Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA
As the U.S. lands a craft on the Moon for the first time since 1972 and the Apollo program, technology built by Louisiana State University students — in close collaboration with industry partners — will report back from the lunar surface.
The Tiger Eye 1 research mission is part of a multi-disciplinary university-industry collaboration to make future space travel safer for people and equipment by providing insight into the complex radiation environment in space. LSU’s radiation detection device is now officially on the manifest for the broader IM-1 mission, the first in a series of commercial flights (and the first-ever to land on the Moon) that will bring science and technology to the lunar surface through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
The IM in IM-1 stands for Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company that holds NASA and commercial payload contracts for two separate lunar landings (IM-1 in the first quarter of 2022 and IM-2 in the fourth quarter) to help pave the way for the Artemis program, which will put the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon as early as 2024. The CLPS flights are all uncrewed and will make use of rovers and robots to conduct science experiments and test technologies in different areas on the lunar surface.
Intuitive Machines is providing the vehicle, communication network, and mission operations center for LSU’s device to safely land on the Moon and effectively conduct research. IM’s Nova-C lunar lander will be launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The solar-battery-driven vehicle will spend two weeks on the surface before succumbing to lunar night, not far from Tranquility Base where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the Moon in July 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission.
Through its medical and health physics program and the SpaRTAN lab, LSU helps agencies and companies understand background radiation in space, one of the hard limits on how much time people and equipment can spend beyond the Earth’s protective magnetic field. Understanding the types and amounts of radiation that exist on the Moon will be key to establishing a sustainable human presence on Earth’s nearest neighbor as well as traveling to Mars. The data brought back by Tiger Eye 1 will further the SpaRTAN lab’s research on improved radiation shielding in both materials and design.
The two main barriers for human spaceflight are propulsion (how to get there faster) and how to protect humans and equipment from radiation. Without the shielding and radiation modeling LSU is helping to develop, the radiation effects on crews and equipment during deep space exploration would be catastrophic. The radiation data obtained on IM-1 could change the equation of what’s possible in space. Commercial off-the-shelf technology could be used to lessen the dependency on expensive, overdesigned solutions.
LSU’s Tiger Eye 1 mission was enabled in partnership with Geocent, a New Orleans-based company that provides solutions for the space, defense, and homeland security communities. Geocent chose LSU as a research and development partner to test some of their radiation shielding, which led to an opportunity to share physical space onboard IM-1.
The LSU radiation detection device is currently being customized. The physical device casing will occupy a space about the size of an iPhone 12. The challenge is working within strict limitations on mass, volume, power, bandwidth, and time as well as communicating with and controlling devices from Earth.
LSU is working with ADVACAM, a company based in the Czech Republic, on adapting radiation detection hardware (similar to a USB flash drive) that it has previously supplied for the International Space Station (ISS). But while you can bring laptops and off-the-shelf equipment to ISS to help integrate and connect such devices, that isn’t possible on IM-1. Much of the work on Tiger Eye 1 lies in software development and coding (and possibly some wiring and soldering) to make sure the data from the sensor “makes sense” to the device, which must be able to communicate with the main Intuitive Machines flight computer to receive time stamps, temperature readings, and other critical data.
Data will be collected by ADVACAM MiniPIX TPX3 miniature cameras recording traces of individual particles of space radiation. The detectors have undergone NASA’s highly rigorous certification process for use in extreme space conditions; however, they will face a new challenge. They will not fly inside a spaceship like on the ISS but will be located on the module’s external arm, where they will be exposed to huge temperature cycles with fast transitions from shade to direct sunlight. Temperature differences will be more than 100 °C. The detector has to be robust but remain sensitive at the same time.
The LSU team is setting up a Tiger Eye 1 ground control center on the main campus and hopes to be able to receive raw data as well as issue commands to the device while it is traveling through space and on the lunar surface. If the team is no longer able to communicate with the device, it will need to tell the lander to perform a power cycle to reboot the device or change other settings.
Intuitive Machines will bring an ice drill and use a small drone ship to explore hard-to-reach areas on the Moon and test the Nokia 4G LTE network, while LSU is considering sending up a larger and more robust radiation detector, based on lessons to be learned on IM-1. When it comes to shielding materials and design, the vast spectrum of radiation in space doesn’t lend itself to easy or particularly intuitive solutions. You can’t just add more shielding or encase everything in lead. Not only would this add too much mass and cost, but shielding in the wrong place could also slow down the radiation particles to the extent that they’d get “trapped” inside the space vehicle or the human body, causing devastating damage to astronauts and equipment. Some-times minimal shielding is the safest option and the LSU research will continue to help the aerospace industry find out exactly where, when, and how to effectively use it. As the Tiger Eye 1 team works to get everything ready for launch, the LSU SpaRTAN lab will be flying yet another radiation detector on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission using their Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft. It will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and be the world’s first all-commercial, all-civilian mission to space. It will circle the Earth before making a soft water landing off the Florida coast.