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2 Sonoma County scientists win NASA award for designing small payload aimed for the moon

America plans to put astronauts on the moon by 2024, and two Sonoma County scientists helped design a soap bar-sized instrument that will help keep them safe by deploying it on a reconnaissance mission to the rocky spheroid about 239,000 miles away.

The instrument, weighing less than a pound, would piggyback on a moon rover the size of a Roomba vacuum cleaner that would park about 10 miles from a crater and measure the X-rays in the sunlight during the moon’s 50-minute sunset over the crater’s rim.

It’s the brainchild of a four-man team that won $30,000 for submitting a first-place winner in a worldwide competition called “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload.” Whether it actually gets built and flown to the moon in an array of mini rovers starting next year remains to be seen, but its architects already have their reward.

“It was never about the money,” said Phil Jobson, 51, of Santa Rosa, a self-employed electronic engineer who put about 200 hours into the design.

Garrett Jernigan, 70, of Petaluma, a retired Berkeley physicist, admitted he wants his handiwork to reach the moon.

“I’m going to be personally upset if they don’t let us do it,” he said. “We’ll fight for it.”

The other two team members are John Doty, 68, an independent contractor on space projects from Billerica, Massachusetts, and Brian Silverman, 63, a self-employed software development consultant from Montreal.

The device, named Sun Splicer, is an X-ray spectrometer, a common scientific instrument, packed into a case 4 inches square and 2 inches thick. Shrinking it was a challenge, but Jobson said the trickiest part was packaging the instrument to withstand the moon’s daytime heat of about 176 degrees, as well as radiation that would destroy an ordinary computer.

The Sun Slicer exists only on paper and would materialize if NASA commissions the designers to build it at a cost estimated at $600,000, Jernigan said.

X-ray radiation from the sun poses a potential threat to astronauts on the moon’s surface. The Sun Slicer would “provide a safety monitor” for intense radiation accompanying a large solar flare, he said.

X-rays are a component of sunlight, along with visible light that enables humans to see on Earth and other forms of radiation. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs harmful X-rays and gamma rays, but the moon offers no such protection.

Monitoring and recording the radiation environment prior to putting astronauts back on the moon would allow NASA to work out minimum standards for astronaut protective equipment and habitats for them to live in when they are spending extended time there, Jobson said.

Sun Slicer also would perform a scientific mission by revealing the complex physics that occur on the sun’s outer layers, Jernigan said.

Amid a pandemic and a presidential campaign, NASA’s Artemis Program isn’t getting much attention, but the space agency says returning to the moon for the first time since 1972 will be “the shining moment of our generation.”

Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, is the twin sister of Apollo, whose name was applied to the mission that put 12 astronauts on the moon a half-century ago. But the Artemis Program aims at a sustained human presence on the moon, which requires a detailed assessment of the lunar environment and resources that could support life, such as breathable air, water, food and building materials.

The NASA-sponsored design competition, with $160,000 in prizes, attracted 132 entries from 29 countries. Prizes, ranging from $30,000 for first place down to $5,000 for third place, were awarded to 14 projects that included a lunar water snooper, a 3D mineral seeker, a lunar surface energetic neutral analyzer and a dust detector.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing some of these payloads actually get on the moon and start making measurements,” Andrew Shapiro, manager of technology formation with NASA, said last month during a webinar with contest winners. “It’s going to be an exciting couple of years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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