PROVO – A team of BYU researchers funded by NASA to develop a device that helps space scientists better understand the dust on Mars and how it could affect human missions on the planet in the years to come According to a BYU press release, chemistry and engineering were commissioned to measure the size and electrical charge of dust on Mars. The detail may not seem very important, but a lack of thorough understanding of the planet's dust could make human missions to Mars by NASA very dangerous.
"Dust on Mars is important for the weather patterns on Mars," said Aaron Hawkins, professor and chair of the BYU engineering department, KSL.com said. "It's also important for any kind of manned or unmanned mission on the planet, since dust can disrupt the instruments."
Dust is as common in the Martian atmosphere as water on Earth, resulting in massive dust storms that can take months, spanning a massive portion of the planet's surface, according to the press release. This poses major problems for the human journey to Mars, because when dusty marshes enter space suits or oxygen sources for astronauts, serious health risks can arise.
Not only that, but dust can also disturb the equipment and spacecraft. "The pebble dust is usually attached to solar panels, as we found out from the robots we sent to Mars," said Wood Chiang, assistant professor in the BYU design department, to KSL.com. "If they stick to solar panels, they reduce power generation from solar activities. One of our robots was killed because the dust covered all the solar panels.
The team includes Chiang and Hawkins, both engineering professors, as well as doctoral students Yixin Song, Jace Rozsa, and Elaura Gustafson's publication. They produce a mass spectrometer with printed circuit boards specialized in determining the charge, mass and velocity of martensite dust particles.
"Once you know the size, you can predict how that dust will behave and model it better on Earth." Hawkins explained. "Once you know the charge in each particle, you know how it affects instruments and how much it clumps together."
Hawkins added that spectrometers are common tools for measuring particle composition.
"Because the Particles When charged, they react to an electric field because they have a positive or negative charge," Hawkins said. "If you put this charge over an electric field, it accelerates, slows down, and moves back and forth. We can manipulate the path of these particles. And depending on where they go, we can tell you something about their mass or the amount of their cargo. We essentially create a series of electrodes that set an electric field and then the particles enter this field.
Because the charge is so low, the team created a microchip to reinforce it to a degree that it can be measured. According to the press release, a feedback capacitor is estimated to be 1
One obstacle for the researchers was to actually test the spectrometer here on Earth without carrying any Martian particles, the press release said. As a solution, they create their own charged particles to mimic those on Mars.
The researchers first suspended dust grains in liquids and then sprayed them in a high electric field to evaporate all the solvent leaving only one charged dust grain. According to press release.
"Particles that truly represent what you would find on Mars are more difficult than it sounds," Hawkins said. "Right now we're trying to use a so-called electrospray, which exposes particles in a high-tension solvent and ejects them from a needle. There are other possibilities that we pursue in parallel.
Researchers are optimistic that their instrument will be used in unmanned Mars missions to prepare for the first human journey scheduled for 2033, the press release said.
"This work is funded by NASA and is part of a program in which we propose to build instruments that would be used for actual missions," Hawkins said. "We are in an early stage, but NASA has a process where instruments like this can rise in missionary readiness. As you make progress and get a little better up and running, NASA will provide additional resources and then include them in their plans for the actual launch and actual support.
Hawkins added that many problems had to be solved before the unit would be ready for a mission to Mars, but he hopes it will be successful in the years to come.
"I am very excited about this project and NASA is working very hard to get people to Mars," Chiang said. "I think they did a wonderful job 50 years ago and brought men to the moon, and I think it's time for men to be on Mars now, and we'll do that in this generation."