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BYU will provide NASA with critical research on future human missions on Mars



PROVO – A team of BYU researchers is funded by NASA to create a device to help space scientists better understand the dust on Mars and how it can affect the human missions of the planet in the coming years.

The chemistry and engineering specialists have been charged with measuring the magnitude and electrical charge of dust on Mars, according to a BYU press release. The details may not look very important, but the lack of full understanding of the dust of the planet can make NASA's human missions on Mars very dangerous.

"Mars dust is important for Mars weather," Professor Aaron Hawkins, and chair of BYU's engineering department, told KSL.com. "It's also important for any pilots or unmanned missions on the planet, because dust can hamper the instruments."

The dust is so rich in the Mars atmosphere as the water is in the Earth, leading to massive dust storms that can last months and cover a vast part of the surface of the planet, according to the press release. This creates major problems for the human journey to Mars, because if Martian dust gets into space or sources of oxygen for astronauts, serious health risks could become available. "Martian dust sticks to the solar panels, as we have learned from the robots we sent to Mars," said Wood Chiang, an assistant in BYU's engineering department. "When adhering to solar panels, they reduce the energy production from solar activities. One of our robots was killed because the dust covered all solar panels.

The team includes Chiang and Hawkins, engineers, and graduate students Yixin Song, Jace Rozsa and Elaura Gustafson, according to the press. release. They create a PCB mass spectrometer specializing in determining the charge, mass and velocity of Martian dust particles.

"Knowing the size, you can predict how this dust will behave and shape it better here on Earth," Hawkins explained. "Knowing the charge contained in each particle, you know how it will affect both the instruments and how much they will come together."

Hawkins added that spectrometers are common instruments used to measure particle composition. they will respond to an electric field because they have some positive or negative charge to them, "says Hawkins. "If you put this charge in an electric field, it will accelerate, slow down, move back and forth … We can manipulate the path of these particles; and based on where they go, we can tell you something about their mass or the amount of their fee. We essentially create a series of electrodes that set an electric field, and then the particles enter this field. "

Because the charge is so small, the team has created a microchip to expand it to a level where it can be measured by a feedback capacitor approximately 1

000 times smaller than the shelf models, according to the press release. The small, robust microchip consumes very little energy, making it desirable for future use of NASA.

A barrier to researchers is how to actually test the spectrometer without having Martian particles with them here on Earth, according to the press release. As a solution, they create their own charged particles to imitate those on Mars.

Researchers begin by suspending the powders in a liquid and then spraying them into a high electric field to evaporate the entire solvent leaving only the powdered grain. According to the press release

"Obtaining particles that really represent something, what you find on Mars is harder than it sounds, "Hawkins said. "We are currently trying to use something called" electro-spray "where you put the high-voltage particles in a solvent and throw them out of a needle, and there are other ways to do it in parallel." optimists that their instrument will be used for unmanned missions on Mars to prepare for the first human journey expected to occur by 2033, according to the press release

"This work is funded by NASA and is part of a program in which we propose to build an instrument and that they would use for real missions, "Hawkins said," We are at an early stage, but NASA has a process where such tools can stand up for a mission. "As you progress and do something more ready for a mission, NASA will provide additional funding and will then include it in its real-life startup and maintenance plans. "

Hawkins added that they have many problems to solve before the device is ready for a mission on Mars, but hopes to he sees it successful in the coming years.

"I'm really excited about this project, and NASA is working very hard to put people on Mars," Chiang said. "I think 50 years ago they did a great job putting men on the moon, and I think it's time for men to be on Mars. We will do this within this generation. "

Kara McDonald

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