Pitt Professor Helped Humanity Make ‘One Small Step,’ Keeps Space Research Going

a black and white photo of Hapke holding a small tube of moon rocksWhen the Apollo 11 crew returned from humanity’s first successful mission to the moon nearly 50 years ago, retired University of Pittsburgh Professor Bruce Hapke was one of the first scientists to get his hands on a moon rock. This was a fitting honor because his work as a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University from 1960-67 helped NASA engineer the boots for Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.

“I watched Armstrong step onto the surface and was delighted to see he made a footprint, and the surface was compressible. It was exactly what I had predicted several years earlier,“ Hapke said.

That may seem like an odd victory, but at the time, the surface was a mystery.

“The problem was,” he explained, “nobody knew what the lunar surface was like. Some people thought it was a relatively smooth variety of lava and there wouldn’t be any problems operating on it. Other people thought it was a very rough type of lava and it would be very difficult to walk on.”

“I did a lot of studies on the way the moon reflects light into different angles. From these studies, I concluded that the lunar surface was covered with a very fine-grain, porous powder. For the first time, NASA had something solid to go on in the design of their landing vehicles, roving vehicles, wheeled vehicles and space suit boots.”

Today, as the nation gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 88-year old Hapke is still studying the cosmos. He works with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Team studying images received from the unmanned spacecraft, which was launched in 2009 to orbit the moon to find the best place to build a lunar base.

Rock of ages

When Hapke was hired at Pitt in 1967, his goal was to understand why lunar soil only reflected about 7% of the sunlight that hit its surface. His earlier research had already hypothesized that the soil was created by meteorites pulverizing solid moon rocks over the course of billions of years. So why was the product of a moon rock that was pulverized to powder in a lab on Earth so much more reflective than what’s on the moon’s surface?

He teamed up with planetary geology professor William Cassidy, who was an expert in studying rocks with electron microscopes. They discovered that upon impact, meteorites pulverized moon rock into the powdery soil, but also melted and vaporized the rock in ways that created tiny particles of light-absorbing, metallic iron that coated the soil.

Without that coating, Hapke said, the moon would “probably be 10 times as bright as it is. So bright you could almost read a newspaper by the light of the full moon.”

He and Cassidy proposed the theory in 1975, but the iron particles that proved them right weren’t discovered until the year 2000, when an electron microscope powerful enough to observe it was created. To honor the planetary scientist, the research team responsible for finding the minerals named them Hapkeite. Another colleague named an asteroid after Hapke to recognize his theory surrounding the moon’s brightness.

Hapke’s arrival at Pitt built upon a legacy of cosmological research and innovation that began as early as 1867, when Pitt astronomy Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley used observations of the stars in motion to establish the Allegheny Time Standard, which became the model for U.S. time zones.

Bringing together space expertise at Pitt

Today’s University, meanwhile, is in the midst of a grassroots effort to combine space research from a range of departments into a centralized institute.

Alan George, the Ruth and Howard Mickle Endowed Chair and the Department Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, said he arrived at Pitt from the University of Florida in January 2017 with “my family, 14 graduate students and a truck full of equipment” used for space research.

“You might say that on Dec. 31, 2016, there was a leading space group at Florida. The very next day, that group was at Pitt,” he said.

Since that time, his team at the National Science Foundation Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC) has completed two computer systems that were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) and is working on a third system, all of which are part of NASA and the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP).

“Computers are the future astronauts and the heart and soul of anything you do in space,” said George. “Many of the students here grew up wanting to be astronauts. Since we’re not going to be astronauts, the next best thing — and in some ways the better thing — is to be working on research and technology that will fly in space.”

George has also been on a mission to collaborate with University faculty. The third STP project features the work of Ryad Benosman, a professor of ophthalmology in the School of Medicine who specializes in neuromorphic vision sensors and neural processors. Neuromorphic vision and associated computation rely upon sensors and processors with functions inspired by how the human brain works. His sensor will be interfaced with a new SHREC space computer to create the first space-grade, neuromorphic, event-driven system that reacts to activity in ways that are similar to the human eye for applications in space situational awareness.

The new system is scheduled for delivery from Pitt to NASA in December 2020, for a launch scheduled in April 2022.

a large rectangular gold object with two lenses poking out of a corner and Pitt script embossed on topMichael Ramsey, a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, is founder of the Image Visualization and Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory, which studies the geology, topographic changes, mineral deposits and lava flows of the moon and Mars by analyzing wavelengths of energy. Ramsey is a member of NASA’s study panel for the Deepspace Lunar Gateway — a plan to create a space station in the lunar orbit to serve as a landing point between the moon and the Earth — and a science team member on three of NASA’s thermal infrared instruments. He is also the last remaining planetary researcher in his department, which was the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences during Hapke’s time.

Ramsey hasn’t formally teamed up with George for a project, but said George’s outreach effort is encouraging excitement surrounding space research on campus again.

“If you have researchers doing active planetary science, it’s an amazing grab for kids and the public. Everyone wants to see new pictures from Mars or new results from the Moon,” he said.

George noted a recent joint award by NASA to the School of Pharmacy and the Swanson School to support undergraduate space research projects for potential deployment on the ISS as the latest example of multidisciplinary collaboration on space research. He ultimately hopes all faculty with an interest in the great beyond can come together under a formal institute designed to promote their work and forge new partnerships.

“Now we have the School of Medicine, School of Pharmacy, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering interacting and, in some cases, collaborating, on space research. And we have only scratched the surface,” George said. “There must be many more faculty and students at Pitt, either doing space research or highly interested if the right opportunity came along.”