Humanity has plans to expand into space: to the Moon, to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), and to the moons of Mars. Like any trip to anywhere, we need to know certain things before we go. We need to know about the climate and about the resources we can expect to find when we get there. We need to know about the places to avoid and the places where it’s safe to stay. Who is working on finding these answers so that we can go back to the Moon, and travel beyond to NEAs and to Mars? The answer is SSERVI.
The Virtual Connection
The Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) is NASA’s new virtual institute. Its main mission is to advance scientific and human exploration of the Solar System. That is, to probe into the origin, evolution, composition and conditions of destinations to which humans may travel in the near future. This is no mean feat, but SSERVI has a head start in a way that no other institute ever has.
First, as the name implies, SSERVI is a virtual institute. SSERVI teams and partners collaborate primarily in virtual space. Nine teams across the United States work together, sharing laboratories, equipment, staff and ideas. If a team in California needs to study small impacts, through the Institute they have access to the dust accelerator at the University of Colorado. If a team in Texas wants to use a spectrograph, they can reach out to Brown University’s Reflectance Experiment Laboratory in Providence, Rhode Island.
Using technology to pool resources this way saves time and money, and allows us to build our way forward into space faster and better than ever before.
“Collaboration across teams magnifies the investment made in a single team. The intersection of disciplines often brings discoveries or understanding that would not have been found otherwise,” said Yvonne Pendleton, the director of SSERVI. “Also, virtual communication allows teams to be composed of individuals that bring the best capability to the project, regardless of their geographical location. Within the team and across the teams, virtual communication tools are used readily and to great advantage.”
Being virtual means that SSERVI teams are composed of members from all over, bringing together the best of the best without geographic bias. Dozens of proposals were vetted before the selection of the current teams, which are spread out across seven states. Being virtual has yet another advantage: other countries that wish to participate can support the effort. At no additional cost to NASA, seven international partners are currently adding to the variety and complexity of the work SSERVI does, and additional countries are submitting proposals to join as well.
All told, 243 investigators and collaborators will spend the next five years addressing basic science questions, such as: “How dense is an asteroid?” and “How sticky is the dust on an asteroid’s surface?” Once we know more about the electric fields and gravity dust particles on the surface of NEAs, further questions can be asked by future teams. For example, they might ask: “How do we design a craft to land on a NEA?” or “How do we avoid contaminating it while landing?”
“Are [asteroids] solid or loose? That determines the exploration strategy,” said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of SSERVI. “A loose rubble pile will be completely disrupted by a rocket. NEAs [may] have such little gravity that if an astronaut pushed off the surface, that man or woman might achieve escape velocity.”
What may be basic science here on Earth becomes a challenge when you leave the planet. One question at a time, one team at a time, SSERVI is seeking these answers so that we know before we go.
A team from the University of Central Florida is modeling the charge and mobilization of dust on Near Earth Asteroids. Goddard’s Space Flight Center’s SSERVI team in Maryland is looking into how much radiation-exposed materials in space receive. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. has a team working on how to sample impact sites on places like the Moon. A team at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at Johnson’s Space Center is trying to unravel how we date regolith, the loose, rocky material that covers the surfaces of our moon, Mars’ moons and some asteroids. The Southwest Research Institute is exploring the origin of asteroids, including the martian moons, which could originally be captured asteroids.
One step at a time, one team at a time, all across the country and the world, SSERVI is building our way forward. In this endeavor, it has a lot of good help.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
The support staff at SSERVI has a long and successful history of running virtual institutes.
While much of the collaboration takes place in cyberspace, SSERVI maintains a small central office at the Ames Research Center. At that office is Yvonne Pendleton, who was director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) before the NLSI became SSERVI. Like SSERVI, the NLSI melded the expertise of geophysicists, data visualization specialists, engineers and planetary scientists with a variety of backgrounds. The NLSI, however, focused exclusively on the Moon. SSERVI expands its purview to include the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and the moons of Mars.
“The seven teams of the former NASA Lunar Science Institute (2008-2013), as well as the multitude of teams that have composed the NAI from 1998 to the present, have been exemplary role models for SSERVI,” said Pendleton.
Supporting the SSERVI central office, and the NLSI before that, is Greg Schmidt, who helped start the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) before joining the NLSI as deputy director. The NAI currently has 15 teams with 700 researchers, and its success as a virtual institute was a model for SSERVI. In March 2014, SSERVI’s teams were fully funded for five years each, allowing work to proceed without interruption. Going forward, new teams will be selected every three years. Projects will flow from one into the other. As they do, the path from here to the Moon and beyond is paved.
Back to the Moon
SSERVI still keeps the Moon very much in mind. The lunar geological record still has much to tell us about the earliest history of the Solar System, the origin and evolution of the Earth-Moon system, the geological evolution of rocky planets, and the near-Earth cosmic environment throughout Solar System history. In addition, the lunar surface offers outstanding opportunities for research in astronomy, fundamental physics, human physiology and medicine.
Team members from both the NLSI and SSERVI have been intimately connected to recent lunar missions, launched by NASA and other countries. SSERVI researchers at The Southwest Research Institute and Lunar and PIanetary Institute revisited the early evolution of the Moon’s bombardment, when many of the largest and oldest lunar impact craters were formed. Using the best available dynamical models of terrestrial planet formation and giant planet evolution, they discovered important implications for Earth’s habitability.
SSERVI scientists discovered something key to the development of life on Earth. Between 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago the Earth-Moon system was bombarded by big impactors. Big impactors are objects similar in structure to the asteroid or comet that doomed the dinosaurs. Constant impacts of this kind might have made it very difficult for life to evolve or survive on Earth. However, SSERVI team members discovered that the Earth’s habitable zone was never completely sterilized by these impacts. In their paper in Nature, SSERVI scientists describe breaks during the bombardment that afforded Earth’s biosphere the opportunity to recover. In this scenario, perhaps life on Earth formed very early and has been surviving in one form or another for longer than anyone imagined.
As much as SSERVI’s work on habitability seeks to understand the past, it also reaches towards the future. SSERVI supports lunar missions that have mapped the Moon’s crust, discovered significant amounts of water in a south pole crater, and found evidence for water on the Moon’s surface. NASA’s most recent lunar mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), successfully accomplished its science mission after observing the tenuous lunar atmosphere for seven months. In anticipation of future missions, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) continues to map the lunar surface in great detail.
“LRO is an absolutely knock-your-socks-off-mission,” said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of SSERVI and one of the initiators of the Astrobiology Institute. “LRO has returned more data than all of the previous planetary missions combined. The community will be using this data for decades to come.”
Observations from LRO, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and other satellites have provided unambiguous evidence of water on the lunar surface. Thanks to these missions, we now know that there is ice frozen in the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles. Water is essential for possible future lunar bases. Finding water on the Moon offers future human explorers a potential source of drinking water and fuel.
The data reaped by LRO and LCROSS helped open a whole new avenue of lunar research. They are now seeking to answer questions about where these water molecules originated and how they get trapped in the bottom of craters. SSERVI scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland have mapped the lighting conditions at the lunar poles and discovered areas of permanent sun and shadow down to 60 degrees latitude. This information will be useful for exploration of lunar volatiles in and around these craters.
The next question to answer will be: How can the water best be extracted and used for human missions?
Paving the way forward
With all this in mind, NASA is planning a future endeavor called the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM). RPM’s aim is to land near the colder latitudes of the Moon to look for resources like water that can be used by future explorers.
The Moon is also an ideal platform to use radio astronomy to peer into the early Universe. Radio telescopes placed on the far side of the Moon could “see” further back in time than even the best space-based telescopes. In the vicinity of Earth, radio interference from air, sea and ground communications limits our window into the beginning of time. A radio telescope on the far side of the Moon would be shielded from the “noisy” Earth.
“These observations would take astrobiology as far back as it can go,” said Schmidt. “What we’re doing by looking into the dark ages of the Universe is looking at the moment when stars began to shine.”
NASA’s Ames Research Center director S. Peter Worden linked the search for life in the Universe from the Moon with the search for the origins of the Universe itself.
“The question of how life began is as important as how the Universe began,” said Worden. “Every person I talk to very quickly gets around to ‘Are we alone?’ Astrobiology is asking these big questions. In a broad sense, the expansion of SSERVI beyond lunar science to look at asteroids and the moons of Mars really represents a broadening of NASA’s focus.”
To Mars by Way of Two Moons
SSERVI teams have also started planning for science investigations of NEAs and of Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos. According to a 2009 human spaceflight report, a teleoperated mission from Phobos exploring the Martian surface would probably precede a crewed mission. It’s far easier, safer and less expensive to run a mission to Mars’ orbit, or to Phobos or Deimos, than to Mars’ surface. Astronauts could explore the Martian moon in person and remotely operate rovers on the surface of Mars with minimal lag time, and more easily return samples to Earth.
“This is a major area where SSERVI teams will help NASA define the science — robotic missions that can ready the human missions,” said Worden, speaking about his vision for SSERVI and NASA. “People forget, but it may be the most important [question] of all, which is ‘What is the future of our lives?’ NASA is about making life better on Earth, but also expanding it into the Solar System and maybe beyond.”
With SSERVI’s help, the link between astrobiology, the origin of the Universe and our mission into space in the coming decade is about to get very real — one could even say rock-solid.
Each year SSERVI sponsors an in-person conference at NASA Ames, which is open to the entire science and exploration community. This year’s NASA Exploration Science Forum will be held July 21-23, 2014. Talks will be streamed online and will be archived on the SSERVI.nasa.gov website for later viewing.
SSERVI funding is provided by the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).
Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff
Source: Astrobiology Magazine