Micrometeorites pose a potential hazard to any space mission, including NASA’s Mars Sample Return. The small rocks can travel up to 50 miles per second. At these speeds, “even dust can damage a spacecraft,” said Bruno Sarli, a NASA engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Sarli leads a team designing shields to protect NASA’s Mars Earth Entry System from micrometeorites and space debris. He recently traveled to a NASA lab designed to safely mimic dangerous effects to test the team’s shields and computer models.
The Remote Hypervelocity test lab at NASA’s White Sands test facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, away from residents and surrounded by sand dunes, has supported every manned spaceflight program, from the Space Shuttle to Artemis. The lab also supports testing for the International Space Station, Commercial Crew, and Commercial Resupply programs.
The lab uses two-stage light gas cannons to accelerate objects to speeds that simulate the impact of micrometeorite and orbital debris on spacecraft shielding. The first stage uses gunpowder as a propellant like a standard pistol does. The second stage uses highly compressed hydrogen gas that pushes gas into a smaller tube, increasing pressure in the gun, like a car piston. The gun’s pressure becomes so high that it would level the building if it exploded. “That’s why we hung out in the bunker during the test,” Sarli said.
NASA’s Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory is equipped with four two-stage light gas cannons; two 0.17-caliber (0.177-inch bore diameter), one .50-caliber (0.50-inch bore diameter), and one 1-inch (1.00-inch bore diameter) gun in the facility. The 1-inch range is 160 feet long, from gunpowder breech to the end of the target chamber outside.
Engineers spent three days preparing a one-second experiment. They used the lab’s medium high-pressure (50-caliber range) two-stage light gas cannon that shoots tiny pellets from 16 to 22 feet per second. “At that speed, you could travel from San Francisco to New York in five minutes,” said Dennis Garcia, the .50-caliber test lead at White Sands.
Although the speed of the pellet is high, micrometeorites travel six to seven times faster in space. As a result, the team relies on computer models to simulate the actual velocities of micrometeorites. The slower speed will test their computer model’s ability to simulate effects on their shield designs and allow the team to study the material response to such energy.
Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission campaign designed to retrieve scientifically selected samples of rock and sediment that the Perseverance rover collects on the surface of Mars. Bringing those samples to Earth will allow scientists to study them using the most advanced lab instruments — those that will exist in the next decade and those that will last for decades to come. The campaign is one of the most ambitious efforts in space history, involving multiple spacecraft, multiple launches, and multiple government agencies. Goddard is currently designing and developing the Capture, Containment and Return system that would bring the Mars sample tubes back to Earth.
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