Both men were blasted into space and served in the US Senate. But NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and U.S. Senator Mark Kelly were “back to school” during a visit to Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration on Friday, May 27.
The couple were able to view details of the university’s more than 20 space missions – ASU leads NASA’s Psyche and LunaH-Map space missions while developing instruments for science missions to the moon, asteroids and planets, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, Lucy and the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. And it’s not just the faculty; students participate in work that is both directly involved and inspired by these missions.
Among the practical lessons during Friday’s visit: strapping in for a ride on Tycho, a vehicle that can roll forwards, backwards and side-to-side. It can even rotate 360 degrees around a single point. Tycho is a modern training vehicle designed and built to meet the needs of human exploration of the Moon and Mars in the 21st century. It was built by a team of ASU employees and students.
“ASU is one of NASA’s main universities as a partner. They build space hardware here,” says Kelly. “It’s pretty new. Universities don’t usually build the stuff that gets launched into space. They build the stuff here now instead of having a private or defense company to do it. And that’s great for the students here. They’re going to go here, and they’ll be ready for those high-tech jobs of the future. We need more of that.”
Like Tycho, much of what the men saw on Friday ties directly to upcoming NASA targets and launches. Several of these missions involve the moon.
The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper – LunaH-Map for short – is a CubeSat mission led by Assistant Professor Craig Hardgrove of the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). LunaH-Map, which will travel to space on the Artemis 1 rocket later this summer, is a miniaturized spacecraft the size of a shoebox that will orbit the moon to map water ice in regions permanently shaded from the lunar south pole.
Professor Mark Robinson – who has been developing detailed maps of the moon for more than 20 years as a principal investigator of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – briefed Nelson and Kelly on Friday on the next steps for LunaH- Map, whose findings could let scientists determine if there is enough water to support future human and robotic exploration of the solar system. Robinson also explained how the LROC fits into some of the next steps of what NASA can do with robotic moon landers. NASA’s Artemis program aims to put humans back on the Moon by the end of 2025.
Visitors had the chance to tour the school’s Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies, which houses one of the largest university meteorite collections in the world.
Nelson says that for him, one of the highlights of visiting ASU was holding a large black diamond inside the center vault.
“And I’m telling you, if we ever find harvestable quantities of diamonds or titanium or gold or any other precious metal, can you imagine the amount of exploration? The gold rush in California will be a distant memory of what you will see happening in space,” he says.
No diamonds are expected to come from samples that will be collected by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. But when those samples arrive on Earth, SESE director Meenakshi Wadhwa will serve as the Mars Sample Return program scientist to unravel the samples’ compositions.
Kelly and Nelson learned more about Mars in SESE’s mission control room. This is where the Mastcam-Z camera team gathers footage from Mars. This team is led by Professor Jim Bell of ASU. The camera system on board the Perseverance rover can zoom from wide angle to telephoto, take 3D images and video, and take photos in up to 11 unique colors. It’s part of the rover’s mission to document rock and sediment samples, search for signs of ancient microbial life, and characterize the planet’s geology and climate.
No one knows exactly what NASA will find with the Psyche and Europa Clipper missions, which is why the agency is sending spacecraft to both locations.
Psyche is a metal-rich asteroid orbiting the sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Psyche is also the name of the spacecraft that will travel there, led by Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton of ASU Regents. The mission, which offers a unique window into the building blocks of planet formation, is expected to launch this fall. The Psyche team will investigate whether the asteroid is the core of an early planet and whether it formed similarly to Earth’s core.
Europa is a moon of Jupiter, where an ASU designed and built thermal imaging instrument led by Professor Regents Phil Christensen is steered as part of the Europa Clipper spacecraft. The Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will analyze Europa’s surface temperatures, including regions where the moon’s suspected ocean may be near the surface. The Europa Clipper will make about 50 flybys of Europa to determine if the moon might harbor conditions suitable for life.
Nelson says he likes that SESE combines students new to space with experienced people at the peak of their NASA careers.
“If I have anything to do with it, we’re actually going to expand the internships, and a huge percentage of those interns come to work for NASA because they’re so passionate about the job,” Nelson says. “It is a rich source of extraordinary talent. As we move more and more towards the commercial sector, it amplifies the use of universities even more, whether directly under contract with NASA or through one of NASA’s commercial partners. I see this as a model for the future that will not only continue, but grow.”
Arizona State University
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