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Australian university sets up space lab

Exterres Lab to provide most advanced off-Earth simulations Metal Tech News - March 25, 2022


Last updated 3/25/2022 at 10:51am

University Adelaide Exterres Laboratory space exploration simulation Australia

University of Adelaide/David Elliot

From the 25th to the 27th of March, the University's Maths Lawns will be transformed into a lunar landscape for the challenge, with sandy loam, rocks, craters, a life-sized space lander, solar panel arrays and other space props.

The University of Adelaide has launched Exterres Laboratory, the first of its kind in Australia for an off-Earth surface testing environment for space technology such as rovers – which are destined for the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Extraterrestrial Environmental Simulation (Exterres) Laboratory, located on North Terrace campus, will provide a crucial stepping-stone in developing the technology required to accompany humankind back into deep space.

With it, researchers will be able to simulate and test equipment in both lunar and Martian surface environments using a highly controlled and monitored experimental setting.

"The Exterres Laboratory represents a significant milestone in the University of Adelaide's space research capability and our ability to work more closely with the space sector," said University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj. "It is an advanced addition to the University's engineering infrastructure that will underpin several expanding research areas and provides a testing and development facility which will be accessible to companies working on new technologies for use off-world."

The Australian government aims to significantly grow its space sector from around 10,000 jobs and a market size of AU$3.9 billion to up to another 20,000 jobs and AU$12 billion by 2030, with further jobs and economy growth from spillover effects.

With the burgeoning efforts to expand exploration and possible resource extraction – such as asteroid mining – the global space industry is expected to be worth between $1 and $3 trillion by 2030.

University of Adelaide Associate Professor John Culton, who is professor of off-earth resources and director of the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources, will lead the project.

"Understanding how technology will perform when exposed to harsh extra-terrestrial environments is critical to supporting long-term human presence in deep space, specifically the Moon and Mars," said Culton. "Space hardware will be tested in the lab's Regolith Thermal Vacuum Chambers (rTVAC), a 9-meter-squared sealed lunar regolith simulant pit and a 27-meter-squared sand pit which can be tailored to simulate specific off-world environments."

The rTVACs represent a globally rare surface testing kit. As a result, these highly unique devices will allow the students, faculty, and industry to test equipment in the combined atmospheric, thermal, and regolith environments found at the lunar south pole and on Mars.

"In addition, the regolith and sand pits are instrumented using a 3D motion capture system that allows detailed analysis of the capabilities of experimental robotics, either remotely controlled from the Exterres Mission Control, or operated autonomously," added Culton. "Blackout screens and solar light can be installed on the pit for trials of computer vision for automated navigation, which is particularly difficult in the off-Earth environment."

The lab's facilities will also include a high-power laser, a vacuum furnace, box furnace, and a large-scale 3D printer. Using the equipment, lunar masonry bricks will be made for use in construction trials of structures including equipment shelters, habitats, roads and landing pads.

Presently, robotics and automation are among the priorities of the Australian Space Agency, with the agency already having reached an agreement with NASA for an Australian designed, built and operated semi-autonomous rover to be included in a future mission to the Moon.

"The Exterres Lab will help fast-track the development of the technologies and processes necessary for Australia to have a sustainable long-term presence on the Moon and beyond," said Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo. "The research undertaken in this facility will make significant contributions to Australia's sovereign capability in off-world infrastructure operations – which aligns with our recently released Robotics and Automation on Earth and in Space Roadmap."

Contributing to the future of space exploration and development, the University of Adelaide held the second Australian Rover Challenge competition, pitting students to put their lunar rovers to the test in a series of missions performed on a re-creation of the surface of the Moon.

From the March 25 to 27, the university's Maths Lawns will be transformed into a lunar landscape for the challenge, with sandy loam, rocks, craters, a life-sized space lander, solar panel arrays and other space props.

University of Adelaide

This event is free and open to anyone who would like to watch the Australian Rover challenge:

Enrico Palermo hopes the Lab and Roadmap "will also inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and other explorers who are currently in our schools and universities to take up a career in space."

The University is also planning a purpose-built off-world analog site at its Roseworthy campus where researchers and industry experts will be able to test technology at full-scale in highly controlled field environments, capable of replicating a range of extraterrestrial and terrestrial settings.


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