Fall 2020 Department News

LPL Partners with ASTEROIDS Laboratory

LPL has partnered with the ASTEROIDS Laboratory (Asteroid Science, Technology and Exploration Research Organized by Inclusive eDucation Systems), a new, multi-disciplinary research and educational unit based in the UArizona Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (AME) department and sponsored by NASA’s Minority Undergraduate Research and Education Program (MUREP). The laboratory will apply planetary science principles to conceive, implement and validate space technologies—from systems design and control solutions, to robots and sensor networks, to mobility and excavation platforms for asteroid exploration and mining. The new lab is creating dozens of direct research opportunities for undergraduate students, thereby increasing the diversity of student and faculty involvement related to small missions in near-Earth space.

Students who join ASTEROIDS lead their own research projects under the mentorship of faculty and work with a team of experienced graduate students and staff to build a space-bound CubeSat that will advance planetary science objectives. The project's principal investigator, Professor Jekan Thanga (AME), leads engineering efforts to develop small satellite mission concepts. Professor Erik Asphaug (LPL) directs the scientific research and oversees how theories and models will be translated into hypotheses that can be tested by experiments and missions. Dr. Stephen Schwartz (LPL) serves as Technical Program Manager; he is also a Participating Scientist on the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample-return mission and an instrument co-investigator on the Hayabusa2 mission. Before becoming the project's Administrative Program Manager, Layne Crawford was a science teacher at Desert View High School (Tucson); while a student at UArizona, Layne was a NASA Arizona Space Grant intern who studied HiRISE Mars data with Regents' Professor Alfred McEwen. “I want to draw on that history to assist in building similarly impactful and life-shaping experiences for our students,” says Crawford. Other ASTEROIDS co-investigators include: Research Professor Greg Ogden (Chemical and Environmental Engineering) who studies propulsion with a focus on water extraction and propellant production from in-situ resources found on asteroids; Professor Desiree Cotto-Figueroa (Universidad Puerto Rico, Humacao), who investigates the geomechanical properties of meteorites and is a Survey Team member for the upcoming NEO Surveyor Mission; and Professor Dennis Just (Astronomy/Physics, Pima Community College) who provides overlapping research and education opportunities to Pima students.

One of the centerpiece activities for the ASTEROIDS Laboratory is the development of AOSATs, or Asteroid Origin Satellites. These relatively low-cost 3U CubeSats, each about the size of a loaf of bread, are being designed to orbit the Earth and spin at approximately 1 rpm (the speed of a clock's second-hand) to simulate the weak but non-zero gravity field of asteroids. AOSATs have a customizable chamber that can be used for studying basic physics of asteroid accretion and evolution, or for testing technological approaches to asteroid mobility and excavation, or for developing approaches to water or mineral extraction under realistic gravity. Lessons learned from these AOSATs will be applied to the design of larger Earth orbiting satellites that can serve as permanent low-gravity research testbeds for the full-scale validation of future asteroid technologies, from exploration to resource extraction to hazard mitigation.  “With our moral support, the students are taking leading roles in the conceptualization, design and development of small-satellites and are advancing a myriad of space science and technology concepts,” says Thanga. “Our program is seeking to empower a new generation of students bursting with optimism and that is representative of the rich diversity of modern America with much the same can-do spirit of the 1960s space program, fearlessly try, do, fail and try again till you succeed!”

In that spirit of exploration, the ASTEROIDS program encourages new ideas and unconventional methods—examples include: efficient sample return from dozens of asteroids in one mothership mission; multi-spacecraft deployments of seismic and ground-penetrating sensors for global imaging of asteroid interiors; coordinated swarms of small-satellites to perform rapid imaging, multipoint observations, and persistent observations of surface features or events; orbiters that can perform multiple landings and resource assessments balanced on one or two extended booms; and a tiny inflatable lander that stays upright as a low-cost imaging/sensing outpost or node on the rapidly-rotating landscape. “Those of us who grew up on Star Trek know that the spaceships of the 23rd century will be made out of asteroid materials,” says Asphaug. “The science and engineering fields in academics can do much more to be representative of the diverse populations that we serve, and by focusing on small missions we’re creating a kind of melting pot where a lot of new ideas can come together and rapidly advance.”