New Space and Tech

Robots and Humans to Study Impact Sites and Volcanoes

By Keith Cowing
January 29, 2014
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Robots and Humans to Study Impact Sites and Volcanoes
K-Rex rover

One day, human activity will extend across the solar system. Scientists believe this will expand our understanding of Earth and the universe in which we live.
A team of researchers, led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., seeks to study what volcanoes and impact sites on Earth can tell us about the early evolution of the solar system and unique characteristics and features of our moon, the moons of Mars and asteroids.

The Ames project dubbed “FINESSE,” which stands for Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration, was selected to join a new NASA virtual institute that will focus on questions concerning space science and human space exploration. The team was selected to participate by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), which is based at Ames.

FINESSE will study the formation of volcanoes, evolution of magma chambers, and the mechanics and chronology of cratering from impacts, as well as the evolution and entrapment of volatile chemicals. The team also will find samples on Earth to study the geology and chemistry of sites that have melted due to impacts.

“The goal of our research is to gain knowledge and prepare for the strategic human and robotic exploration of our moon, the moons of Mars and near-Earth asteroids,” said Jennifer Heldmann, principal investigator of the FINESSE project at Ames. “Our science program is infused with leading edge exploration concepts to help us better understand the effects of volcanism and impacts as dominant planetary processes on these bodies, and to understand which exploration concepts of operations and capabilities enable and enhance science findings.”

The philosophy behind the creation of SSERVI is that science and exploration complement each other. The late Mike Wargo, formerly NASA’s chief exploration scientist, succinctly captured the essence of the Institute saying, “Exploration enables science, and science enables exploration.”

The FINESSE team, composed of a world-class team of astronauts, scientists, and operations, robotics and exploration experts, will perform science-driven field exploration at two strategically chosen field sites. The team will simluate both robotic and human exploration missions at the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho and at the West Clearwater Lake Impact Structure in northern Canada.

“These sites have been chosen to address scientific questions pertaining to volcanism and impact science, respectively, and are geologic analogs to other bodies in our solar system,” said Darlene Lim, deputy principal investigator of the FINESSE team at Ames and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “These volcanic and impact records are a valuable source of first-hand knowledge about volcanic landform formation and modification, as well as the structure and character of impact craters, and can better our understanding of these processes throughout our solar system.”

For example, the formation of craters from impacts by meteoroids, referred to as “impact cratering,” is the dominant geological process on the moon, asteroids and moons of Mars. By understanding the origin and location of impact sites, the history of impact bombardment in the inner solar system, the formation of complex impact craters, and the effects of shock on planetary materials, we can understand the processes that shape the moon, asteroids and moons of Mars.

Volcanism is another geologic process that has significantly shaped the surface of planetary bodies. The team will study the processes, features and rock types related to volcanic eruptions, as well as the formation of volcanoes, lava tubes and flows and deposits of volcanic rocks.

Once in the field, the team will simulate work with the same mission contraints asif they were on the surface of our moon, an asteroid or the moons of Mars. One way to simulate the complexities of missions on other planetary bodies is to build in actual latencies and constraints for communications and bandwidth between a crew on the moon, an asteroid and ground control on Earth.

“These mission constraints help us evaluate strategically selected concepts of operations and capabilities with respect to their anticipated value for future human-robotic scientific exploration,” said Heldmann. “Specifically, understanding the robustness of our communications and planning capabilities is key to understanding how to maximize science return while conducting human-robotic missions.”

The FINESSE team now will begin to prepare for the rigors of the field with site selection workshops and a series of operational readiness tests. Team training sessions will develop mission-specific flight rules and operational protocols.

The field program will begin at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho and includes a robotic mission involving NASA’s K-Rex planetary rover and a set of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The K-Rex rover, developed by the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, will simulate a robot on the surface of the moon or other body, while the UAVs will simulate orbiting spacecraft. The team also will use the Terra in-situ portable X-ray diffraction (XRD) system instrument. Terra is a miniaturized laboratory for identifying minerals and is a spin-off of the Ames-developed Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument onboard the Curiosity mission that landed on Mars in August 2012.

“We will use these platforms to conduct science research and to help us select areas of interest for follow up during a coordinated human-robotic mission in the subsequent years,” said Anthony Colaprete, deputy principal investigator of the FINESSE team at Ames.

The team also will travel to the West Clearwater Lake Impact Structure to conduct a human mission to study this unique impact crater site. Finesse fieldwork will focus on exploration techniques and simultaneously aim to maximize science return.

“When we say ‘science return’ we mean our ability to study geological features that will enable us to definitively answer questions about fundamental planetary science processes,” said Colaprete. “We also will evaluate how robots – working before, in parallel, or after humans – might increase the science return from future exploration missions.”

“We look forward to collaborative scientific discoveries from these teams,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These results will be vital to NASA successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.