Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lunar robotic tests on the 'Big Island'

Alyson Kakugawa University of Hawai'i - Hilo: Teams from the Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Carnegie Mellon University will visit the Big Island this fall to test robotic instruments that will be used in upcoming missions to the Moon. The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), based in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, will host the two-week event on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Scientists and engineers, assisted by PISCES staff and UH Hilo students will conduct a full mission simulation featuring three NASA developed robotics, including the Selectively Compliant Articulated Robot Arm Rover (SCARAB). The tests are designed to provide participants hands-on experience with specific technical challenges to be anticipated when humans return to the moon by 2020, explore the lunar surface and set up outposts.

“It’s one thing to test an instrument in the laboratory. But that really doesn’t tell you how it will perform during a lunar mission,” said PISCES Research Operations Manager John Hamilton. “Our challenge is to replicate those conditions as closely as possible to ensure that the test results will be a true reflection of how these instruments will perform on the Moon.”

Equipment to be tested includes a new rover wheel called a Tweel. Developed by Michelin, the Tweel’s experimental design utilizes polyurethane spokes, which prevents flats, eliminates the need for shock absorbers and provides improved traction. Scientists will also test a Sample Capture Device (SCaD) and auger unit developed by the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT), in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency. The NORCAT drill can acquire subsurface samples without the use of down-the-hole electric components.

In addition to testing the equipment, scientists will be looking for ways to maximize the surrounding environment to meet their needs – a concept known as In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

“Astronauts have to work with limited resources on the moon, since it is extremely barren,” said Field Operations Assistant Christian Andersen. “Even basic needs like water and oxygen, which we take for granted, will have to be created from rocks and other material. So you essentially have to find ways to do more with less.”

That effort includes crops that can grow in a similar environment, which are currently being developed by the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.

PISCES Co-Director Dr. Robert Fox said as a UH Hilo based program, PISCES is blessed with a wide variety of resources.

“We really bring a lot to the table when you think about it,” Fox said. “We have the physical environment necessary for simulating lunar conditions, an ideal location in the middle of the Pacific, plus a thriving scientific infrastructure and community where research is actively encouraged.”

UH Hilo has already cultivated strong ties with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), through its undergraduate program in Astronomy, collection of world class telescopes atop Mauna Kea and the `Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai`i. Fox noted this latest initiative provides an opportunity to develop important new partnerships.

“Just look at the names,” Fox said. “Carnegie Mellon University, the Canadian Space Agency, Michelin and Lockheed-Martin are all major players. This puts us in some pretty impressive company.”

This test will be the first utilizing PISCES’ mobile field operations center. Future plans call for development of a base facility to be housed in the University Park of Science and Technology and a simulated lunar outpost located on the Saddle Road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

The robots will be demonstrated on campus for selected groups of K-12 students as the culminating event. Hamilton, who observed a similar field test in Washington state with Andersen this summer, described the experience as “awesome.” He’s confident the students will have a similar reaction, and hopes the experience will spark an interest in scientific study.

“When all is said and done, the name of the game is educating our children,” Hamilton said. “Through initiatives like this we hope to inspire them to study robotics, and sharpen their stem skills like math and science, which are the keys to obtaining good paying jobs.”