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UMD-led Team Awarded $7.3M to Study Moons, Asteroids for Future Human Exploration

Team One of Eight Selected to Participate in NASA Program

By Matthew E. Wright

Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos

Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos are potential study subjects for a new UMD-led, NASA-funded project on human exploration of space.

The next giant leap in space exploration may start with determining where astronauts can put their feet down.

A team led by researchers from UMD’s Departments of Geology and Astronomy has been awarded $7.3 million from NASA to test protocols here on Earth for characterizing the evolution, stability and safety of surfaces on the moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars’ two moons.

The team is one of eight that NASA selected Friday for its Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI). The eight teams will join four others to collaborate on research at the intersection of space science and human exploration.

Nicholas Schmerr, assistant professor of geology, will lead 10 UMD researchers in the project, Geophysical Exploration Of the Dynamics and Evolution of the Solar System (GEODES).

“We’ll be using analogs here on Earth to help prepare for future missions to environments where astronauts might find ice deposits; caves and lava tubes; and deep layers of dust, gravel and sand,” Schmerr said. “We’re really excited to contribute to the exploration of the solar system.”

The GEODES team will work at a variety of field sites in the western U.S., including Lava Beds National Monument in California, the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Arizona and the East Snake River Plain in Idaho—all home to landscapes and geological features that resemble other rocky bodies in our solar system. Astronauts on future missions to nearby moons and asteroids will need a detailed geological understanding of these foreign worlds to build structures, mine resources and ensure their own safety.

The GEODES team will receive a total of $7.3 million over the course of the five-year award period. UMD’s partners include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Planetary Science Institute, the University of South Florida, the Southwest Research Institute, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Samara/Eureka Data. A portion of the funding is earmarked to support several graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“The discoveries these teams make will be vital to our future exploration throughout the solar system with robots and humans,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Based and managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, SSERVI was created in 2014 as an expansion of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. It supports research at potential future human exploration destinations. SSERVI members include academic institutions, nonprofit research institutes, commercial companies, NASA centers and other government laboratories.

In addition to Schmerr, project participants from UMD’s Department of Geology include Faculty Specialist Todd Karwoski, Associate Professor Vedran Lekic, Professor Laurent Montesi and Professor Wenlu Zhu. From UMD’s Department of Astronomy, Postdoctoral Associate Jacob Richardson will serve as co-principal investigator on the project, with participation from Professor Derek Richardson, Professor Jessica Sunshine, Faculty Specialist Nicole Whelley and Visiting Assistant Research Scientist Patrick Whelley.



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