Phobos, a Mars moon, could be a site to use the “toolbox” being developed in Tucson.


Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute has been awarded a five-year, $5.5 million NASA contract to develop a “toolbox” that will guide scientific investigations of asteroids, moons and planets.

Don’t think shovels and sand-sifters, said planetary scientist Amanda Hendrix, who heads the team of 20 scientists working on the project, called the Toolbox for Research and Exploration, or TREX.

The team will develop computer algorithms and scientific instruments that will allow robotic explorers to make autonomous decisions about what to collect and analyze on the surfaces of bodies they visit — or to inform the robots’ human controllers about where to look for the good stuff.

TREX is part of a larger NASA initiative, called the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, which is building scientific capacity for future exploration of our solar system.

It targets some airless, dusty bodies, such as the Earth’s moon, near-Earth asteroids and the two moons of Mars — Deimos and Phobos. The surfaces of those bodies are covered in dust from eons of collisions, making it tough to discover what might lie beneath, Hendrix said.

TREX scientists will perform laboratory analyses of other-worldly samples under conditions that will be experienced on those bodies, Hendrix said. They will analyze tiny slices of meteorites and rocks returned from the moon in the Apollo era.

They will also test their programs in the field.

“We’ll take a rover out in the field to a couple different sites and test the software to allow instruments on the rover to autonomously select samples,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix said she has identified two “analog” sites that resemble conditions on the target bodies — one near Painted Desert in Northern Arizona and another in the state of Washington. The robotic rover will be supplied by Carnegie Mellon University, one of the partners in the project.

“We’re excited about teaming up with our university partners and having a lot of students involved — getting some fresh blood into the planetary workforce,” she said.

Hendrix completed her graduate studies and did post-doctoral research at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, then spent 12 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before joining the Planetary Science Institute as a senior scientist in 2012.

PSI, based in Tucson, aids scientists unaffiliated with universities or research institutes in obtaining grants for planetary research.

It had revenues of $12.4 million in a fiscal year that ended Jan. 31, 2017, said PSI spokesman Alan Fischer. Fischer said 99 percent of its $12.3 million in grants and contracts came from NASA.

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