SSERVI: Serving NASA’s Mission to the Moon and Beyond, Part 1

Humanity has plans to expand into space: to the Moon, to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), and to the moons of Mars. Like any trip to anywhere, we need to know certain things before we go. We need to know about the climate and about the resources we can expect to find when we get there. We need to know about the places to avoid, and the places where it’s safe to stay. Who is working on finding these answers so that we can go back to the Moon, and travel beyond to NEAs and to Mars? The answer is SSERVI.

The Virtual Connection

Working together, face-to-face, from a distance. Credit: SSERVI, Dr. Yvonne Pendleton

Working together, face-to-face, from a distance. Credit: SSERVI, Dr. Yvonne Pendleton

The Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) is NASA’s new virtual institute. Its main mission is to advance scientific and human exploration of the Solar System. That is, to probe into the origin, evolution, composition and conditions of destinations to which humans may travel in the near future. This is no mean feat, but SSERVI has a head start in a way that no other institute ever has.

First, as the name implies, SSERVI is a virtual institute. SSERVI teams and partners collaborate primarily in virtual space. Nine teams across the United States work together, sharing laboratories, equipment, staff and ideas.  If a team in California needs to study small impacts, through the Institute they have access to the dust accelerator at the University of Colorado. If a team in Texas wants to use a spectrograph, they can reach out to Brown University’s Reflectance Experiment Laboratory in Providence, Rhode Island.

Using technology to pool resources this way saves time and money, and allows us to build our way forward into space faster and better than ever before.

“Collaboration across teams magnifies the investment made in a single team. The intersection of disciplines often brings discoveries or understanding that would not have been found otherwise,” said Yvonne Pendleton, the director of SSERVI. “Also, virtual communication allows teams to be composed of individuals that bring the best capability to the project, regardless of their geographical location. Within the team and across the teams, virtual communication tools are used readily and to great advantage.”

Being virtual means that SSERVI teams are composed of members from all over, bringing together the best of the best without geographic bias.  Dozens of proposals were vetted before the selection of the current teams, which are spread out across seven states. Being virtual has yet another advantage: other countries that wish to participate can support the effort. At no additional cost to NASA, seven international partners are currently adding to the variety and complexity of the work SSERVI does, and additional countries are submitting proposals to join as well.

An artist’s rendition of an astronaut paving the way for Martian colonization by working from one of Mars’ moons. Credit: SSERVI, Dr. Yvonne Pendleton

An artist’s rendition of an astronaut paving the way for Martian colonization by working from one of Mars’ moons. Credit: SSERVI, Dr. Yvonne Pendleton

All told, 243 investigators and collaborators will spend the next five years addressing basic science questions, such as: “How dense is an asteroid?” and “How sticky is the dust on an asteroid’s surface?” Once we know more about the electric fields and gravity dust particles on the surface of NEAs, further questions can be asked by future teams. For example, they might ask: “How do we design a craft to land on a NEA?” or “How do we avoid contaminating it while landing?”

“Are [asteroids] solid or loose? That determines the exploration strategy,” said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of SSERVI. “A loose rubble pile will be completely disrupted by a rocket. NEAs [may] have such little gravity that if an astronaut pushed off the surface, that man or woman might achieve escape velocity. ”

What may be basic science here on Earth becomes a challenge when you leave the planet. One question at a time, one team at a time, SSERVI is seeking these answers so that we know before we go.

A team from the University of Central Florida is modeling the charge and mobilization of dust on Near Earth Asteroids. Goddard’s Space Flight Center’s SSERVI team in Maryland is looking into how much radiation-exposed materials in space receive. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. has a team working on how to sample impact sites on places like the Moon. A team at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at Johnson’s Space Center is trying to unravel how we date regolith, the loose, rocky material that covers the surfaces of our moon, Mars’ moons and some asteroids. The Southwest Research Institute is exploring the origin of asteroids, including the martian moons, which could originally be captured asteroids.

Yvonne Pendleton, director of SSERVI. Credit: SSERVI

Yvonne Pendleton, director of SSERVI. Credit: SSERVI

One step at a time, one team at a time, all across the country and the world, SSERVI is building our way forward. In this endeavor, it has a lot of good help.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The support staff at SSERVI has a long and successful history of running virtual institutes.

While much of the collaboration takes place in cyberspace, SSERVI maintains a small central office at the Ames Research Center. At that office is Yvonne Pendleton, who was director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) before the NLSI became SSERVI. Like SSERVI, the NLSI melded the expertise of geophysicists, data visualization specialists, engineers and planetary scientists with a variety of backgrounds. The NLSI, however, focused exclusively on the Moon. SSERVI expands its purview to include the Moon to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and the moons of Mars.

“The seven teams of the former NASA Lunar Science Institute (2008-2013), as well as the multitude of teams that have composed the NAI from 1998 to the present, have been exemplary role models for SSERVI,” said Pendleton.

Supporting the SSERVI central office, and the NLSI before that, is Greg Schmidt, who helped start the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) before joining the NLSI as deputy director. The NAI currently has 15 teams with 700 researchers, and its success as a virtual institute was a model for SSERVI. In March 2014, SSERVI’s teams were fully funded for five years each, allowing work to proceed without interruption. Going forward, new teams will be selected every three years. Projects will flow from one into the other. As they do, the path from here to the Moon and beyond is paved.

Where our space missions are now. Credit: SSERVI and Michael Bullerdick and Julie Rossman from The Week

Where our space missions are now. Credit: SSERVI and Michael Bullerdick and Julie Rossman from The Week