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PROVO — A team of BYU researchers have been funded by NASA to create a device helping space scientists better understand dust on Mars and how it could impact human missions to the planet in coming years.
The team, with specialties in chemistry and engineering, have been tasked with measuring the size and electrical charge of dust on Mars, according to a BYU press release. 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 to the weather patterns on Mars,” Aaron Hawkins, professor and chair of the BYU Engineering department, told KSL.com. “It’s also important to any kind of manned or unmanned missions on the planet because dust can interfere with instruments.”
Dust is as abundant in Mars’ atmosphere as water is in Earth’s, resulting in massive dust storms that may last for months and span a massive portion of the planet’s surface, according to the press release. This presents major problems for human travel to Mars, because if Martian dust gets into spacesuits or the oxygen sources for astronauts, serious health risks could become present.
Not only that, but dust can interfere with equipment and spacecrafts. “The Martian dust does tend to stick to solar panels, as we found out from the robots we have sent to Mars,” Wood Chiang, assistant professor in the BYU engineering department, told KSL.com. “When they stick to solar panels, they reduce power generation from solar activities. One of our robots was killed because the dust covered up all of the solar panels.”
The team includes Chiang and Hawkins, both engineering professors, as well as graduate students Yixin Song, Jace Rozsa and Elaura Gustafson, according to the press release. They are creating a mass spectrometer with printed circuit boards specialized to determine the charge, mass and velocity of Martian dust particles.
“By knowing the size, you can predict how that dust will behave and model it better here on Earth,” Hawkins explained. “Knowing the charge contained within each particle, you know how it will affect instruments as well as how much it will clump together.”
Hawkins added that spectrometers are common tools utilized in measuring particle composition.
“Because the particles are charged, they will respond to an electric field because they have some positive or negative charge to them,” Hawkins said. “If you put that charge across an electric field, it will accelerate, decelerate, 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 charge they have. We are essentially creating a series of electrodes that sets an electric field, and then the particles enter that field.”
As the charge is so small, the team created a microchip to amplify it to a level where it can be measured via a feedback capacitor an estimated 1,000 times smaller than shelf models, according to the press release. The small, robust microchip consumes very little power, making it desirable for NASA’s future use.
Creating charged particles for testing
An obstacle faced by the researchers was how to actually test the spectrometer without having Martian particles with them here on Earth, according to the press release. As a solution, they are creating their own charged particles to mimic those on Mars.
The researchers began by suspending dust grains in liquid and then spraying them in a high electric field to evaporate all solvent, leaving only a charged dust grain, according to the press release.
“Getting particles that really represent something you would find on Mars is harder than it sounds,” Hawkins said. “Right now, we are trying to use something called ‘electro-spray,’ where you subject particles to a high voltage in a solvent and eject them out of a needle. There are other ways to do it that we’re pursuing in parallel.”
Researchers are optimistic that their instrument will be utilized on unmanned Mars missions to prepare for the first human trip projected to occur by 2033, according to the news release.
“This work is being funded by NASA and it’s part of a program where we propose to build instruments that they would use for actual missions,” Hawkins said. “We are at a beginning stage, but NASA has a process where instruments like this can move up in mission readiness. As you progress and make something more mission-ready, then NASA will provide further funding and then put it into their plans for actual launch and support.”
Hawkins added that they have a lot of problems to solve before the device will be ready for a mission to Mars, but he hopes to see it successful in coming years.
“I’m really excited about this project, and NASA is working very hard to put people on Mars,” Chiang said. “I think they did a very wonderful job 50 years ago putting men on the moon, and I think it’s now time for men to be on Mars. We will do that within this generation.”