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Hermes Brings Asteroid Research to the ISS

Charlie Plain |
May 1, 2019

SpaceX CRS-17 is scheduled to launch hundreds of pounds of science materials to the international Space Station no earlier than Fri. May 3, 2019. This story highlights the Hermes Facility, one of the projects along for the ride.

Asteroid researchers on Earth recently gained a powerful new way to remotely conduct experiments aboard the International Space Station. The device, called the Hermes Facility, is an experiment station that can communicate with scientists on the ground and give them the ability to control their studies almost as if they were in space themselves. Hermes was carried to the space station aboard the SpaceX CRS-17 ferry flight.

Hermes is the creation of Dr. Kristen John, a researcher with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). John and her research team developed Hermes as a way to study how samples of simulated asteroid particles behave in microgravity and the vacuum of space.

Researching Regolith

The material John is studying with Hermes is called asteroid regolith. The term is used for the layer of dusty, fragmented debris covering asteroids and moons created by impacts from meteorites and other forces on their surfaces.

“We need to study this material to understand how it’s going to affect our spacecraft that interact with the surface of asteroids, or the joints of spacesuits worn by astronauts one day exploring them,” John said.

Studying regolith also helps scientists understand the underpinning of how asteroids, moons and planets, such as our Earth, developed.

Messages from Space
John and her team designed Hermes to connect to the station’s existing systems – including communications – so that it could be completely monitored and controlled from the ground. Hermes is also made to be easily adapted to many types of experiments.

“We named it for the Greek messenger god, Hermes, because we’ve designed a system that can deliver research data and experiments back forth between space and scientists,” John said.

Hermes is roughly the size of a large desktop computer and the experiments themselves are housed inside a removable carrier, called a cassette, which slides into Hermes.

John was assisted in designing and building Hermes by a team consisting of JSC, the University of Central Florida and researchers and students affiliated with Texas A&M University through a partnership with Texas Space, Technology, Applications and Research.

The JSC team included Kenton Fisher, an ARES engineer who led the development of Hermes’ vacuum system, and project manager Veronica Saucedo with the Project Management and Integration Office of the Engineering Directorate.

“There is no greater satisfaction than seeing this project through from concept to delivery,” Saucedo said. “I’m excited to see how the capability of this game-changing facility impacts asteroid, planetary science and exploration research.”

The Experiment
The space station crew will install Hermes into an EXPRESS rack aboard the lab.

“After that, the crew will flip a few switches, and we’ll basically take over from there,” John said.

John’s experiments for Cassette-1 are housed inside four clear, 10-inch plastic tubes containing materials meant to simulate regolith. Three of the tubes hold different-sized particles of silica glass. The fourth tube has a meteorite simulant which is a blend of variously sized particles, formulated especially for the experiment by Professor Addie Dove and students from the University of Central Florida.

“This experiment gave our students a chance to work on hardware that will actually fly on the ISS,” Dove said. “They had to understand the experiment design and fabrication cycle, how to meet specifications and produce a quality product. This is much different than what they have to do in classes and provides valuable experience.” 

Over the coming months, John and her team will be watching to see how the regolith particles behave in response to long duration exposure to microgravity, and to changes in pressure, temperature, shocks from impacts and other forces. Once the regolith experiments inside Cassette-1 are complete, it will be removed from Hermes, returned to Earth and replaced with a new cassette of different experiments.

Charlie Plain
International Space Station Program Science Office
Johnson Space Center