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RS&H Readies Labs for Asteroid Samples at Johnson Space Center

July 11, 2019      

Tags: Science

Render of NASA lab.

Editor’s Note: Since the 1960s, RS&H’s designs for manned and unmanned orbital and suborbital launch facilities, processing buildings, and ground support equipment for NASA have been instrumental in the advancement of space exploration and technology. It has been an honor to serve NASA for more than 50 years, and this latest assignment was one of the most challenging and fascinating efforts to date.

How cutting-edge are the new labs RS&H is designing for NASA’s Johnson Space Center? When going over the equipment list for one of the labs, RS&H architect Michael Vascellaro came across an asteroid procurement cabinet. No manufacturer was listed.

“We didn’t see a manufacturer, so we asked NASA who we needed to contact to find about this equipment,” Vascellaro said. “They told us, ‘We haven’t invented it yet.’”

The labs the RS&H team are designing will serve as curation facilities for pieces of the first asteroid NASA hopes to procure in July 2020 by the OSIRIS-REx mission. The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu and bring at least a 2.1-ounce sample back to Earth for study. The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

OSIRIS-REx launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and is currently orbiting Bennu, detailing the rocky, bumpy service in the midst of a two-year survey of the asteroid. As planned, the spacecraft will return a sample of Bennu to Earth in 2023.

The mission falls under NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division, a division RS&H has been building a relationship with for a couple of years now. What started as a contract for HVAC repairs blossomed into laboratory repairs, and then laboratory design, and then a master plan that will consolidate the divisions from six buildings down to two.

“We really impressed the client and won more work in the buildings,” said RS&H architect Andrea Hook. “After designing labs on the second floor, we began designing labs on the first floor that will assist the mission behind the scenes – labs where NASA will develop methods and tools for studying these asteroid materials when they arrive.”

For the master plan, the RS&H team performed a series of interviews with 14 ARES technical groups, examined and assessed the currently occupied areas distributed across the campus among six buildings that date back to the 1960s. They performed cost estimates and determined how to consolidate the current footprint into effective and efficient spaces suitable for advanced science collaborative groups.

The groups all have diverse, sensitive, expensive equipment and employ specific analytical processes that generate a wide range of requirements that were not necessarily in harmony with each other, Vascellaro said. This required a design procedure that blends the inherent capabilities and limitations of the physical environment with the required protocols for scientific efficacy and the creative thinking that form the foundation for new discovery and problem solving.

ARES takes into account questions like, “What happens when an asteroid hits a piece of metal?” The group often workshops questions and reverse engineers causes of incidents happening at the International Space Station. Used as forensic analysis as well as prediction work, ARES even controls some of the instruments on the Mars rovers.

The study resulted in the consolidation of the ARES Division within two buildings and a projection for the addition of an annex to one of the facilities. The area of the facility plan totaled approximately 81,000 square feet.

From there, RS&H designed approximately 10,600 square feet to contain a new Asteroid Sample Curation clean room suite to house samples returning to earth from the OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa 2 asteroid research missions, a new advanced cleaning suite, and a temporary consolidated home for the Mars research laboratories.

Lisa Pace, the deputy division chief of the ARES group, has lauded RS&H’s work on the labs.

“RS&H’s flexibility and prompt attention to detail kept our projects on schedule and within the cost cap resulting in follow-on work,” she said. “To create advanced curation and cleaning facilities enabling future samples from more asteroids, Mars, moons of Mars, comets and beyond, RS&H has turned these planetary bodies’ unique challenges into opportunities.”

Asteroid curation and storage requires ISO Class 5 laboratories. An ISO class 5 cleanroom is designed to allow no more than 3,520 particles equal to or larger than 0.5 microns per cubic meter of air. To put this in perspective, the human eye cannot see objects less than 50 microns in size.

“It’s a cascade system, getting cleaner and cleaner as you move toward the center of the space,” said architect Scott Coleman. “The samples themselves will be in gloveboxes in the ISO 5 space.”

The facility will be up and running for two years to establish air quality history before introducing the asteroid samples.

“It’s a hard deadline,” Hook said. “There is a rocket going to get this piece of rock, and we have to have everything ready to go.”

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