When the Apollo 11 astronauts set foot on the Moon, one of their main tasks was to break out a special tool kit that they used for collecting samples of rock and soil for return to Earth. Now the French company Comex is working under an ESA contract to create an updated version to be used by the next generation of lunar explorers and is testing it under simulated lunar conditions.
The famous Moon rocks returned to Earth by the six Apollo landing missions have revolutionized our ideas about the Moon and the origins of the solar system, but collecting these samples was far from easy. The spacesuits worn by the astronauts were essentially personal spaceships designed to recreate the conditions needed to keep the wearer alive. With this as the top priority, other things, like mobility, came a distant second.
As a result, when Neil Armstrong took that small step for man and he collected the Contingency Sample to stick in his pocket just in case the mission was aborted the moment he stepped off the Lunar Module, he couldn't just crouch down and pick up a handful of dust. He had to unship a special tool because he could hardly bend at all.
The same went for the rest of the Apollo missions. The astronauts did a lot of geological work, but most of it involved specially made scoops, rakes, shovels, and other paraphernalia. Fifty years later, technology has made great strides, but the suits worn by the next astronauts to visit the Moon will be nearly as restrictive, so they, too, will need their own tool kits for collecting samples and other jobs.
Based on a three-year Moondive study by Comex, the new tool kit has been tested by divers in the 10-meter-deep (33-ft) Neutral Buoyancy pool at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne. Here the tools, which derived from Apollo versions provided by NASA, could be tested under simulated lunar gravity as the divers performed activities similar to those that astronauts will carry out on the Moon.
The result of these tests has been the development of a more maneuverable solid scoop and tong-tool prototypes. In addition, a new Nearby Equipment Support Trolley (NEST) was created. The latter was tested on the seabed before being merged with the Lunar Evacuation System Assembly (LESA) designed to move injured astronauts, to create a dual-function device.
"By combining the spacewalk expertise of our team with the planetary geological knowledge and skills provided by ESA's Pangaea astronaut training, we have rapidly developed, tested and refined viable prototypes for geological sampling," says ESA head of spacewalk training and Neutral Buoyancy Facility (NBF) operations, Hervé Stevenin. "Having our spacewalk experts become skilled in lunar geology and gain awareness of the scientific requirements of an efficient geological traverse has boosted our understanding of what it will take to collect scientifically relevant samples from the lunar surface. We have been able to combine this knowledge with what we know about the constraints of lunar spacewalks to create prototypes that work for both scientists and astronauts."
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