Timothy Glotch will lead the five-year NASA-funded project. (PHOTO CREDIT: STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY)

NASA chose Stony Brook University to lead one of nine new Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) teams, which are set to virtually explore the final frontier through multiple systems of earth, planetary and space research.

Timothy Glotch, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, will be leading Stony Brook’s $5.5 million, five-year NASA-funded project “Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration” (RIS4E). RIS4E will consist of scientists from 13 international institutions, and, in an effort to ultimately enable human space exploration, primarily investigate questions relating to the Moon, near-earth asteroids and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.

While the project primarily involves geological research, Glotch is excited for the multidisciplinary contributions it will incorporate.

“At the very top level what we want to do is do some basic science that will help us understand more about the formation and evolution of the Moon, the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, and asteroids,” Glotch said. “Within the university we have folks from pharmacology, working with geology professor Martin A.A. Schoonan on a medical geology aspect; we have a professor at physics who’s a laser physicist, to make sure we don’t shoot our eyes out.

RIS4E will be split into four different components, beginning with remote sensing, or interpreting information from space probes and spacecrafts, training astronauts as geologists through simulated human space exploration, research in medical geology, like the short and long-term health effects of space dust on astronauts and finally, using Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), one of the brightest x-ray beam sources in the world, to research issues like space weathering when the laser goes online in 2015.

Dr. Jacob Bleacher of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre is leading the simulated human space exploration component, and has worked in astronaut geology training over the last several years. The field geology component will explore terrains in Hawaii and New Mexico that mimic Solar System crustal materials, and plan to be conducted over one field season in each year of the five year project.

“We will focus on some basic geology questions relevant to planetary science, and while we conduct that research we will explore the way in which current portable and handheld instruments might be incorporated within NASA exploration strategies,” Bleacher said. “We plan to make available spots on our field team to include astronauts, which helps to expose those personnel to field geology problems that they might face as they explore the Solar System.

“We are also building upon a collaboration between Goddard and the US Naval Academy in which we work with interns who have interests in Aerospace, many of whom could one day become our next generation of astronauts,” he said.

Glotch believes that by training in simulated conditions like Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, astronauts will acquire geological skills necessary for human space exploration.

“If you look at the make-up of a typical astronaut class, some are medical doctors, some have some sort of scientific training, but a huge percentage of them are military test pilots, and they don’t really have much geological field training,” Glotch said. “One thing that [we’ve done and will do] in the upcoming SSERVI project is make traverse plans.”

The scientists intend to have a map of the terrain and a list of the equipment, allowing them to plan for the number of samples from a certain area space able to be collected.

“If we’re in Hawaii we have a week to do all this stuff, we’ll get all the samples and data we’ll need, but if we’re sending an astronaut to the moon or an asteroid, you’ve got to plan things out very, very particularly, down to the minute or down to the second, so that you don’t waste any time.”

Glotch also believes that medical geology, while not an obvious combination of fields, is necessary because of the often unknown consequences of breathing in minerals, as in the case of coal miners and the black lung. One aspect of this program then, according to Glotch, is to figure out how that dust may affect the health of astronauts.

“Anytime you go out of a spacecraft and go back in there’s the possibility of dust getting back into the spacecraft and eventually into the air and into the astronaut’s lungs,” Glotch said. “If you ever get a change go down to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, they have some of the old Apollo astronaut flight-suits and they’re filthy, they’re disgusting, they’re just covered with this grey sooty dust.”

Dr. Stella Tsirka will work with fellow pharmacology professor Bruce Demple and Schoonen’s team of geologists on the medical geology component and will directly study the health effects of space dust and other samples on astronauts.

“We’ll do two things. One is to synthesize in the lab materials that will be in the same pure components found out there, and we’ll expose human lung cells and other immune cells to see how they respond to these compounds,” Tsirka said. “The second is to actually expose the same cells to the real material that will come from there, which is the part that we’ll be doing in this lab.

“The best outcome would be that none of the materials we bring and test create any kind of adverse reaction; usually in our case with the toxicity that would be associated with some kind of oxidating stress,” she continued. “If that is not happening and the cells react in a normal way that nothing happens that is significant than we’re good, but if they don’t then we need to explore what happens and move from cells to a whole organism and then try to understand it.”

RIS4E’s final component will use Brookhaven National Laboratory’s NSLS-II to research topics like space weathering, which involves how bodies without atmospheres are affected by elements like solar wind and micrometeorites. The research will gauge the relative importance of these process and the timescales related to space weathering.

“You have solar wind from the sun interacting with the surface, you have dust floating around in space, [and] if there’s a body with no atmosphere then that all hits the surface at very high velocities, like seven or eight kilometers per second,” Glotch said. “So even though these tiny specks of dust may be small over time they add up and they can alter the surface.”

RIS4E is also being designed for student participation: five graduate students will be hired per year over the five-year course, and an undergraduate internship program will hopefully fund eight undergraduate students. In keeping with the cross-disciplinary nature of the project, Glotch also plans to introduce a sophomore science-journalism course in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

“We’ll have team members of our program talking to people over there about our research, we’re going to have students in the course do laboratory visits,” Glotch said. “We’ll also be taking students out to the field with us, so one or two students will get to go with our Hawaii field team, students will be allowed to go with our New Mexico field team.

“And while they’re doing all this stuff they’ll be doing blog posts, they’ll be doing longer format print pieces and hopefully some video content,” he continued.

Glotch hopes that while project will directly be aimed toward gathering data for NASA, it will ultimately help train the next generation of scientists and draw attention to the importance of space science.

“I think if you look at you go back to what I said before if you look at the most important thing we going to do here is related to training students, training the next generation of scientists and explorers,” he said. “One thing that I do take very seriously is kind of getting people excited about science, engineering and technology at the grassroots level.”