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Researchers Prepare to Explore Extreme Lunar Environments

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Astrobotic field-tested their autonomous navigation in Aden Crater in the Potrillo Lava Fields, New Mexico.

STONY BROOK, NY, September 19, 2018 — As the United States prepares to visit the surface of the Moon once again, scientists from the RIS4E node of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), led by researchers from the Stony Brook University College of Arts and Sciences, are partnering with Astrobotic Technology to demonstrate the robotic technologies needed to explore and study our nearest neighbor’s most interesting and challenging destinations.

This past April, the RIS4E SSERVI team, led by Timothy Glotch, professor in the Department of Geosciences, was joined at a field test site in New Mexico by the Astrobotic Future Missions and Technology team to demonstrate several key technologies required for robotic and human missions to explore lunar skylight , a means of accessing the subsurface of the Moon. Testing together, the science and engineering teams were able to refine a vision for lunar subsurface exploration.

SSERVI researchers have been working to analyze the capabilities of compact and deployable instruments needed to collect and characterize geologic samples in the field. The field site, known as the Potrillo Volcanic Field, has volcanic features analogous to those found on the Moon and Mars, and the collaboration between the teams sought to address the challenges of conducting extra-planetary geologic data and sample collection from autonomous aerial science platforms.

Due to its unique features, the Potrillo Lava field has served as a venue for planetary geologists and NASA astronauts since the Apollo program. In Potrillo, RIS4E team members conducted geologic fieldwork, incorporating sophisticated hand-held scientific instruments, including a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, an X-ray diffractometer, and a hyperspectral infrared camera, into geologic studies similar to what astronauts might one day perform on the Moon.

“The Potrillo Volcanic Field is a fantastic analog site for lunar and Martian volcanic terrains,” Glotch said.  “Stony Brook faculty and students were able to test new technologies, conduct scientific inquiries, and engage in realistic human exploration scenarios.”

Under a research contract with NASA, Astrobotic has developed a custom navigation software product, known as AstroNav, to give small free-flying spacecraft the ability to autonomously explore lunar lava tubes.  Meanwhile, advances in both areas are paving the way for future missions that are far more dynamic and autonomous than those possible today. To explore sub-surface environments on the Moon, Astrobotic’s AstroNav performs both stereo vision- and LiDAR-based navigation, works without GPS or previously stored maps (neither of which exist in this environment), and can perform in real-time while an aerial spacecraft explores a novel environment at a high rate of speed.

“Astrobotic provided a lot of added value to the team,” said Glotch. “They were able to contribute substantial engineering expertise and bring in new ideas for potential science and exploration technologies.”

The RIS4E field team is one of of 13 teams within SSERVI, based and managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and is composed of faculty, students, and research scientists from Stony Brook University, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and several other institutions. RIS4E team members are engaged in a variety of activities, including laboratory spectroscopic studies, theoretical calculations, sample analysis, and geologic field work, designed to further NASA’s science and exploration goals related to the Moon, the moons of Mars, and near-Earth asteroids.

About Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University is going beyond the expectations of what today’s public universities can accomplish. Since its founding in 1957, this young university has grown to become a flagship as one of only four University Center campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system with more than 26,000 students and 2,600 faculty members, and 18 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Our faculty have earned numerous prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation, Abel Prize and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The University offers students an elite education with an outstanding return on investment: U.S. News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 50 public universities in the nation. Its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. As part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University joins a prestigious group of universities that have a role in running federal R&D labs. Stony Brook University is a driving force in the region’s economy, generating nearly 60,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of more than $4.6 billion. Our state, country and world demand ambitious ideas, imaginative solutions and exceptional leadership to forge a better future for all. The students, alumni, researchers and faculty of Stony Brook University are prepared to meet this challenge.Moon1 1

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