Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 28, 2010
Space takes its toll on humans and equipment. Go into deep space, and the environment becomes even more hostile. Land on the Moon, and you're facing the most dangerous place humans have explored beyond our own world.
Most gear that lands on the Moon is only designed to operate for short periods. Sometimes, it's just not worth keeping it functioning for a long time. In other cases, you just can't keep it running. The environment takes its toll. Today, there's nothing on the surface of the Moon that still works, except for a handful of laser reflectors at the Apollo landing sites and on the Lunokhod rovers.
We want to go back to the Moon and we want to stay there for a lot longer. We expect our equipment to function for long periods, and we also want to keep astronauts alive there for more than a few days. If we want to do this properly, we need to do more basic research about the conditions there.
At some point, we need to land a mission on the surface of the Moon for engineering tests. We need to see how various types of materials and devices stand up against the environment on the lunar surface.
One of the early Soviet lunar orbiters carried an electric motor as the first lunar engineering test. This was identical to the motors planned for later use on the Lunokhod robot Moon rovers. Engineers wanted to make sure that it would work in a lunar environment. It did, and the Lunokhods went on to successfully explore the lunar surface.
We've gained a lot of recent experience with keeping spacecraft operational in lunar orbit. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is working well, on an extended mission. But lunar orbit is a less hostile place than the surface. On the ground, there's dust, electrical charges, ions and water vapour, and extreme temperatures. The scorching lunar day lasts two weeks, followed by a chilling two weeks of night.
Some of the current lunar research will help us to design better gear for the Moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is providing great data on temperatures and the radiation environment. The LADEE orbiter, planned for later this decade, will investigate lunar dust migration and the tenuous lunar atmosphere. All of this is useful to know before you land there.
But there's nothing like actually going there. A lander on the surface could expose objects to their real working environment, long before we're depending on them to perform.
Space agencies have conducted materials tests in Earth orbit before. These tests have sometimes produced some shocking results, as materials considered for use in space have been viciously attacked by the environment. But Earth orbit is different from anywhere else. It's unrealistic to extrapolate some of these results to lunar orbit, or the lunar surface.
If space agencies are going to develop generic lunar landing stages for their future missions, then the cost of staging an engineering test will fall.
A lander would touch down, carrying samples of materials on panels, as well as items such as batteries, circuitry, and mechanical parts. Cameras and other sensors would measure their performance and degradation. Then, over time, we would gradually see how our candidate lunar materials fared.
The lander could also include some simple scientific experiments, such as a laser reflector, to broaden its mission.
Alternatively, small engineering test experiments could be slotted onto primarily scientific landers. Over the course of several missions, a number of components would be evaluated.
Long-term experiments would place heavy demands on the landers, as they would need to stay alive for longer than the components they were evaluating. This could be a problem, but we need long-endurance landers for other purposes. Once robust landers are ready to operate instruments such as telescopes or environmental surveys, they can be adapted for these engineering tests.
What sort of materials would we test? Some of the exterior cladding proposed for lunar habitats or landing modules would be appropriate. Optical surfaces, such as windows, lenses and mirrors could be monitored for degradation. Lubricants will also be a high-priority issue. Seals for hatches are also critical.
Even the landers themselves represent test missions. If they work well, they have verified the performance of their own components!
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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Collision Spills New Moon Secrets
Providence RI (SPX) Oct 26, 2010
Scientists led by Brown University are offering the first detailed explanation of the crater formed when a NASA rocket and spacecraft slammed into the Moon last October and information about the composition of the lunar soil at the poles that never has been sampled. The findings are published in six papers in the Oct. 22, 2010, edition of Science stemming from the successful NASA mission, ... read more
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