Tiny stones can move at speeds up to 80 km/s. According to Bruno Sarli, a NASA engineer, at these speeds, even dust can cause damage to a spacecraft.
Sarli leads a team developing special shields to protect the Mars Earth Entry System from micrometeorites and space debris.
Scientists recently tested the shields at the Remote Hypervelocity Testing Laboratory at NASA’s White Sands Test Site in New Mexico.
The laboratory uses gas pistols to accelerate objects to high speeds, simulating the impact of micrometeorites and orbital debris on the spacecraft’s shield.
At the first stage, gunpowder is used as a propellant, as in standard weapons. The second stage uses highly compressed hydrogen gas, which pushes the gas into a smaller tube, increasing gun pressure.
The pressure becomes so high that it would flatten the building to the ground if there was an explosion. “That’s why we are in the bunker during the test,” Sarli said.
The laboratory is equipped with four two-stage light gas pistols: two 0.17 caliber (0.177″ bore diameter), one 0.50 caliber (0.50″ bore diameter) and one 1″ caliber (1.00″ bore diameter). The engineers spent three days preparing for the one-second experiment.
They used a two-stage gas gun that shoots small pellets at a speed of 5 to 6.5 m/s. The speed of the balls is high, but the micrometeorites travel faster through space, so the team relies on computer models that mimic the actual speeds of the micrometeorites.
Mars Sample Return is a campaign to retrieve rock and sediment samples that the Perseverance rover has been collecting on the surface of Mars.
Bringing these samples back to Earth would allow scientists to study them using state-of-the-art laboratory instruments.
The campaign is one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of space flight. The Goddard Center is currently designing and developing a “Capture, Hold, and Return System” that will bring test tubes of Martian samples to Earth.
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