September 18, 2012

Future Ground Stations Could Be Made Up Of Alien Dirt

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

We have even hardly begun to scratch the surface of Mars, yet scientists are already trying to find ways to be eco-friendly on the Red Planet.

Scientists are looking to regolith, or alien dirt, to determine whether it can be used to help build shielding for ground stations.

Chiara La Tessa is manager of experiments in biophysics at GSI. She said the need for this research is to help shave off some of the weight associated with space travel.

Heading from Earth towards another celestial body isn't a quick trip. As it takes lots of energy to get from point A to point B in the universe, it would seem that the less weight, the less energy it would require.

Building ground stations on the Moon or Mars using regolith is one way to shave off some of the weight, but it is easier said than done.

The scientists are testing how well their simulated Moon slabs protect against radiation in the American accelerator laboratory Brookhaven. Because the Moon and Mars have less atmosphere than Earth, astronauts would be less protected from cosmic radiation, which could lead to cancer in the long run.

GSI scientists are testing the effects of cosmic radiation on their simulated slabs, and are exploring how many neutrons are produced in the materials when radiated.

When cosmic rays hit the stones with full speed, they smash some atomic nuclei into pieces. This allows the free neutrons to have a different effect on the human body than cosmic radiation.

The team is testing how strong the neutron effect is in Moon and Mars regolith simulated stones and how far it passes through the material.

"I cannot estimate how the material is going to react to the radiation yet“, La Tessa said in a statement. "Will many neutrons be produced? How many fast and how many slow ones? This we will know when we analyzed our experiment data."

This isn't the only research going on in how to minimize spacecraft weight and utilize extraterrestrial soil.

NASA is looking into whether it is feasible to create a heat shield using regolith so future spacecraft would not have to carry the extra weight. Michael Hogue, a researcher at NASA´s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, came up with the idea last year, and engineers are now trying to work out various mixtures and techniques to find out if the idea has potential.

The spacecraft would need to have a robotic device in order to make the heat shield while on the alien planet, as well as the right tools to make the regolith stick together.