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Physics of Regolith Impacts in Microgravity Experiment

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

Physics of Regolith Impacts in Microgravity Experiment
The presence of dust on the surfaces of solar system bodies raises several technical issues related to unmanned and manned exploration of the solar system. Fine grains may damage optical instruments, coat solar panels, or jam moving parts on spacecraft. Particles that enter astronaut habitats can pose a further health hazard through inhalation or contamination of seals or other equipment. A broad set of experimental data in the reduced-gravity regime in which these collisions occur is necessary to interpret the existing and ever-growing volume of data on dust in planetary systems. Understanding the behavior of fine particles in dusty environments in response to human and robotic activities is crucial to the success of exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and especially to small bodies such as asteroids with negligible surface gravity. We propose a series of low-energy impact experiments to be carried out in reduced gravity (lunar and free-fall) on parabolic airplane flights. The experiment is a modified version of the Physics of Regolith Impacts in Microgravity Experiment (PRIME) that was flown previously on parabolic airplane flights. Modifications to the experiment enable higher quality video data as well as free-float of the experiment to obtain lower residual accelerations and better simulate the space environment of a small asteroid. These experiments will simulate the kinds of disturbances to a dusty planetary regolith that accompanies both manned and unmanned exploration. High-speed video data will show the effect of the impacts on the surface. The amount and velocity of ejecta produced will be recorded. Each experiment will be performed with different impact parameters (target material, impactor mass, and impact velocity). Each flight day will provide 8 independent impact experiments. The combination of multiple experiments will lead to scaling laws describing the ejecta mass-velocity distribution from low-energy impacts in reduced and zero-gravity conditions. These results will then inform the design of hardware and procedures for operation on the surfaces of airless bodies with low gravity such as Near-Earth Asteroids and the Earths Moon. The reduced-gravity impact experiments into regolith will also advance the TRL of experiment hardware for future scientific experiments on suborbital flights for experiment opportunities on the International Space Station. More »

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