2015: Steps to Space
A national research team called RIS4E is helping NASA lay the groundwork for missions of the future that land humans on Mars, the Moon and maybe even asteroids. A 2015 expedition to Hawaii’s volcanic desert by 13 scientists and an astronaut was a small step toward the next giant leap forward.
It was early June on the Big Island of Hawaii, and the lava fields of Mount Kilauea were experiencing some unusual activity. A team of NASA scientists armed with high-tech instruments was wandering through the volcanic desert, taking some of the first steps in the next phase of human space exploration.
The 13 geologists, volcanologists and other planetary scientists—along with an active astronaut standing in for future space explorers—tested, tinkered and simulated with equipment and exercises that are helping NASA move toward potential manned missions to Mars, near-Earth asteroids, or back to the Moon. Their 10-day expedition to Kilauea—the most active volcano on Earth—was part of a five-year, NASA-funded research project called RIS4E, an Earthbound study in anticipation of the United States someday returning humans to deep space and landing them on the surfaces of other bodies in the Solar System.
Four decades after the last American astronaut set foot on the Moon, and four years after NASA ended the space shuttle’s 30-year run, NASA is trying to find its trajectory back to manned spaceflight to the frontiers of human exploration. And like the years of research and planning that preceded the first lunar landing in 1969, future space flights to other planetary bodies—including, perhaps, a manned landing on an asteroid—will be enormous undertakings by people all across the disciplines of science and technology.
RIS4E, based at Stony Brook University in New York, involves dozens of scientists at NASA and research institutions across the country in an unusual and ambitious collaboration. They are geoscientists—researchers who study rocks on a level so sophisticated that their work amounts to a forensic investigation of the origins and evolution of the Earth and its neighbors in our celestial Stonehenge of a solar system.
Mission to Kilauea: Heaven on Earth
Why Hawaii? There are 13 “microclimates” and a continent’s range of terrain on the island of Hawaii, the biggest of the state’s five islands: from rainforests and jungle to mountains and deserts. And, of course, the lava fields of the island’s five volcanoes—some from eruptions 10,000 years ago, others as recent as last fall. For RIS4E’s planetary scientists, the lava fields of Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea—the most active volcano on Earth—are the perfect place to prepare for manned voyages to the Moon and Mars. The 2015 expedition brought together four teams to test specialized scientific instruments and a fifth with a veteran astronaut simulating how mission crews of the future might use them. Explore their stories.
The historical reference point for the RIS4E project is July 21, 1969. Not so much the landing of Apollo 11, or even Neil Armstrong’s famous first step. It’s what came next that grips them: The two and a half hours that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent collecting 47 pounds of the Moon to bring home to Earth. It was the first extra-vehicular activity on another planetary body—an EVA, as it’s been known in the space world ever since. There were five more journeys to the Moon over the next three and a half years. And then the United States space program returned to exploring space from low-Earth orbits, much closer to home than the Moon 128,000 miles away. And EVAs became walks in space itself.
RIS4E’s broad goal is to build on the past to prepare for a future that envisions a return to space walks on the solid ground of other bodies in the solar system. American manned space flight is at a crossroads, but if you ask NASA geoscientists about it, most are likely to tell you—as 62-year-old Dean Eppler, the most senior of them on the Hawaii team, put it—“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
These particular scientists aren’t focused on how to get astronauts back to the Moon, or to Mars or the asteroids near Earth that are seen as an interim stop on the way to Mars. They’re more interested in what the astronauts of the future do when they get there — how to make EVAs more fruitful, efficient and safe. And they’re developing ways for geoscientists to get the most out of the samples the astronauts bring home.
RIS4E is one of nine teams working under a five-year, $75-million NASA initiative called SSERVI, for Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. It’s the last two words that make SSERVI an innovative program at a time of diminished resources for earth and planetary science. It’s based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California but staffed by a diverse and far-flung group: 318 scientists from across the country involved in a collaborative effort to advance American space exploration in the post-shuttle era.
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“The greatest scientific discoveries come at the intersections of many disciplines,” said SSERVI’s director, Yvonne Pendleton. “What we have done now is said to those individual researchers: Team up, join forces and start to address the bigger questions that your very focused, individual research is important to, but put it all together and collaborate.”
RIS4E is short for Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration. Like most NASA acronyms, it requires some translation for the uninitiated. Remote sensing is the analysis of data from satellites, rovers and even lunar samples from the Apollo missions—a crucial first step in space exploration, a way to understand the surfaces of airless, planetary bodies before going there. In situ, the Latin for “on site,” is a reference to RIS4E’s geological hunting trips to places in Hawaii and New Mexico that feature terrain with similar characteristics and compositions to that found on the Moon, Mars and near-earth asteroids. And Synchrotron represents the new techniques for sample and data analysis that RIS4E is developing with three highly advanced instruments: The National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and leading-edge technology at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
The Four Themes of RIS4E: Pathways to Space
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.
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.
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.
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.
For RIS4E, whose $5.5-million project began in late 2013, the biggest collaboration to date was its expedition to a remote area in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with terrain similar to what the manned missions of the past and rovers of recent years have found on the Moon and Mars.
Hawaii’s Big Island is off the beaten path for most vacationers but its rich and still-unfolding volcanic history make it a must-go destination for planetary scientists. In June 2015, four teams of geoscientists trekked miles a day with specialized instruments designed to yield precious scientific information about the rocks underfoot—their chemistry and minerology—while a fifth team helped simulate how astronauts might one day use the equipment after they step off their spacecrafts. The stand-in for the astronauts of the future was an astronaut of the present: Rick Mastracchio, a veteran of four space flights who spent 188 days aboard the International Space Station in 2014.
The Rise of RIS4E
Tim Glotch brought together a team with expansive ideas for exploring the solar system. NASA said yes.
Timothy Glotch, the Stony Brook geoscientist who is the RIS4E project’s principal investigator, says the central question for his team is this: “What will we learn about operations in the field, with instruments, that will have an effect on how astronauts actually perform their field work? These things are specifically designed to fit into future NASA mission planning, whether it’s robotic or human exploration.”
The point is to make the most of every minute spent on an extra-vehicular activity, or EVA. RIS4E’s unique contribution, Pendleton said, is its focus on improving the way astronauts identify and collect the right stuff “off-planet in the future” and how planetary scientists understand what to do with the samples they bring back.
But the project also seeks to make future EVAs healthy for astronauts. There is a famous image of a perfectly outlined boot print left in the dust on the surface of the Moon by Buzz Aldrin. Less famous is that the dust clung to the spacesuits of all 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon, causing dust storms inside the zero gravity of their spacecrafts. Some of the astronauts experienced lung inflammation, and one of the projects within RIS4E aims to solve that issue for astronauts of the future.
Taken together, says Tim Glotch, the RIS4E project exemplifies the catchphrase often cited by the space science community: “Exploration enables science and science enables exploration.”
“I think there is a very strong desire to understand Earth, our place on Earth, and our place in the universe,” Glotch said. “As we learn more about other planetary bodies, we learn more about Earth. And that is what NASA and the work that we are doing with SSERVI is all about. Understanding where we are, where we came from and, hopefully, where we are going.”