On Tuesday, July 19th the Academites joined other interns on a tour of the Simulated Lunar OPEerations (SLOPE) facility. One aspect that especially intrigued the Academites was getting to see Cameron’s workspace, as he spent most of his time in this facility working on bulk solid material handling. Cameron gave the Academites the inside scoop saying that on some days the facility was fully air conditioned, and on others it a less pleasurable building to work. Fortunately and to the pleasure of everyone on the tour, it was one of those cooler days.
The tour was conducted by SLOPE researcher Tim Bowan, who began by explaining the history of the facility and its most recent projects. The lab space was first constructed six years ago, when agency goals focused strongly on returning to the moon. In order to move more efficiently on the lunar surface, NASA Glenn decided to research terramechanics and wheel design. Terramechanics is a field of study that focuses on the interface between an object and the soil beneath it. Studying these interactions, researchers can better design wheel structures for load, traction, and lifespan.
Wheel design is inherently different on the Earth and moon because of differences in regolith. One of the main dissimilarities is particle size and shape; lunar soil is much finer and coarser than its Earth based counterpart. To run simulations, SLOPE uses a simulant material in a series of 20’ x 40’ x 1’ beds. At the beginning of the program, scientists tried to borrow the mockup Apollo lunar rover wheels from the Smithsonian; however, historians there didn’t like the idea of potentially damaging one of their prize exhibits. Instead, researchers at Glenn followed archived technical blueprints and even called in technicians from Goodyear who built the first and real set of lunar wheels. With these rebuilt wheels, scientists at Glenn were able to better understand lunar terramechanics and essentially re-design the wheel for more efficiency. They currently work with Goodyear and various universities, further researching wheel design.