Many folks would like to see us back on the Moon and developing its resources.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A vicarious voyage
BU astronomer lands $9.5M contract to measure charged particles near the moon

By David J. Craig

NASA scientists and engineers know that spacecraft traveling to the moon in a few years will need to be outfitted with special protection against charged particles that routinely traverse the cosmos at nearly the speed of light. But they don’t know how much protection will be necessary because the robotic and manned missions that President Bush mandated last year will last longer than previous moon trips, exposing astronauts and their high-tech equipment to more of the powerful particles.

Harlan Spence, a CAS and GRS astronomy professor and department chairman, was chosen by NASA recently to help solve that problem. An instrument he has proposed developing, called Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER), will be among the key data-gathering tools aboard NASA’s robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) craft, which is scheduled to orbit the moon on a one-year exploratory mission beginning in 2008. Spence (CAS’83) expects to receive an approximately $9.5 million contract from NASA for CRaTER, one of six high-profile research projects NASA announced funding for in December, as part of its LRO program. Together, the six projects will develop the instruments LRO uses to gather information that will guide the planning and execution of future lunar missions.

“The objective of CRaTER is to determine the effects on humans of long-term exposure to charged particles — mainly protons and electrons — using a material that replicates human tissue, as well as the effects on electronic and computer equipment,” says Spence, an expert on space weather and technologies that measure high-energy charged particles in space. “For decades, we’ve had a pretty good idea what types of protection are needed for short visits to the moon, but we’ll be studying what’s needed to essentially live there.”

Spence’s research team includes Larry Kepko, a senior research associate at the Center for Space Physics, as well as scientists at the California-based research group the Aerospace Corporation, MIT’s Center for Space Research, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford, Mass., and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo.

CRaTER will measure the effect on human tissue and electronic equipment of charged particles called galactic cosmic rays, which often originate in supernovas and race through deep space more or less constantly, and the similar but more intense solar cosmic rays, which are caused by storms on the sun. It was a series of solar events that in late 2003 sent billions of tons of charged gas hurtling through our solar system at speeds of up to five million miles per hour, disrupting satellites and ripping apart a sizable portion of the Mars atmosphere. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station at the time could have been injured had they not taken cover in a special shelter. Spence says that much more must be learned about the effects of charged particles before stations can be designed that are safe for the moon.



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