Scientists test lunar landing pad

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Researchers at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems say it’s back to the drawing board after a test Sunday showed its lunar landing pad’s interlocking mechanism wasn’t quite up to par.

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Researchers at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems say it’s back to the drawing board after a test Sunday showed its lunar landing pad’s interlocking mechanism wasn’t quite up to par.

Minutes after the test — a four-second rocket engine firing aimed at testing the pad under pressure — about 30 percent of the 100 basalt pavers were strewn from their original, puzzle-like placement, PISCES Project Manager Rodrigo Romo estimated.

Romo, along with about 20-some observers which included students, PISCES officials and media invited to the event held at a Keaau rock quarry, milled around the testing site minutes after the burn to survey damage up close.

“Clearly we got more displacement than we were hoping for, but it was a failure test,” Romo said, carefully eyeing the pad. “We just need to go back and look at the interlocking design a little closer.”

Researchers hope the lunar landing pad sheds light on various construction methods for future Mars and lunar missions. NASA has announced recently a goal to send humans to Mars by 2035. Landing pads would be key in such missions, PISCES officials said, because they allow spacecraft to take off and land without ejecting debris and causing damage.

“It’s not a big deal if you go to land once and you’re the only thing there,” PISCES Executive Director Rob Kelso said. “But if we’re looking at making settlements and setting up industries (for example) to mine the water on the Moon for rocket propellant, then you have to … send things back and forth many times in that area. So you’ve got to have a landing pad to keep the dust down.”

The pad was completed last year using robots and rovers. Its construction could potentially be replicated in space, because it’s made out of basalt mined from a quarry near Hilo and near identical material exists on Mars and the Moon.

The pavers were held together like puzzle pieces, Kelso said, rather than with a grout material, such as what’s commonly use to secure tiling in kitchens. Kelso said researchers assumed “there might be some lifting” but “didn’t expect this much.”

“Our next step would be to look at the design (to examine) the interlocking and also (look at) grouting materials,” Kelso said. “But this is why we test — we build it, do an engine, see how well it works, and then see what we need to do different.”

The lunar landing pad was a partnership between PISCES, NASA and Honeybee Robotics. Other entities including Hawaii County’s Department of Research and Development contributed funding. Rocketeers flew in from Oahu and the mainland on Sunday to help conduct the test.

A portion of the pad will be sent to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for testing. Remaining pad will continue to be examined for a more detailed analysis of how well it stood up.

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“Right now we’re really just digesting what happened,” Romo said. “There’s so much we need to back and analyze — the materials, the soil and displacement pattern that followed.”

“But no — it was fun,” he added with a grin.

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