NASA requests a high spatial-resolution, wide-area scan of lunar soil composition, especially within impact craters, that may contain a higher concentration of usable material such as 3He and H2O. Soil with a higher hydrogen content will tend to slow down (i.e., thermalize) neutrons rather than absorb them, thereby depressing the fast and epithermal components of the neutron energy distribution while enhancing the thermal component.
The primary objective of the proposed effort will focus on the integration of a neutron detector onto a space-worthy mobile platform. An integrated mobile platform provides numerous benefits compared to a stationary instrument, in that it provides greater area coverage and high spatial resolution data. The mobile platform chosen is the CubeRover, currently being developed by Astrobotic Technology, Inc. under a Phase II SBIR contract 80NSSC18C0037. The CubeRover was selected due to its light weight and ability to support the power and data requirements of the neutron detector. The proposed neutron detector is the Omni-Directional Multichannel Neutron Energy Identification Instrument (OMNI), which is currently being developed by Radiation Detection Technologies, Inc. under Phase I SBIR contract 80NSSC18P1952. Whereas both ongoing SBIR contracts are focused on the development of a standalone system, the proposed effort will focus on integrating both systems together (called NeuRover) to provide a mobile neutron detector for lunar volatile characterization and mapping. Furthermore, the resulting technology can be infused into several lunar missions and deployed at numerous locations on the lunar surface. The NeuRover can effectively look for water ice on the lunar surface, which allows for unmatched vertical and lateral spatial resolution.
A compact, low-power NeuRover would yield benefits to the NASA mission beyond the search for hydrogen below the lunar surface as proposed. A major hurdle to overcome to ensure the success of the human exploration of space and extraterrestrial bodies is to limit the radiation dose to astronauts. A commercially-available NeuRover system could help to understand these issues to a greater degree of accuracy than existing technologies, by inexpensively roving in unknown areas before human astronauts are sent in for missions.
An application for a roving (autonomous), robust neutron energy spectrometer would be in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. It is possible that with the increase in nuclear fuel and waste storage, and along with the unfortunate radiological accidents at various sites, e.g., Hanford, Fukushima Daiichi, NeuRover’s remote roving capability may be beneficial for inspecting these sites.