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Planetary exploration

How a Memorial University researcher is helping conquer outer space

By Chad Pelley

A Memorial University researcher has received $150,000 from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for research that is literally out of this world.

The CSA’s Research Opportunities in Space Science program awards only two grants a year under its Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy program. This year, Dr. Liam Morrissey received one of them.

For the last few years, he has been working with multiple space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) on the challenge of conquering the harsh environment of outer space.

Harsh environment

Dr. Morrissey and his team are studying how materials – like those used to build an exploratory spacecraft – interact with the notoriously harsh and poorly understood environment of space.

“On bodies such as the moon and Mercury, materials are constantly exposed to a stream of high energy plasma called the solar wind,” he said. “On Earth, we’re protected by an atmosphere and we see this solar wind as the northern lights. But in space, these solar winds are essentially a beam of high energy atoms that pack enough energy to damage the surfaces they impact.”

At the moment, we don’t have a great understanding of the physics and energetics of what happens during these impacts.

That’s where Dr. Morrissey’s work comes in.

“Memorial is now a collaborating institution on the NASA Lunar Environment and Dynamics for Exploration Research.” — Dr. Liam Morrissey

His team uses an atomistic modelling approach to understand these processes on the scale in which they occur.

“For us to ever have a sustained presence on another planet, we need to better understand how the environment interacts with the things, and people, we send up there.”

As he points out, we haven’t been to the moon since the 1970s.

Working with NASA and ESA

Dr. Morrissey is the only Canadian co-investigator on the ESA’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, for whom he is providing theoretical modelling that can explain observations being made on fly-bys of the famed planet.

Mercury’s close proximity to the sun makes it a challenge to study.

In addition, he worked for two years with NAS’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a post-doctoral researcher, studying the interaction of solar wind on exposed surfaces and materials. This work was applied to both Mercury and Earth’s moon.

He is currently working on several NASA programs.

“For example, Memorial is now a collaborating institution on the NASA Lunar Environment and Dynamics for Exploration Research,” he said. “We work with NASA scientists to help them understand experimental observations, to provide valuable inputs into global models and to provide modelling support for various theories.”

‘Bringing it all back home’

Dr. Morrissey is enthused about the “two-way street” being developed between Memorial University and NASA.

“As a faculty member, I’m bringing these collaborations back home to Memorial. This will allow me to really start setting up Memorial as a hub for theoretical research on space weathering and space plasma.”

He’s now able to send graduate students of his own to NASA and co-supervise them as they avail of some of the most advanced experimental equipment in the world.

Dr. Morrissey credits growing up as a Newfoundlander with his interest in the study of harsh environments.

“I mean Newfoundland is fundamentally one of the harshest environments out there, so it only felt natural!”

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