Florida Tech’s ISRU Class Visits NASA’s Swamp Works

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Going to school right down the street from NASA has its perks. First, your guest speakers are super cool researchers and scientists who work on the front lines of space technology, and you get to go on the best field trips.

On Thursday, Dec. 8, Dr. Daniel Batcheldor’s ISRU class or “Living Off the Land in Space” class took advantage of this Florida Tech-NASA connection for a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s Swamp Works.

Students from Dr. Daniel Batcheldor’s ISRU class tour NASA’s Swamp Works program.

The purpose of the ISRU class is to address the problem of sustainability on other planets, particularly Mars. It’s impossible to take everything humans need to live, so researchers must find ways to use as much of the planet’s resources as possible.

“For example, a team of six people for two years on the surface of Mars would need over 60 tons of stuff to keep them alive,” Batcheldor said. “Both NASA’s and Space X’s current vehicles would be able to deliver 20 tons to the surface of Mars.”

NASA scientists acknowledged this problem and started Swamp Works as a grassroots movement after the end of the shuttle program. They saw a need for research in sustainability on Mars and wanted to get back to basics with a more hands-on approach.

So Batcheldor’s students were treated to a tour of the Swamp Works labs by the very researchers and scientists who are working to not only put humans on Mars but to sustain life there.

“There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom looking at pictures,” Batcheldor said. “Now coming on a tour like this, you get to see hands-on. Handling regolith that can be used as a heat shield is very different from seeing a picture and being told about it. It makes it more real.”

Sakhee Bhure, astronomy and astrophysics major, and Victoria Jenne, astrobiology major, hold regolith simulant tested for heat shield use at NASA’s Swamp Works.

Holding charred regolith simulant – or simulated Mars soil – was just the beginning. They also witnessed solar panels embedded with electrodes clearing dust for more efficient power generation, as well as a host of different robots.

Dr. Carlos Calle demonstrates how embedded electrodes can clear dust off panels.

Robots called “Swarmies” are programmed to act like ants to search for minerals and water and bring it back to home base. So instead of using one large robot to collect samples, you can cover more ground with multiple robots working together.

“RASSOR II” was also on display. This mining robot is lightweight and small enough to fit on a rocket but powerful enough to collect tons of regolith to mine for resources. They even peered into the Regolith Test Bin. This giant box holds a simulated lunar landscape complete with an asteroid hanging above.

From labs holding instruments capable of detecting hydrogen and water in Martian soil, to the Mars Atmospheric Processing Module that takes carbon dioxide and hydrogen and turns it into methane to use as propellant, these future physicists saw all the ways NASA is working to be as resourceful as possible for the largest, most complex missions they’ve ever tackled.

“It’s been more than I thought it would be,” Dennis Pickett, astrobiology junior said. “They talked about RASSOR. They talked about the test bin, but it looks a lot more intense than what I expected. NASA knows what they’re doing.”

Matthew Austin, aerospace engineering and astrophysics major, checks out Neil Armstrong’s space suit. “I just have so many questions,” he said.

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Jessica is the Undergraduate Marketing Manager for Florida Institute of Technology. Always on the lookout for cool stories about undergrads doing amazing things.

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