UCF Lands NASA-Funded Center

Years from now, if astronauts explore the surface of an asteroid or even the moons of Mars, they may have to give a shout-out to UCF scientists for helping them handle cosmic hazards such as clouds of potentially blinding space dust.

The first step in that possible future came Tuesday with NASA’s announcement that a University of Central Florida team had won a $6 million grant to study what astronauts might encounter during a mission to a nearby neighbor — such as a small asteroid or Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ rocky moons.

The team, led by physics professor Dan Britt, will try to predict what U.S. astronauts might face during a landing—think space dust, not aliens. It also will play a role in helping NASA decide which nearby asteroid the space agency should target for exploration.

Though the five-year grant is tiny compared with NASA’s budget of about $17 billion, the research it funds could prove critical to NASA’s long-range plans of sending U.S. astronauts to an asteroid — a space rock smaller than a planet — by 2025.

“We have never actually sent humans to small bodies [like asteroids], so there’s a range of things we don’t know about,” Britt said. A prime focus will be studying the surfaces of asteroids, including how they’ve evolved and whether they hold water, so that astronauts will know to expect.

At the same time, Britt said, he expects the grant will boost space research in Metro Orlando, which for decades has lived in the shadow of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center.

“This is a big win for Orlando because it brings knowledge-based and science-led jobs,” Britt said, starting with the hiring of three faculty members and up to 10 researchers. He hopes this nucleus will expand to include more jobs and research.

With the grant, Britt plans to jump-start a research initiative dubbed CLASS, for the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, that will assemble space experts from various backgrounds and countries to better understand “rocky airless bodies,” such as nearby asteroids.

“The idea is that NASA wants to have the scientific support for their human-exploration goals directly at hand,” Britt said.

Astronomers, geologists, physicists and chemists will work together to answer a long list of questions, such as: How does space dust affect explorers and landing craft? How have microgravity and the chill of space shaped asteroids — and could that affect NASA operations?

NASA’s analysis of the Apollo landings helps show the importance of understanding the mission environment.

One 2005 study done by NASA highlighted the range of potential problems caused by lunar dust alone, from “false instrument readings” to “inhalation and irritation.”

These issues were compounded by the fact that “dust problems were consistently underestimated by ground tests,” according to the study, which was done in anticipation of NASA returning astronauts to the moon — a program later shelved.

NASA’s latest ambition of reaching an asteroid — let alone Mars’ moons — also faces the risk of delay or even cancellation.

Under current NASA plans, the agency aims to send an unmanned probe later this decade to capture a small asteroid — which one is still undecided — and tug it near the moon so astronauts riding NASA’s new rocket and space capsule could visit it, possibly as soon as 2021.

The idea, however, has faced significant opposition in Congress. And belt-tightening throughout the federal government is expected to pinch NASA’s budget, or worse, during the next several years.

Lori Garver, former deputy administrator for NASA, said in September that the first launch of the agency’s big new rocket, known as the Space Launch System, is likely to miss its first deadline of 2017 by a year or two because of budget problems.

Still, even if NASA’s human-exploration program hits a snag, the data generated by the UCF group could be useful for other missions, including robotic exploration.

“The whole idea is to make future exploration safer and cheaper because we are exploring smartly, rather than zipping out to see what we find,” Britt said.

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