Extraterrestrial surface simulation lab launches new chapter in space research

Exterres Lab launch

Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo being shown the University of Adelaide’s new Exterres Lab. L-r: Nick Larcombe, Robotics, Remote Operations and ISRU, ASA; Professor Anton Middelberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), The University of Adelaide; Enrico Palermo, Head of the Australian Space Agency; Professor Volker Hessel, Research Director, Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources, University of Adelaide and Professor Scott Smith, School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering, University of Adelaide.

Today, Thursday 24 March, the University of Adelaide launched its new Exterres Laboratory. The lab, which is the first of its kind in Australia, is an off-Earth surface testing environment for space technology like rovers, which are destined for the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Extraterrestrial Environmental Simulation (Exterres) Laboratory, located on North Terrace campus, provides a crucial stepping stone in developing technology required to accompany humans back into deep space. In this new lab, researchers can simulate and test equipment in both lunar and Martian surface environments using a highly controlled and monitored experimental setting.

The lab will help experts develop technology that can withstand the harsh effects of regolith – the layer of loose material covering the bedrock of a planet – and how best to tackle the engineering challenges of constructing long-term dwellings on other planets for the next generation of space explorers.

“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.”

“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.”Associate Professor John Culton

The Australian government aims to grow significantly its space sector from around 10,000 jobs and a market size of $3.9 billion to up to another 20,000 jobs and $12 billion by 2030, with further jobs and economy growth from spill over effects. The global space industry is expected to be worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion by 2030.

University of Adelaide’s Associate Professor John Culton, who is Professor of Off-Earth Resources and Director of the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources, led 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,” he said.

“Space hardware will be tested in the lab’s Regolith Thermal Vacuum Chambers (rTVAC), a 9 m2 sealed lunar regolith simulant pit and a 27 m2 sand pit which can be tailored to simulate specific off-world environments.”

The rTVACs represent a globally rare piece of surface testing kit. These highly unique devices will allow our 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, said Associate Professor Culton.

“Blackout screens and solar light sources 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 also include a high-power laser, a vacuum furnace, box furnace and a large-scale 3-D 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.

Robotics and Automation is one of the priority areas of the Australian Space Agency, and the Agency has 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.

Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo said: “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.

“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.

“It 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.”

Students who aim to be future leaders in the space sector are already testing their skills in competitions such as the Australian Rover Challenge, which runs from 25 – 27 March on North Terrace campus.

The University of Adelaide is also planning a purpose-built off-world analogue 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. 

Tagged in featured story, lunar, moon, Mars, space, Enrico Palermo, Exterres, research