Theme 2

Maximizing Exploration Opportunities

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All-Terrain Tech Lab
By Kristen O’Neill and Jasmine Blennau

RIS4E and the broader NASA initiative supporting it are about future exploration of planetary bodies. Theme 2—“Maximizing Exploration Opportunities”—is like a simulated advance team: Researchers going to places on Earth that are similar to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars to test and develop equipment that will help future astronauts know what to do when they get there. The expedition to Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea was Theme 2 in action.

When the Apollo astronauts went around collecting Moon rocks four decades ago they had only rudimentary ways of knowing which samples to gather. Few Astronauts—then or now—are geologists. The RIS4E field geologists aim to make future sample collecting more sophisticated and efficient by equipping astronauts with instruments that will help them find and bring back the right stuff.

“What they do is important from the standpoint of improving our techniques and our technology,” said Yvonne Pendleton, the director of SSERVI, the NASA “virtual institute” funding the project. “With any samples we may bring back, how can we make the most of those to really answer the questions we are asking?”

Inside every rock lies a story about how it was formed and what the environment around it was like when it formed. When it comes to human space exploration, planetary geologists on Earth rely on astronauts to bring home rock samples that tell interesting stories, and are different from what they have seen before. The Apollo astronauts brought home samples whose data are are still being used by researchers today.

“We haven’t sent people to any other Solar System surfaces since then,” said NASA geologist Jake Bleacher, the Theme 2 lead and head of the Hawaii field exploration. “As we plan how to send people out into the Solar System, to the Moon, asteroids and onto Mars, we really want to start planning now how to best do the science.”

The team is testing the effectiveness and efficiency of handheld instruments in the field. They want to know if portable technology can be used to identify different compositions of rocks, easier, faster, and better than a geologist could alone. Scientists will also be using the data from these instruments to continue to study the differences in mineralogy and geochemistry in the lava flows, and the effect weathering may have on them.

In their second year into the project, the RIS4E geologists have completed two field missions on the lava fields of Kilauea. With each new trek, they can evaluate the value of each instrument in the field—how the instrument contributes to decision-making in the simulated space walk and how well it performs outdoors.
For the next three years, the geologists will study the Potrillo lava fields in New Mexico. The volcanic rock there, which is similar to the volcanoes of Hawaii, is characterized by huge pits, lava tubes and very thick flows. One major project in New Mexico is learning how best to map and measure the insides of lava tubes and pits. If astronauts can do that in real time, they might be able to use them as shelter from solar radiation.

“We are going to make recommendations to NASA,” said RIS4E co-investigator Deanne Rogers, a geoscientist at Stony Brook University, the project’s base. “We’ll say it took us this long to take samples, we had these problems and we have these suggestions. Then they will decide whether they want to come up with new technologies or say it’s not worth it.”

SSERVI director Pendleton puts it this way: “We are going to send humans into space. We want to do it with the knowledge that what we’re going to do is worthwhile in terms of the scientific query, the technology development, or experience. And we want to make sure we can bring them back safely.”

The Four Themes of RIS4E: Pathways to Space

Theme 1

Airless weather and extreme temperature fluctuations in space can alter samples in ways we don’t experience on Earth. To best interpret what the remote sensing data means, scientists must first do a lot of in-depth laboratory analysis on meteorite samples and lunar simulants to understand what data results from weathering. This laboratory data will go into libraries where it will be used to better analyze future remote sensing data.

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Theme 2

RIS4E and the broader NASA initiative supporting it are about future exploration of planetary bodies. Theme 2—“Maximizing Exploration Opportunities”—is like a simulated advance team: Researchers going to places on Earth that are similar to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars to test and develop equipment that will help future astronauts know what to do when they get there. The expedition to Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea was Theme 2 in action.

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Theme 3

It was the late 1960s, and the world was awed by what the United States was accomplishing in space. Landing men on the moon seemed the stuff of science fiction in 1969 but by the time the Apollo program ended three years later 12 American astronauts had firmly planted their space boots on the Moon’s surface, boldly stomping where no human had stomped before.

And kicking up a lot of lunar dust in their wake.

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Theme 4

What were the conditions of the early solar system? How did life form? To investigate this, scientists working on Theme 4 of the RIS4E project are using X-rays to probe extraterrestrial material, like interplanetary dust and meteorites, which might contain answers, or at least clues, about the formation of the world as we know it.

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