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Technology & Entrepreneurship

Southwest Research Institute Partners To Make Future Space Exploration Safer And Smarter

The locations of Project ESPRESSO collaborative institutions. The project is led from SwRI's Boulder office

NASA's Apollo missions brought U.S. astronauts to the moon, but back then there was concern about how both men and machines would interact with the lunar surface. 

Southwest Research Institute scientist Alex Parker says they were worried about how much dust a rover would produce in low gravity.

"They were concerned that those wheels were going to kick up so much dust that they were going to poke the astronauts or blind them," says Parker.

So NASA built a vacuum chamber at the Johnson space center, filled it with moon-like dust, and ran a rover wheel over it while the chamber replicated lunar gravity in the belly of an aircraft.

They found out that the moon dust wasn't going to be a problem, and that data came in handy.

"But that chamber doesn't exist anymore. No one has one like this that any new companies or other researchers that are looking to build a device for interacting with the surface of an asteroid, they don't have access to anything like that to test their mechanism," says Parker.

Southwest Research Institute wants to build the vacuum--or airborne space environment--chamber in San Antonio. Its one of eight projects proposed by a new research consortium NASA will fund with as much as $5 million.  The goal of the projects are to NASA smarter about how it picks targets for exploration and reduce risk to people or technology that they send.

The a consortium of seven institutions led by San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute is for Project ESPRESSO (the Exploration Science Pathfinder Research for Enhancing Solar System Observations). ESPRESSO includes SwRI, the Lowell Observatory, the University of Maryland, NASA Johnson Space Center, The Planetary Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University, SETI Institue and several other collaborative institutions.