The NASA Lunar Science Institute Gets a New Name and Expanded Focus

Members and student involved with the former NASA Lunar Science Institute pose with a sign designating the Institute's new name, the Solar System Exploration and Research Virtual Institute. Credit: SSERVI.

Back in 2008 when NASA was looking to return to the Moon with the Constellation Program, the NASA Lunar Science Institute was established to bridge the science and exploration communities and promote lunar research. Now that NASA is looking at destinations such as asteroids and Mars, as well as the Moon, NLSI will be expanding its reach as well.

It starts with a new name that reflects a broader area of research.

“Our new name is a long one, it’s called the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, or SSERVI,” said Yvonne Pendleton, the director of NLSI/SSERVI, in a podcast interview with me for the Institute. “It is going to expand beyond our interest of the Moon to include not only the Moon but also near Earth asteroids and the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.”

The new SSERVI logo. Credit: NASA/SSERVI.
The new SSERVI logo. Credit: NASA/SSERVI.

Pendelton said the new institute is going to be an expansion upon NLSI, which has been very successful in promoting research and collaboration as well as providing opportunities and support for students.

There were seven different science teams that comprised NSLI, each studying different aspects of the Moon, and for SSERVI there will seven teams as well. Pendleton said they’ve received proposals from many different scientists and “hubs” who are all vying for the seven spots that will make up the new institute. They are currently looking at the proposals and will make a decision and announcement by early October.

“We’re excited about our new teams,” Pendleton said. “There could be some teams from the ‘old’ NLSI, but we’ll definitely have new teams that focus on asteroids and the moons of Mars.”

Pendleton said the change came about because NASA wanted the community to know that “we are now about more than just the Moon. While the Moon is still very important, the name ‘NASA Lunar Science Institute’ sounded so focused on the Moon that people might not realize that our scope has expanded.”

This came from a prompting from John Grunsfeld from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Bill Gerstenmaier from the Human Exploration Missions Directorate who decided that a better name was needed. There was an extensive process where they took suggestions for the new name from scientists and the public.

“We hope this is a name that everyone will start to remember — it is a bit of a mouthful to say at first,” Pendleton admitted, “but just think about it as a virtual instate that studies the Solar System, along with the exploration and research that we need to do before we go.”

Pendlton noted that NLSI was also a virtual institute and in many ways pioneered the technology and collaboration tools that will be used for SSERVI.

“NLSI was modeled after the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which the very first virtual instead that NASA had,” Pendleton said. “We are just expanding upon that and using the virtual communications tools as a means to be very inclusive and invite everyone to the table so we can join communities together — in this case exploration and science communities — so that we can ask the right questions and find the best answers before we go to any of these target destinations.”

In fitting with the name “Virtual Institute” this year’s annual Lunar Forum conference was a virtual conference, held completely online with parallel scientific sessions, poster sessions, student lightning round talks and other featured sessions held entirely over the Internet with interactive chat.

A big part of the reason for doing it “virtually” this year was the US budget sequestration and NASA travel restrictions that have been imposed, and while the virtual conference worked well, Pendleton said nothing can replace a conference where scientists have the chance to see each other, collaborate and discuss concepts in person.

But one benefit of having it all online is that all the talks and presentations have been archived at the NLSI/SSERVI website where you can watch anytime and learn more.

To hear more about SSERVI, you can listen to the entire podcast at the 365 Days of Astronomy website here, and it will soon be posted on the NLSI/SSERVI podcast page here.

Future Games: Astronauts Tele-Operate An Earth-Bound Rover … From Space!

The K10 Black planetary rover during a Surface Telerobotics Operational Readiness Test at NASA's Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

Astronauts, start your rover engines. Two astronauts recently remote-controlled a rover vehicle in California from their perch on the International Space Station — about 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead.

The concept is cool in itself, but NASA has loftier aims. It’s thinking about those moon and asteroid and Mars human missions that the agency would really like to conduct one day, if it receives the money and authorization.

Potentially, say, you could have a Mars crew using rovers to explore as much of the surface as possible in a limited time.

Mars Curiosity and its predecessor rovers have found amazing things on Mars, but the challenge is the average 20-minute delay in communications between Mars and Earth. NASA deftly accounts for this problem through techniques such as hazard avoidance software so that Curiosity, say, wouldn’t crash into a big Martian boulder. (More techniques from NASA at this link.) But having astronauts above the surface would cut down on the time delay and potentially change Mars rover driving forever.

Luca Parmitano controlled the K-10 rover from space on July 26, 2013. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)
Luca Parmitano controlled the K10 rover from space on July 26, 2013. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)

So about that test: two astronauts so far have run the K10 planetary vehicle prototype around a “Roverscape” at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. NASA calls these runs the “first fully-interactive remote operation of a planetary rover by an astronaut in space.”

Expedition 36’s Chris Cassidy was first up on June 15, spending three hours moving the machine around in the rock-strewn area, which is about the size of two football fields. Then his crewmate Luca Parmitano took a turn on July 26, going so far as to deploy a simulated radio antenna. Another test session should take place in August.

“Whereas it is common practice in undersea exploration to use a joystick and have direct control of remote submarines, the K10 robots are more intelligent,” stated Terry Fong, human exploration telerobotics project manager at Ames.

“Astronauts interact with the robots at a higher level, telling them where to go, and then the robot itself independently and intelligently figures out how to safely get there,” added Fong, who is also director of Ames’ intelligent robotics group.

The tests simulated a mission to the moon’s L2 Lagrangian point, a spot where the combined gravity of the moon and Earth allow a spacecraft to remain virtually steady above the surface. One possibility for such a mission would be to deploy a radio telescope on the lunar side opposite from Earth, far from Earth’s radio noise, NASA said.

These tests also showcase a couple of technical firsts:

  • NASA is testing a Robot Application Programming Interface Delegate (RAPID) robot data messaging system to control the robot from space, essentially working to strip down the information to the bare essentials to make communication as easy as possible. (RAPID has been tested before, but never in this way.)
  • The agency is also using its Ensemble software in space for telerobotics for the first time. It describes this as “open architecture for the development, integration and deployment of mission operations software.”

Source: NASA

Podcast: More From Tony Colaprete on LCROSS

Artist concept of the Centaur and LCROSS heading towards the Moon. Credit: NASA


I had the chance to interview LCROSS principal investigator Anthony Colaprete about the latest findings released from the lunar impact of the spacecraft a year ago, and in addition to the article we posted here on Universe Today, I also did a podcast for the NASA Lunar Science Institute. If you would like to actually “hear” from Colaprete, you can listen to the podcast on the NLSI website, or you can also find it on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

Is the Moon Really a ‘Been There Done That’ World?



If there’s only one thing we’ve learned from all the highly successful recent Moon missions – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LCROSS, Chandrayaan-1 and Kaguya — it’s that the Moon is perplexingly different from our perceptions of the past 40 years. The discovery of water and volatiles across the surface and in the permanently shadowed regions at the poles changes so many of the notions we’ve had about Earth’s constant companion. Basically, just within the past year we’ve realized the Moon is not a dry, barren, boring place, but a wetter, richer and more interesting destination than we ever imagined. And so, the proposal for NASA to effectively turn away from any human missions to the Moon, as well as Administrator Charlie Bolden’s ‘been there, done that’ comments is quite perplexing – especially for the lunar scientists who have been making these discoveries.

“It’s been quite a year for the Moon,” said Clive Neal, a lunar geologist from Notre Dame, speaking last week at the NASA Lunar Science Institute’s annual Lunar Forum at Ames Research Center. “And things got quite depressing around February 2010.”

That’s when President Obama proposed a new budget that effectively would end the Constellation program and a return to the Moon.

At the Forum, lunar scientists shared their most recent findings – as well as their attempts to model and comprehend all the data that is not yet understood. But they saved any discussion of NASA’s future until the final presentation of the meeting.

“Hopefully this talk will stop you from running out of here ready to hang yourself or slit your wrists,” quipped Neal, who led the final session.

The week began, however, with keynote speaker Andrew Chaikin – author of the Apollo ‘bible,’ “A Man on the Moon,” and several other space-related books — saying, “We have to erase that horrendous ‘been there done that’ notion.” Chaikin also shared a famous Peanuts cartoon showing Lucy pulling the football out from under from Charlie Brown. No caption was needed for everyone to understand to what Chaikin was referring.

“With all of these new discoveries, we should have ample reason to believe that humans will follow,” said Chaikin. But right now, he added, the man in the Moon looks a little like Rodney Dangerfield. “The Moon wants – and deserves – respect.”

“It appears NASA’s focus might be shifting to Near Earth Objects,” said Neal, “but the Moon is the nearest Near Earth Object. It’s quicker, safer and cheaper to get humans there, and the important thing to recognized that there’s a lot left to explore, and a lot to do on the Moon.”

Only 5% of the Moon’s surface has been explored by humans, and Neal showed scaled maps of the Apollo landing sites overlaid on maps of Africa, Europe and the US, revealing just how small a portion of the Moon has been explored directly by humans. The map below shows the Apollo 11 crew’s movement on the Moon can fit within the size of a soccer (football) field.

Apollo 11 VS. a soccer (football) field. Credit: NASA History website. Click for larger version.

Additionally, the latest data reveal that the Apollo sites were in no way representative of the entire Moon.
In light of the proposed plan to give up on the Moon, Neal said there probably is a lot of misperceptions by the American public, as well as in other countries that there’s nothing to do or learn at the Moon. But he believes nothing could be further from the truth.

“What we’ve heard over the last couple of days are fantastic talks and seen wonderful posters in regard to the vibrancy of lunar exploration and science, and seen that exploration enables science and that science enables exploration. The Moon is a Rosetta Stone for solar system exploration and science. The recognition of a possible lunar magma ocean has resulted in terrestrial and Martian magma oceans being proposed. This could be the way terrestrial planets evolve and the Moon is begging us to go back and explore to figure that out.”

There’s also the studies of preserved impacts on the lunar surface which represents a look back in time where we can figure out how to do date planetary surfaces, test cataclysm hypotheses, and study how airless bodies undergo space weathering, which has a direct application to NEO research. Studying cold trap deposits has direct applicability to learning more about the planet Mercury, and lunar regolith contains information about the history of our Sun.

There are proposals for doing radio astronomy from the lunar farside, which will probe the dark ages of the Universe and look back to when the first stars turned on. “So the Moon is a gateway to the Universe,” Neal said. “You can do so much more with the moon — its not just the moon, it’s the solar system and beyond.”

In addition there are many unresolved scientific questions about the Moon. What are the locations and origins of shallow Moon quakes, and large lunar seismic events? How does the lunar regolith affect transmission of seismic energy? What is the nature of the lunar volatiles in the permanently shadowed regions at the lunar poles? What is the mechanism for the adsorption of water, hydroxyl and other minerals recently found on the Moon’s surface? What is nature of lunar core?

When Constellation was proposed, returning to the Moon was said to be a testbed for going on to Mars. It would be a safe and more economical way to test out systems and technology needed for going to the Red Planet. So, what has changed?

Primarily the budget. There weren’t enough funds in Constellation’s coffers to go to the Moon and then Mars. It primarily became a Moon-only program, which many said, didn’t bring us to the “real” destination that everyone really wants: Mars.

And money is still the real issue for not returning to the Moon in the new proposals of going to NEO’s and then Mars. If money weren’t an object, we’d do it all.

But the Moon offers a great local to test out human missions to Mars. “The Moon offers one-sixth of Earth’s gravity,” Neal said,” and we do not know what happens to the human body over time in that gravity, and we can only extrapolate what happens there and on Mars’ one-third gravity. We could test out life support, the growth of crops, the radiation environment and more. The ‘feed forward’ there is quite important where you can simulate a Mars mission on Moon. To develop and test your radiation shielding in the real environment on the Moon is more of a test than flying on the space station.”

Both Neal and Chaikin said they could go on and on about the benefits of returning to the Moon, and they also book-ended the Lunar Forum by saying it is up to the lunar scientists and Moon enthusiasts to educate the public, other scientists and even NASA about the importance of the Moon.

“We have to do a better job of educating the public – even dealing with the conspiracy theorists,” Neal said. “We need to get into schools and educate about what NASA has done, and what they are doing now. We all take responsibility for that.”

“The Moon is not going to get the respect it deserves unless people are out there talking about it,” said Chaikin.