NASA Goddard joins new virtual research institute

December 2, 2013
This concept image shows an astronaut preparing to take samples from a captured asteroid after it has been relocated to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system. Hundreds of rings are affixed to the asteroid capture bag, helping the astronaut carefully navigate the surface. Credit: NASA

Researchers from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. have joined a new NASA virtual institute that will focus on questions concerning space science and human space exploration. Nine research teams from seven states were selected for NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

The Goddard scientists include researchers from the Dynamic Response of the Environment at Asteroids, the Moon, and moons of Mars (DREAM2) project as well as other researchers in Goddard's Sciences and Exploration Directorate. The DREAM2 project is one of the nine teams selected under SSERVI along with Goddard researchers as key components of four other SSERVI teams: the Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration (RIS4E) team lead by Timothy Glotch at Stony Brook University in New York, the Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration (FINESSE) team lead by Jennifer Heldmann of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the Volatiles, Regolith and Thermal Investigations Consortium for Exploration and Science team led by Ben Bussey of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and the Inner Solar System Impact Processes team led by David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston.

NASA is expanding its successful Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), established in 2008 at NASA Ames, to broaden its research base to other solar system destinations. SSERVI will address scientific questions about the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and their near space environments, in cooperation with international partners. The winning teams, which SSERVI will support for five years at a total amount of approximately $12 million per year, were selected from a pool of 32 proposals based on competitive peer-review evaluation.

"This is really exciting; we're part of a great institute and we're all going to complement each other well – there are a lot of possibilities for cross-connections among the teams," said Goddard's William Farrell, DREAM2 team lead. "Our work will be an extension of our NLSI science team, where we take a lot of our lunar modeling studies and apply them to small bodies like asteroids. We were already modeling from global to regional scales; we were already looking at smaller features on the moon, for example like plasma inflow into polar craters. The applications to asteroids and small bodies become a nice extension."

Plasma is a gas comprised of electrically charged particles and magnetic fields. It's everywhere in solar system space, blowing off of the sun at around a million miles per hour as the solar wind. It's also present in interstellar space. According to Farrell, the team will apply its models to understand how plasma flows around small objects like asteroids and how the thin atmospheres (exospheres) around these objects behave.

Space is also filled with radiation – violent events on the sun, like explosive flares and massive eruptions of plasma called coronal mass ejections produce solar energetic particles. High-speed particles also flow in from deep space in the form of cosmic rays produced by exploding stars, jets of material from black holes, and other events. Farrell's team will also analyze how space radiation changes the surfaces of asteroids and moons.

The team is also interested in the interaction between solar wind plasma and the surfaces of asteroids and small moons. According to Farrell, it's possible that the solar wind interaction can turn some areas on these objects into "water factories". Hydrogen ions in the solar wind could react with oxygen contained in the minerals of the dust and rocks on asteroids to produce water molecules. "As part of this new research, we're going to perform studies of this interaction both in plasma-surface modeling and in the laboratory," says Farrell. "At the end of 2009, there were findings that the moon had more water components (OH molecules) and water on its surface than previously thought, and the solar wind is on the short list of possible water-generation processes."

The philosophy behind the creation of SSERVI is that science and exploration complement each other. "Exploration aids science. Science aids exploration," said Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

"One place where science can really help out exploration is with an improved understanding of the space environment around the targets that we intend to explore," adds Farrell. For example, understanding the plasma environment around an asteroid could help identify locations where astronauts can safely make first contact with the body. A variety of processes in space can give the surfaces of asteroids and moons a large electric charge, according to Farrell. The DREAM2 team will apply their models to identify places where charging differences between the astronaut and asteroid surfaces are reduced.

There's also one small object that's often not considered for analysis but shouldn't be ignored, according to Farrell – the spacecraft itself. "Anytime you have humans on a spacecraft, you're going to have water gassing out from the craft; for example, the shuttle was surrounded by a very dense water gas and ion cloud," says Farrell. "It was much denser than the , and much denser than the lunar atmosphere. So with the Orion spacecraft, you will have this big, gassy ball with its own atmosphere maybe kilometers long – almost like a comet – possibly approaching a near-Earth asteroid, and there's going to be cross-contamination. One of our team-level focus studies is to understand the effect the spacecraft atmosphere and plasma has on the fragile environment of the very asteroid being examined for study. We want to understand the environmental impact of having the spacecraft nearby the small asteroid body."

Goddard will also focus on simulated , one of the research areas in the Stony Brook SSERVI project, RIS4E. Researchers will travel to places that mimic the volcanic terrains of outer space bodies, such as the Kilauea volcanic field on the Big Island of Hawaii. Goddard's Jacob Bleacher will lead this research topic.

"We chose to explore a niche that has gone relatively unstudied during the last several years of NASA Operations Tests, that being the use of handheld and portable science instruments," said Bleacher. "Tremendous technological advances in this area have occurred since the Apollo missions, but just because we have a tool doesn't mean it will be helpful during a Human Space Flight mission. So we will explore the current state of handheld and portable instruments for field geology, and based on interactions with the rest of RIS4E and other SSERVI teams, work to provide NASA with recommendations for designing handheld and portable instruments for future planetary exploration."

Some Goddard scientists belong to more than one SSERVI team – Bleacher is also on the DREAM2 and the LPI Inner Solar System Impact Processes teams, and Goddard's Noah Petro will perform research as a co-investigator on both the RIS4E team and the NASA Ames FINESSE team. "I'm thrilled to be part of two teams, each focusing on distinct aspects of understanding the processes that act on the moon and small bodies," said Petro. "My research will focus on understanding the composition of the moon and small bodies' surfaces. For RIS4E, I'll be working on understanding the effect of temperature on remotely sensed data. For FINESSE, I'll be using terrestrial remote sensing data to identify locations to study impact craters. This research fits nicely into the overall goals of SSERVI in that we use remote sensing data to understand how the moon and small bodies have evolved over time. Working with both RIS4E and FINESSE will allow me to expand the scope of my work to new areas and techniques."

"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 with robots and humans."

SSERVI is based at NASA Ames and managed by the NLSI team under the direction of Yvonne Pendleton. The institute will be funded jointly by NASA's Planetary Science and Advanced Exploration Systems divisions. SSERVI members include academic institutions, non-profit research institutes, private companies, NASA centers and other government laboratories.

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