NASA's ambitious exploration effort to return humans to the surface of the Moon and provide a continuous robotic presence on Mars is receiving a critical boost from Nevada scientists.
Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) were chosen to enhance the operational and scientific success of future missions to the Moon and Mars.
The collaborative project is funded through a $750,000 grant from NASA and equivalent matching funds from the Nevada NASA EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program for a total of $1.5 million.
The funding will help develop a center of excellence in planetary surface process research and education, and will align efforts to build on existing strengths of the researchers in the fields of geomorphology, geology, microbiology, geochemistry, atmospheric and hydrologic processes and remote sensing.
Statewide research will be brought together in an advanced visualization and modeling environment that will include many of the features of DRI's "CAVE" (Computer Automated Virtual Environment) facility. The new immersive virtual reality facility will help bring to life lunar and Martian land surfaces through high-resolution, 3D video and sound. The virtual experience will allow researchers to test both scientific hypotheses and instrumentation for lunar and Martian exploration.
The effort is coordinated by Chris Fritsen, EPSCoR program manager and associate research professor at DRI. Wendy Calvin, associate research professor in the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering at the University and longtime participant in NASA's Mars Exploration program, is the science proposal's principal investigator.
UNLV professors Brenda Beck (geoscience) and Spencer Steinberg (chemistry), as well as University professors Fred Harris (computer science and engineering), Sergiu Dascalu (computer science and engineering) and Scott Bassett (geography) and DRI's Nicholas Lancaster (senior director of the Center for Arid Lands and Environmental Management) and Henry Sun (assistant research professor) are also part of the statewide research team.
"We will be using two planetary analog sites (one at Lunar Crater Volcanic Field in southern Nevada and the other in the Mojave Desert in California) to develop the new virtual reality facility," Calvin said. "These 'field labs' will be used to train a new generation of investigators in terrestrial geosciences, the interpretation of image and other data from NASA planetary missions, and mission planning and operations for future manned and robotic surface exploration of the Moon and Mars."
Calvin said the new facility, the first of its kind used for planetary exploration and visualization, will be used to predict planetary surfaces and terrain characteristics crucial for the mapping of landing sits and access routes to surface targets.
"It's going to play a very important role in helping the research team visualize what a Mars Rover landing or a human lunar landing would be like," she said.
Experiments conducted at the analog sites will emphasize understanding the links between microbiology, mineralogy and oxidation in a dry, desert environment. In addition, studies of controls on sediment transport and implications for rover trafficability will be undertaken.
"Brenda Buck and UNLV's geoscience department has long been at the forefront of arid soils research, and now, along with her colleagues from UNR and DRI, will use some of Nevada's unique environmental resources to train our state's students to explore new worlds while further expanding what we know about our own," added Ron Yasbin, dean of UNLV's College of Sciences.