Many feared the United States’ role in space exploration was over after an accident took the lives of a second space shuttle crew in 2003. After another long grounding of the shuttle fleet, flights restarted briefly but by 2011 the program was retired and no manned missions were on the horizon.
Prospects were dim.
But as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The pioneering American spirit soon ignited.
Individuals such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced bold plans to build commercial spacecraft to return people to space. And NASA is investing in the research needed to get people to Mars within the next 20 years.
University of Central Florida researchers are working on a variety of current and future projects that will help get us to the red planet, including OSIRIS-REx. Many projects include the idea of turning asteroids into refueling stations that spacecraft on long trips could use. UCF is in the thick of making a trip to Mars a reality.
Two UCF professors are part the team that built and will operate NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which is scheduled to launch in September from the Kennedy Space Center in a first-of-its kind American mission. The spacecraft will travel to asteroid Bennu and then use a robotic arm to retrieve samples. When discovered in 1999, the asteroid came within 1.4 million miles from Earth, or about 5.7 times the average distance between Earth and the Moon. The name of this non-manned mission, OSIRIS-REx (an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, and the name of an early Egyptian god) is also a step toward getting humans to Mars. UCF professor Humberto Campins, an international expert on asteroids who was among the first to discover water on asteroids, is a co-investigator on the mission.
After the spacecraft arrives at Bennu, it will begin gathering information about the asteroid and taking images of its surface as it orbits the asteroid. Campins, with support from UCF associate professor Yan Fernandez, will spend a year with the team gathering and analyzing the data and will then make recommendations about the specific target the spacecraft should scoop to get the best sample.
“It’s an amazing time to be involved in space research,” Campins said. “The American people are excited about space exploration again and NASA and other countries are doing big things in terms of exploration, planetary defense, and science.”
But why are asteroids of interest to NASA, commercial space companies and Mars enthusiasts?
Asteroids are both hazards and resources. Some asteroids, including Bennu, have the potential to collide with Earth and cause global devastation, so it’s important to study them in case we need to deflect one. In addition, mining asteroids can be an important source of critical resources to space exploration and to Earth; as such, asteroids will play a significant role in making a trip to Mars financially feasible.
The trip to Mars is a long one – up to two years round trip. And a spacecraft would have to haul several tons of fuel just to get there. More fuel would be needed to maneuver and land on the planet, and more fuel to lift off again and return home.
The weight of the fuel alone makes the trip with our current technology challenging. But what if there were refueling stations along the way? That’s where asteroids and the two moons of Mars –Phobos and Deimos – come in. If we can convert the minerals and other raw materials on asteroids into fuel, then we could refuel on the way to and from Mars, reducing the need to carry all that heavy fuel. That means a cheaper trip, Campins said.
Sounds like sci-fi, but private companies and NASA are pouring millions of dollars to do the research and necessary engineering innovations to make it happen.
UCF professor Dan Britt and Florida Space Institute researcher Phillip Metzger have multiple contracts and grants with NASA and several private companies to take on each challenge from mining asteroids for fuel to setting up systems to 3-D print whatever is necessary once explorers land on other planets.
Britt is developing simulants for the surfaces of airless bodies– geek speak for asteroid and barren-planet surfaces. The companies want the “fake asteroid material” so they can develop the hardware and protocols necessary for mining on asteroids.
Metzger is working with a private company to develop a way to turn Martian soil into material that could be used for 3-D printing. That way, astronauts could take a printer to other planets, instead of the actual tons of tools needed, such as radiation protection and screwdrivers.
And entrepreneurs such as Musk and Bezos are already building and testing the spacecraft that will be needed to take astronauts to other planets.
Bezos is not only banking on getting people to space, he’s also diversifying by providing quick trips to space for scientists who are eager to get their experiments conducted in weightlessness.
Josh Colwell, a physics professor at UCF, had one experiment on the International Space Station that recently came back on a SpaceX rocket, another one currently on the ISS that was launched on an Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket, and another that flew aboard New Shepard, a new spacecraft designed by Bezos’ team. Colwell also has another experiment aboard the ISS that is specifically aimed at understanding asteroid surfaces for the Asteroid Retrieval Mission that NASA is evaluating.
“Commercial space companies provide a great vehicle for scientists to get more of our experiments into space and back in a few days,” Colwell said. “
Experimental results from commercial flights and information being sent back by spacecraft such as NASA’s Juno mission, which reached Jupiter on July 4, and New Horizons which reached Pluto in 2014 are also helping provide valuable information to help prepare for a manned trip to Mars.
“It’s a great time for space research,” Colwell said. “And this is just the beginning.”