here. A near infrared spectrometer points at the drill site to continuously take spectra, which the science team can use to interpret minerology. Core samples taken with the drill are deposited into the RESOLVE "OVEN" (Oxygen and Volatile Extraction Node), which cooks them to 150°C. This is enough to drive off the water and volatiles for further collection and analysis by a gas chromatograph known as "LAVA" (Lunar Advanced Volatile Analysis). A mock lander housed communication and laser-based survey equipment to monitor the rover's position relative to the lander. The rover also has stereo cameras to observe the terrain and help it autonomously avoid obstacles.

The second project dealt more specifically with testing instruments to answer science questions through NASA's MMAMA program (Moon Mars Analog Mission Activities). Canada once again built the rover (named Juno 2), and individual principal investigators from different institutions in the U.S. and Germany supplied the instruments to test on it. The payloads carried by Juno 2 were VAPoR (Volatile Analysis by Pyrolsis of Regolith), MeSH (Mechanized Sample Processing and Handling System), MIMOS IIA (Miniaturized Mössbauer Spectrometer and X-RAY Fluorescence Spectrometer), and a mapping system comprised of a GPR (ground-penetrating radar) and magnetometer. MIMOS IIA, MeSH, and VAPoR all help determine the mineral and chemical composition of the regolith, while the GPR provided geophysical maps of the subsurface. Having previously worked on another planetary analog GPR project, I was very eager to contribute to that part of the MMAMA field campaign. However, my PISCES field logistics duties prevented me from interfacing much with the MMAMA team until their last day of operation, but that was enough for me to initiate a dialog with the GPR project lead on future collaboration opportunities. Here are some photos of the MMAMA Juno 2 rover with the MIMOS IIA (left) and GPR (right) deployed.

The MMAMA test site is situated about 13,000 feet elevation within the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve. It has informally been dubbed "Apollo Valley" as a reference to the fact that NASA astronauts trained in Hawaii before their famous expeditions some 40 years ago. This location is well above the tree line where no vegetation can thrive. The formerly glaciated terrain is strewn with angular basaltic rocks that presented mobility challenges to the rover. Thus, part of the test was not only putting the science instruments through their paces but also pushing the rover's abilities to its limits.

The final day of field operations was also NASA's media day. The Juno 2 rover joined Artemis Jr. at the Pu'u Haiwahine site where various local and national media were treated to a demonstration of their abilities and Q&A times with NASA officials. Some of the media representatives included a Discovery Channel Canada film crew, New Scientist , and a reporter from the local Hawaii Tribune-Herald. An ABC News radio interview with NASA ISRU project leader Bill Larson sums up why we were there for this work:

While most of the PISCES logistics team spent Friday breaking camp and helping NASA pack up their equipment, I went to the proposed HI-SEAS site on the northern slope of Mauna Loa to help the project's co-PI survey possible locations for the human habitat they plan to build there later this year. This project is a partnership between the University of Hawaii and Cornell University and, like RESOLVE, is also facilitated by PISCES. The 6-member HI-SEAS crew is in for a real treat on their 120-day mission, as there are many interesting cinder cones, lava tubes, and other features within easy walking distance from the site. I won't post any pictures of the HI-SEAS site because it's still top secret.

I wrapped up my week doing outreach along side NASA, CSA, and PISCES volunteers at a public event held at the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center. Hundreds of people came to see the Artemis Jr and Juno 2 rovers in action and learn about the exciting work being done in Hawaii to help humanity colonize space. A few lucky people (including me!) even got to drive the Juno 2 rover around. The kids had a blast driving a pair of small Exploration Uplink rovers, which had also been out at the field site all week remotely controlled by students all over the country via the internet.

NASA's next step with RESOLVE will be developing a flight-ready prototype and testing it under similar temperature, pressure, and radiation conditions expected on the lunar surface. In the meantime, the world's eyes are on the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, as it prepares for its landing on the Red Planet in just over a week. This is the largest, most sophisticated robotic mission ever sent to another planet. Learn more at the very engaging website

To learn more about ISRU in general and the RESOLVE mission in particular, I highly recommend perusing the NASA ISRU site and fact sheet. While you're at it, check out the NASA Flickr album for their photos from this year's field test. If you're interested in getting involved with PISCES, I invite you to consider attending the 2012 PISCES Conference, which will be held November 11-15 in Honolulu. I went to the 2010 and 2011 meetings and found them very useful venues for learning about the ISRU activities being carried out in Hawaii and for networking with key individuals within NASA and elsewhere making it happen. Going forward, I plan to direct more of my research towards ISRU and get involved with projects that help us live off the land on the Moon and Mars.

I'll leave you with video of Bill Larson explaining the motivation behind the NASA ISRU project:

This post dedicated to Dr. Sally Ride, whose pioneering spirit served as an inspiration to us all.


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