Astronaut Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, was the last man who walked on the Moon in December 1972. NASA is currently conducting a nine-day field test outside Hilo, Hawaii, so they can evaluate new exploration techniques for the surface of the Moon. These mission simulations, known as analog missions, are performed at extreme and often remote locations here on Earth to prepare for robotic and human missions to extraterrestrial destinations.
The In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) analog mission is a collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), with help from the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES).
The Apollo Astronauts did not have the sophisticated tools, machines or technology of today. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo training have been surpassed by steady technological advancement. The ISRU analog mission will demonstrate techniques to prospect for lunar ice. The testing site near Hilo features lava-covered mountain soil similar to the ancient volcanic plains on the moon. The two main tests under way are the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) and the Moon Mars Analog Mission Activities (MMAMA).
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) located in California, has designed a unique mechanical geologist to seek out possible evidence of life on Mars for approximately 18 days. The spacecraft would search for favorable possible habitat conditions that would indicate evidence that life could exist on the freeze-dried Martian surface.
One of the most productive methods that scientists have used to learn how to search for the existence of life on other planets – has been to seek it out in isolate fields on planet Earth.
The rovers being tested out are not as elaborate as the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity (scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August). The drilling demonstration in Hawaii includes CSA’s Artemis Jr. rover and a drill. These devices support the RESOLVE payload.
RESOLVE is designed to prospect for water, ice and other lunar resources. It will also demonstrate how potential future explorers can take advantage of resources at possible landing sites. The rover and its onboard instrumentation are about as tall as a human and weigh about 660 pounds, three times heavier than the equipment that would be used on an actual mission.
MMAMA is a group of small projects and tests that will define the requirements for navigation, mobility, communications, sample processing, curating and other critical elements that could be used in future science and exploration missions. Using another CSA rover, Juno, and payload interfaces, the MMAMA suite of tests includes analysis of regolith using pryolysis (breaking down the samples by heating them), robotic resource mapping, a miniaturized Mossbauer spectrometer, and a combined miniaturized Mossbauer and X-Ray fluorescence spectrometer. A team of engineers and researchers will monitor all of the tests from a mission control center in Hawaii.
Lessons learned from the ISRU project become increasingly important as NASA embarks on deep-space missions. Instead of having to launch all of the resources needed for these missions from Earth (a heavy and therefore expensive affair), a human crew could go into space knowing that natural resources already there waiting for them.