One has experience working with robots in space. The other two have experience in areas associated with mining, including mineral processing and rock mechanics. Together, these three researchers from West Virginia University will work to create a system that will provide NASA data on asteroids.

“Our collaboration between departments led to this unique research proposal that combines robot kinematics and rock mechanics,” said Thomas Evans, a research assistant professor of aerospace engineering. “Receiving the grant for this proposal is an excellent opportunity to showcase the research capability at WVU.”

Evans is the research program manager at the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center in Fairmont, which is active in research that supports robotic space operations and supporting technology for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The trio, which also includes Aaron Noble and Brijes Mishra, assistant professors of mining engineering, received a grant to create a robotic system for NASA that measures the strength, density and structure of asteroids. These measurements can then be used to design systems for asteroid capture, excavation and redirection, all of which are goals of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.

“Since scientists have not captured and analyzed asteroids in space, we simply do not know for certain the rock strength or characteristics of specific asteroids,” Noble said. “This system will provide a way to make these measurements in space without significantly altering the asteroid.”

The team will evaluate simulated asteroid material using methods widely applied in laboratory and field settings on Earth and assess the limits of these tools in space-like conditions.

“Determining the behavior of rock under different conditions is something that mining engineers deal with every day on Earth, so the opportunity to determine asteroid behavior is naturally exciting and challenging” Mishra said.

NASA’s Early State Innovations Space Technology Research Grants program is designed to accelerate the development of unique, disruptive or transformational technologies that support the future science and exploration needs of NASA, other government agencies and the commercial space sector.

“With one of the oldest and most renowned mining engineering programs in the country and a state-of-the-art space robotics research center, WVU is a natural fit for this type of research,” Noble said.