A research project called RIS4E is helping NASA prepare to send humans back to the moon or on to Mars or nearby asteroids. The team’s latest research expedition took them to the volcanic fields of New Mexico, where a veteran astronaut joined their mission and students in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism chronicled their quest.

 

 

Drone photography: Jose Hurtado/UTEP

 

ReportingRIS4E

A research project called RIS4E is helping NASA prepare to send humans back to the moon or on to Mars or nearby asteroids. The team’s latest research expedition took them to the volcanic fields of New Mexico, where a veteran astronaut joined their mission and students in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism chronicled their quest.

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A Launching Pad Back to Space

 

On a scorching day in June, a geologist who walked on the moon and a Navy test pilot who lived six months in space strolled together over broken rocks on the rim of a volcanic crater in southern New Mexico.

The geologist, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, 82, was a crew member of Apollo 17 and one of the last humans to set foot on ground beyond the Earth. The pilot, Barry E. “Butch” Wilmore, 54, is an active NASA astronaut who commanded the International Space Station two years ago and walked in space four times. What drew them to this arid, shadeless spot in the desert on a 100-degree day was RIS4E, a research project that is part of NASA’s ongoing preparations to once again send astronauts to other worlds.

 

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Schmitt and other Apollo astronauts came to New Mexico for geology training in a volcanic crater called Kilbourne Hole. Returning to the site nearly half a century later, Schmitt joined Wilmore and a team of more than 30 researchers and collaborators who converged in the desert from NASA centers and academic institutions around the country.

Their mission: To help NASA take a few steps toward future human exploration of the solar system—back to the moon, and perhaps to near-Earth asteroids and the moons of Mars, named Phobos and Deimos.

RIS4E—pronounced RISE–stands for Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration. Launched in 2014, the five-year, $5.5 million project is led by Timothy Glotch, a planetary scientist at Stony Brook University in New York. The 10-day mission to New Mexico was the project’s fourth trip to a site whose volcanic composition makes it geologically similar in some respects to the moon and Mars. The first three treks took them into the lava fields of Hawaii’s most active volcano, Kīlauea.

Brimming with Experience

NASA’s Jacob Bleacher, who led the field team, has a hat that tells a story. He’s not alone.

Read more

At Kilbourne Hole, part of what’s known as the Potrillo Volcanic Field, the scientists sought to build on their work developing the use of handheld geological instruments by astronauts exploring the surfaces of other worlds. Wilmore performed mock moonwalks across the rim of a crater to test the capabilities of some of the instruments. Schmitt, who was a U.S. senator from New Mexico after his astronaut days, came for a day to observe the research—a revered guest to the NASA scientists.“One of the main tasks is to try to really test the use of instruments and how they work and don’t work in space,” said Timothy Glotch, the planetary geologist at Stony Brook University who heads the RIS4E project. ”

 

At Aden Crater, another volcanic site 10 miles from Kilbourne Hole, the team used laser scanning devices and drones to map the area in search of signs of hollow lava tubes underground. The scientists are exploring the possibility that similar lava tubes might be identified on the moon or Mars in advance of landing missions there and perhaps provide shelter from radiation for future astronauts.

“It’s our duty to start this kind of research,” said Jacob Bleacher, a geoscientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the leader of the RIS4E field teams in New Mexico and one in Hawaii in 2015. “If we’re going to send someone like Butch to Mars . . .  we don’t want Butch stuck trying to hide from the radiation the whole time.” Helping develop astronaut-friendly instruments and identify hidey-holes is only part of the what RIS4E does. And the project is part of a larger NASA-funded research network called SSERVI (for Solar System Exploration and Research Virtual Institute) that includes 13 projects, all aimed at learning more about the makeup of our solar system and laying the foundations for safe and productive human spaceflight.

The Rock Star of RIS4E

Stony Brook’s Timothy Glotch, who heads the research project, brings a “space geek mentality” to his work.

Read more

The research comes at a time when NASA is trying refocus its mission on future human space exploration. As priorities shifted and budgets tightened, the U.S. spaceflight program changed direction several times in the decades after Jack Schmitt and Apollo 17 returned from the moon on Dec. 19, 1972. Now NASA is building a powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to be ready in five to 10 years and have the capacity to carry astronauts to the moon, Mars orbit or nearby asteroids. But the destination is not yet clear.Despite the uncertainty, scientific research—to support future spaceflight and simply to illuminate the nature of our solar system—continues in programs like RIS4E. The project has four research areas, or themes. Theme 1, led by Glotch, is studying how scientists on Earth can use remote sensing devices to learn about far-off destinations before astronauts go there.

 

Theme 2 is the geological fieldwork conducted at the analog sites in New Mexico and Hawaii. Theme 3 concerns the health and safety of astronauts, focusing on the effects of tiny dust particles in the lunar environment. Theme 4 is developing methods to extract the most geological information from even the tiniest rock and dust samples astronauts bring home.

Although RIS4E team members might not see their research used by people on the moon or Mars any time soon, they’re optimistic and excited to be a part of eventual human space exploration. Their sentiment was perhaps best expressed by the only geologist ever to set foot on another world. “The moon is only three days away,” Jack Schmitt said. “There’s a hell of a lot to be learned by getting back up there.”

Ten Days in the New Mexico Desert


 

Kilbourne Hole

A volcanic crater stands in for the moon to test geological devices astronauts may carry to space.

Aden Crater

Could lava tubes like Aden’s someday shelter humans, or other life forms, on Mars?

The People of RIS4E

From an astronaut to NASA volcanologists to Stony Brook professors, here’s a sampler of the team.

Tools in the Field (and the Air)

Drones, chemical ‘guns,’ and quick analysis of data are part of a researchers’ arsenal.

RIS4E in the Lab


 

Down here on Earth, the project’s scientists explore the secrets and assess the risks of far-off worlds.

Dishes in the Desert


 

The Very Large Array listens to deepest space, gathering evidence billions of years old.

ReportingRIS4E 2017


 

This website is the product of an unusual collaboration between NASA’s RIS4E project and the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. Read about the journalism and the journalists.

A Launching Pad Back to Space

 

On a scorching day in June, a geologist who walked on the moon and a Navy test pilot who lived six months in space strolled together over broken rocks on the rim of a volcanic crater in southern New Mexico.

The geologist, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, 82, was a crew member of Apollo 17 and one of the last humans to set foot on ground beyond the Earth. The pilot, Barry E. “Butch” Wilmore, 54, is an active NASA astronaut who commanded the International Space Station two years ago and walked in space four times. What drew them to this arid, shadeless spot in the desert on a 100-degree day was RIS4E, a research project that is part of NASA’s ongoing preparations to once again send astronauts to other worlds.

 

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Schmitt and other Apollo astronauts came to New Mexico for geology training in a volcanic crater called Kilbourne Hole. Returning to the site nearly half a century later, Schmitt joined Wilmore and a team of more than 30 researchers and collaborators who converged in the desert from NASA centers and academic institutions around the country.

Their mission: To help NASA take a few steps toward future human exploration of the solar system—back to the moon, and perhaps to near-Earth asteroids and the moons of Mars, named Phobos and Deimos.

RIS4E—pronounced RISE–stands for Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration. Launched in 2014, the five-year, $5.5 million project is led by Timothy Glotch, a planetary scientist at Stony Brook University in New York. The 10-day mission to New Mexico was the project’s fourth trip to a site whose volcanic composition makes it geologically similar in some respects to the moon and Mars. The first three treks took them into the lava fields of Hawaii’s most active volcano, Kīlauea.

Brimming with Experience

NASA’s Jacob Bleacher, who led the field team, has a hat that tells a story. He’s not alone.

Read more

At Kilbourne Hole, part of what’s known as the Potrillo Volcanic Field, the scientists sought to build on their work developing the use of handheld geological instruments by astronauts exploring the surfaces of other worlds. Wilmore performed mock moonwalks across the rim of a crater to test the capabilities of some of the instruments. Schmitt, who was a U.S. senator from New Mexico after his astronaut days, came for a day to observe the research—a revered guest to the NASA scientists.“One of the main tasks is to try to really test the use of instruments and how they work and don’t work in space,” said Timothy Glotch, the planetary geologist at Stony Brook University who heads the RIS4E project. ”

At Aden Crater, another volcanic site 10 miles from Kilbourne Hole, the team used laser scanning devices and drones to map the area in search of signs of hollow lava tubes underground. The scientists are exploring the possibility that similar lava tubes might be identified on the moon or Mars in advance of landing missions there and perhaps provide shelter from radiation for future astronauts.

“It’s our duty to start this kind of research,” said Jacob Bleacher, a geoscientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the leader of the RIS4E field teams in New Mexico and one in Hawaii in 2015. “If we’re going to send someone like Butch to Mars . . .  we don’t want Butch stuck trying to hide from the radiation the whole time.”Helping develop astronaut-friendly instruments and identify hidey-holes is only part of the what RIS4E does. And the project is part of a larger NASA-funded research network called SSERVI (for Solar System Exploration and Research Virtual Institute) that includes 13 projects, all aimed at learning more about the makeup of our solar system and laying the foundations for safe and productive human spaceflight.

The Rock Star of RIS4E

Stony Brook’s Timothy Glotch, who heads the research project, brings a “space geek mentality” to his work.

Read more

The research comes at a time when NASA is trying refocus its mission on future human space exploration. As priorities shifted and budgets tightened, the U.S. spaceflight program changed direction several times in the decades after Jack Schmitt and Apollo 17 returned from the moon on Dec. 19, 1972. Now NASA is building a powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to be ready in five to 10 years and have the capacity to carry astronauts to the moon, Mars orbit or nearby asteroids. But the destination is not yet clear.Despite the uncertainty, scientific research—to support future spaceflight and simply to illuminate the nature of our solar system—continues in programs like RIS4E. The project has four research areas, or themes. Theme 1, led by Glotch, is studying how scientists on Earth can use remote sensing devices to learn about far-off destinations before astronauts go there.

Theme 2 is the geological fieldwork conducted at the analog sites in New Mexico and Hawaii. Theme 3 concerns the health and safety of astronauts, focusing on the effects of tiny dust particles in the lunar environment. Theme 4 is developing methods to extract the most geological information from even the tiniest rock and dust samples astronauts bring home.

Although RIS4E team members might not see their research used by people on the moon or Mars any time soon, they’re optimistic and excited to be a part of eventual human space exploration. Their sentiment was perhaps best expressed by the only geologist ever to set foot on another world. “The moon is only three days away,” Jack Schmitt said. “There’s a hell of a lot to be learned by getting back up there.”

Ten Days in the New Mexico Desert


 

Kilbourne Hole

A volcanic crater stands in for the moon to test geological devices astronauts may carry to space.

Aden Crater

Could lava tubes like Aden’s someday shelter humans, or other life forms, on Mars?

The People of RIS4E

From an astronaut to NASA volcanologists to Stony Brook professors, here’s a sampler of the team.

Tools in the Field (and the Air)

Drones, chemical ‘guns,’ and quick analysis of data are part of a researchers’ arsenal.

RIS4E in the Lab


 

Down here on Earth, the project’s scientists explore the secrets and assess the risks of far-off worlds.

Dishes in the Desert


 

The Very Large Array listens to deepest space, gathering evidence billions of years old.

ReportingRIS4E 2017


 

This website is the product of an unusual collaboration between NASA’s RIS4E project and the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. Read about the journalism and the journalists.