Asteroid Exploration Field Tests Performed In The Mojave Desert
May 18, 2013

Paving The Way For Human Exploration Of Asteroids

John P. Millis, Ph.D. for — Your Universe Online

The potential of a human mission to Mars has captured the imagination of many recently. However, before astronauts set foot on the Red Planet, NASA first plans to visit Near-Earth asteroids and potentially to the moons of Mars.

With this vision in mind, a team of researchers from the SETI Institute, the Mars Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, and the space robotics company Honeybee Robotics successfully completed a first battery of tests in the California desert to test how humans will explore these objects in their low gravity environments.

“Human missions to Near-Earth Asteroids and to the moons of Mars present us with the exciting challenge of exploring planetary bodies with extremely low gravity” said Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and leader of the field test, in a recent statement. “The goal of our field test was to learn how to characterize the physical properties of small body surfaces, and to test ideas that might enable humans to more productively explore these low-gravity worlds.”

The tests, which took place at the U.S. Army´s National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, had three objectives:

1. Study whether conventional field tools, commonly used to characterize the mechanical properties of soils on Earth, are suitable for reduced-gravity environments.

2. Evaluate how different anchoring systems might allow robotic spacecraft and astronauts to remain bound to these bodies.

3. Study how astronauts might conduct geological sampling on small bodies while using these anchors and tethers.

The terrain of the NTC site has been found to be similar to the blocky surface of the near Earth asteroid (25143) Itokawa, which was explored by Japan´s Hayabusa robotic spacecraft in 2005. Lee explains, “while neither the composition of the rocks nor the gravity at Asteroid Hill are similar to what they are on NEAs, the relevance of the site resides in the similarity in terrain texture (gravel and block abundance and sizes), topography, and scale between Asteroid Hill and Itokawa.”

According to Terry Fong, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center, “this is an interesting analog site for planning future NASA robotic and human asteroid exploration, as it not only resembles the surface of the only sub-kilometer NEA explored by spacecraft to date, Itokawa, but it is well supported logistically by the U.S. Army´s National Training Center.”

The Mojave Field Test will be featured as part of an upcoming television documentary filmed by First Canyon Media, Inc, titled Mission Asteroid. Produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Mission Asteroid is expected to air in North America in Fall 2013.