NASA fires micro bullets at Mars sample return orbiter’s meteoroid shield

NASA engineers fire micro-bullets at squares of meteoroid shielding material that will protect a Mars sample return orbiter on its return trip to Earth.

During testing, which takes place at NASA’s remote White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, New Mexico, the shield must withstand being punched by projectiles at such high velocities that if a plane was traveling as fast, it would go from New York to San Francisco. in less than 5 minutes, Dennis Garcia, test engineer at White Sands, said in a statement (opens in a new tab).

These speeds, however, are not yet as fast as those of meteorites and space debris fragments that orbit in space, so engineers must use computer models to simulate actual speeds, which can reach over 50 miles per second (80 kilometers per second). At such speeds, “even dust could damage a spacecraft,” Bruno Sarli, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who oversees the tests, said in the statement.

Related: Mars Sample Return Mission Adds 2 Helicopters and Removes “Recover” Rover

The Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory, where the tests take place, has been serving NASA since the spaceship era, allowing engineers to develop materials that protect the international space stationcommercial crew vehicles and space freighters against impacts from debris and rock fragments in space.

The gun used to fire the space-type micro bullets at the shield material has two stages, the first of which uses conventional gunpowder to propel a projectile. The second stage gives the projectile an extra boost by pushing highly compressed hydrogen gas through a smaller tube like a car piston. The pressure in the gun, the researchers said in the statement, is so high that it would destroy the building if it were to explode.

Engineers found that instead of relying on a thick block of metal to ward off projectiles, the shield provides better protection when made up of multiple thin layers, Sarli said.

The Mars Sample Return The orbiter to be built jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will bring to Earth valuable samples of Martian rocks that NASA perseverance rover is currently collecting on the surface of the planet. The operation will be the first of its kind and will allow scientists for the first time to hold in their hands rocks freshly extracted from another planet. Martian meteorites sometimes fall to Earth, but these rocks have spent millions or billions of years in space and have been weathered by its harsh environment and radiation. Meteorites from Mars are also contaminated with terrestrial life when they fall on our planet, making it difficult for them to find signs of organisms from the Red Planet.

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