From producing food to controlling dust, long-term missions to the moon and Mars present extraordinary challenges. Florida innovators are working to overcome future obstacles.
University of Central Florida
University of Central Florida’s history is rooted in the U.S. space program. Founded in 1963 by the Legislature, the school opened its doors in 1968 as Florida Technological University, with the mission of educating engineers and other talent for Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. UCF landed its first research grant from NASA that same year and has received more than $193.5 million in space-related research grants to date. Today, UCF researchers are working on more than a dozen research projects aimed at returning humans to the moon and further exploration.
Alien Dirt and Lunar Test Beds
As the director of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, a node of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, UCF physics professor Daniel Britt leads a consortium of lunar, asteroid and Mars surface scientists across the globe who are working on ways to make space exploration safer and more efficient. “We have collaborators in 16 time zones, from Japan, Australia, Europe, all sorts of places, and the whole idea is to work together to focus on the key unknowns and understand these alien places much better in order to explore smarter and explore cheaper — because what ultimately drives this is going to be cost and risk,” Britt says.
Britt is also the founder of Orlando-based non-profit Exolith Lab — a store like no other that produces and sells simulants of lunar, Martian and asteroid surfaces. One kilogram of the lab’s Mars Global Simulant — replicated from windblown soils that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity encountered on the surface of the planet — goes for $35. Or, for the same price, one can purchase replicated dust from the moon’s highlands on the lunar south pole.
At UCF, researchers are doing simulations of dust interactions with things like wheels from lunar rovers, human movement, landing plumes from rockets and analyzing how the simulants react under certain conditions to “get a better idea of how to design equipment,” Britt says. With the simulant, researchers can get a better understanding of how the wheels of a future lunar rover might interact with the surface of the moon — whether those wheels will compact or loosen up the lunar dust, for instance, or where the dust ends up getting lodged. The simulants are also being used in projects aimed at extracting resources from the moon (or planets) and using regolith to build structures.
University of Central Florida
Solving the Blast Problem
Phil Metzger, a former senior research physicist at Kennedy Space Center, started working on the challenge of lunar landing pads in 1997 when a manager at NASA approached him and said the agency wanted to do mining on the moon and Mars to create rocket fuel — the idea being that space missions would be much cheaper if the rockets didn’t have to carry enough fuel for a roundtrip and could just refuel in space.
There was a key problem, however. “If you’re going to have a gas station on another planet, that means you need to land your rocket near the gas station and you don’t want to blow a whole bunch of rocks and sands and dust and ruin all the equipment at the gas station because then you can’t refill your rocket and come home,” Metzger says. “So we needed to figure out how to protect the gas station.”
It turned out to be a thornier problem than anyone anticipated. There was simply no way anyone could even estimate the “landing blast problem,” Metzger says, “because the physics had not been solved yet,” and there’s simply no vacuum chamber large enough on Earth to conduct a large-scale experiment mimicking a rocket landing on the moon.
Twenty-five years after he first started working on the blast problem, Metzger is hopeful that two laser-based sensors he helped develop to measure “plume blast effects” will help scientists improve their crude models and understand the physics involved. One of those sensors, called Ejecta STORM, has already flown on four flights aboard a Masten Space Systems rocket in the Mojave Desert. “We’ve shown that it works, but we’re continuing to try to get it ready to go to the moon,” he says. Metzger and fellow UCF researcher Adrienne Dove are also collaborating with a company called Truventic, which was founded by UCF physicist Robert Peale, to develop a more advanced version of Ejecta STORM called Ejecta BLAST that they anticipate will eventually fly upon a lunar lander.
Metzger is also working on projects to extract ice from the moon’s surface and build lunar landing pads. The landing pad project, which is funded through a subcontract with Cislune Co. through NASA’s small-business technology transfer program, uses a patented invention to run lunar soil through a magnetic field to sort grains to create better building materials. Once sorted, the soil could then be heated with microwaves and essentially baked into a solid brick — a method known as microwave sintering.
Metzger says their “microwave sintering” technology uses about 70% less energy than other lunar manufacturing methods, and it also creates a stronger landing pad with a more uniform center. “We think it’s going to be even better. I can’t tell you why yet. It’s still a trade secret until we can get it under patent, but we think there are additional benefits that are going to improve it even more,” Metzger says.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
When Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander delivers its first commercial payload to the moon later this year, it will be the first American vehicle to perform a soft landing on the lunar surface since 1972. Before it even touches down, a camera designed by engineering students and faculty researchers at Embry-Riddle will launch from the lander and capture the first ever third-person views of a spacecraft landing on the moon.
The team has been working on the project since 2020, when Stephen Altemus, the founder and president of Houston-based Intuitive Machines and a graduate of Embry-Riddle, challenged his alma mater to build the camera. While the pandemic created some logistical and supply chain challenges, the EagleCam is now ready for launch, says Troy Henderson, an associate professor of aerospace engineering.
Henderson says the spacecraft will contain what’s called a CubeSat deployer — essentially using a large spring to eject the camera from a canister when it’s about 100 feet above the lunar surface. If all goes as planned, EagleCam will land about 30 to 36 feet away from the lander and transmit images back to the lander via a wificonnection.
EagleCam has three cameras with fish-eye lenses, which allow for a very wide field of view. That way, if the camera rolls or tumbles, it’s still guaranteed to get a shot. Aside from the wow factor, the images will provide “high-value” information about lunar dust plumes, which can wreak havoc on human and robotic systems. Embry-Riddle also signed an agreement with NASA/Kennedy Space Center to test whether an electrodynamic dust shield system integrated into two of the camera’s lenses is able to effectively shake the moon dust off.
At the end of the day, EagleCam will ultimately take about 1,300 photos on the moon. “We’ll get a burst of a handful of images early on — within an hour or 90 minutes of landing,” says Henderson says. The rest will take several days to transmit. The camera, meanwhile, won’t be making a return flight to Earth any time soon. “Everything is permanently on the moon until we send a human mission there,” Henderson says.
Florida Institute of Technology
At the start of the pandemic, Andrew Palmer, an associate professor at Florida Institute of Technology, got a curious e-mail from Kraft Heinz wanting to talk about growing tomatoes in a simulated Mars environment. “I thought it was kind of a spam e-mail,” Palmer says, but he pretty quickly realized it wasn’t and called back. The conversation led to a collaboration that’s produced 450 plants and hundreds of tomatoes grown in conditions similar to an indoor environment on Mars.
To mimic how crops would be grown in a Mars-based facility, Palmer’s team of more than a dozen scientists, technicians and students created a special “red house” inside the Florida Tech’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design. They planted the seeds supplied by Kraft Heinz in 7,800 pounds of Martian regolith (unconsolidated rocky material that has no organic material or nutrients available) with no sunlight — only powerful LED lighting focused on the plants. “It was kind of surreal. There was definitely a transported quality to it,” Palmer says.
The aim wasn’t simply to grow plants, but to grow plants that were high enough quality to eat — and it succeeded, Palmer says. The research also suggested that Mars is a stressful environment for plants because of the extra metals and salts in martian regolith.
Figuring out ways to overcome those challenges will help astronauts on long-term missions to Mars, Palmer says, but it will also provide valuable information about farming on Earth. “We’re basically already farming the majority of the good land” on this planet, he notes. With the quality of topsoil in decline and the amount of arable farming land shrinking, he adds, new methods of farming will be critical to sustaining future generations.