It’s an exciting time for space exploration, with NASA targeting a crewed return to the moon in 2025, and new announcements regarding breakthrough capabilities and science research arriving on a nearly daily basis.
It has been a year since the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel successfully conducted its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, proving that a potentially destructive asteroid could be deflected from a collision course with Earth.
Since that time, APL has been working on a few other missions that are equally important in terms of advancing scientific knowledge, capabilities, and setting the stage for the commercialization of space.
Instruments designed and built by APL are currently underway to two other asteroids.
The Lucy Long Range Reconnaissance Imager aboard NASA’s Lucy mission to Jupiter surprised the scientific community in November when it returned images of a minuscule asteroid orbiting Dinkinesh, a small body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“The instrument worked flawlessly and has already made an unexpected discovery,” said Neil Dello Russo, APL’s L’LORI instrument principal investigator.
Designed to explore the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, Lucy flew by Dinkinesh to test its Terminal Tracking system, which can autonomously track an asteroid while flying by at 10,000 mph.
Information from the test will help team members prepare for Lucy’s next encounter with the asteroid Donaldjohanson in April 2025 and its first rendezvous with the Trojan asteroids in 2027.
Psyche, another NASA asteroid mission that launched on Oct. 13, is named for the asteroid it will investigate and carries a Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer developed by APL in collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Scientists suspect that Psyche and other metal-rich asteroids in the solar system could be shards of early protoplanetary cores.
“APL teams continue to push the envelope and develop reliable, cutting-edge scientific instruments to better understand our solar system – and beyond,” said Andy Driesman, APL’s mission area executive for Civil Space Flight.
The instrument’s gamma-ray spectrometer will capture gamma rays to quantify the asteroid’s elemental composition, while the neutron spectrometer will provide information about its metal composition, in addition to any presence of other potential elements.
The spacecraft will reach Psyche in 2029 and orbit the asteroid for more than two years, collecting data to help determine if it is the exposed core of a protoplanet.
NASA’s planned Artemis missions will set the stage for establishing crewed outposts on the moon which will require commercial lunar infrastructure, including power distribution, communications, positioning, navigation and timing, lunar surface surveying, and cislunar space traffic control.
APL is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to identify and propose interoperating standards for that infrastructure, and develop operational guidelines and pathways to close interoperability gaps.
In September, APL also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Maryland, College Park to create new opportunities for collaboration in research and development.
The MOU will provide opportunities for mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in technology domains such as autonomy, high temperature materials science, battery and semiconductor technology, and other engineering and science disciplines.
“Accelerating the advancement of technologies related to space systems and exploration will yield new knowledge and solutions that positively impact life on Earth,” said Samuel Graham Jr., dean of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. “[This] will help us realize the cutting-edge solutions needed for safer, longer and more challenging missions, driving scientific discovery and strategic national interests.”
Meanwhile, NASA has selected a group of APL scientists to provide expertise to support the first crewed landing of the Artemis program.
APL planetary scientist Brett Denevi will lead the team, nicknamed EAGLE, for Earth-based Artemis III Geologists for Lunar Exploration. EAGLE will help define Artemis III scientific objectives, support the design and execution of surface exploration, and devise plans to evaluate data returned by the mission.
The EAGLE team will focus on four areas: determining the lunar record of inner solar system impact history, understanding the early evolution of the moon as a model for other rocky planets, revealing the age, origin and evolution of volatile materials in the solar system, and determining the variability of surface dust near the moon’s poles to understand surface changes on airless worlds and objects.
“All of these goals have the potential to transform our understanding of the Moon and the cislunar environment,” Denevi said.
In August, APL received a small rover from its commercial partner Lunar Outpost of Colorado designed to investigate the origins and magnetism of Reiner Gamma, an unusual pattern of light and dark rock that swirls across the moon’s surface and contains swaths of magnetized rock.
Scientists believe a better understanding of the formation could answer questions about conditions on the moon and other airless worlds throughout the solar system.
“Having the mobility provided by the rover is key to accomplishing the science goals of the Lunar Vertex investigation,” said David Blewett, the mission’s principal investigator at APL.
Lunar Vortex will carry a vector magnetometer created by APL.