Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works – Developing New Tools for Deep Space Exploration

Swamp Works

Swamp Works

Swamp Works

Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Works is a hands-on, lean development environment for innovation following the philosophies originally pioneered in Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works and Werner von Braun's development shops. The Swamp Works establishes rapid, innovative, and cost-effective exploration mission solutions through a highly-collaborative, “no walls,” approach, leveraging partnerships across NASA, industry, and academia. The goal of Swamp Works is to accelerate innovation for NASA and for Earth-benefit, from the idea stages, through development, straight into application.  Iterative testing is performed in early stages to quickly drive design improvements. This rapid-development approach supports NASA’s mission is to provide government and commercial space ventures with technologies they need for working and living on the surfaces of the moon, planets, and other bodies in our solar system. Current capabilities include both facilities and world-class expertise spanning the Science and Technology Projects Division at KSC, including Applied Physics, Applied Chemistry, Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations, Cryogenics, Electrostatics and Surface Physics, Regolith Activities Testing, and for Robotics Integration, Checkout and Assembly, Corrosion Technology, and Advanced Materials and Polymer Science.

Staffed with a mixture of engineers, physicists, and chemists, the labs use a “make it, test it, and improve it” model of work in which projects often undergo several generations of builds, each an inexpensive attempt to improve on the one before. The research labs maintain continuity of knowledge between generations of designs by having the same team work on every successive generation together. Rather than looking for incremental advances, Swamp Works research teams strive for quantum leaps through rapid prototyping and experimentation. Open collaboration among researchers allows everyone to learn from each other and ask questions during a technology’s development. The Swamp Works vision is to be the premiere government research and technology incubator for development of spaceport systems on Earth or at any space destination. One important area of development is In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where the “Swamp Works Approach” of rapid-concept-to-application has resulted in the development of several unique tools for future space exploration.


One area of focus at Swamp Works is the engineering and science of dealing with space dirt—also known as regolith. Regolith, when mined effectively, can be a valuable resource for producing water, breathing air, and propellants for future long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. RASSOR is a robot designed to excavate regolith on an extraterrestrial surface with very low gravity, like the moon or an asteroid. The excavator can traverse steep slopes and rough terrain, and its symmetrical design enables it to operate in reverse so that it can recover from overturning by continuing to dig in the new orientation.


Another focus area for Swamp Works is how to prospect for resources on planetary bodies or asteroids. One method being explored for prospecting is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These new machines, called Extreme Access Flyers, have no rotors and use jets of oxygen gas or water vapor to move around, whichever gas is available on the planet or asteroid the robots are exploring. With that fuel, they can maneuver quickly and forage for soil samples in areas inaccessible to traditional landers.


Swarmies are small robotic vehicles equipped with sensors, a webcam, GPS system, and Wi-Fi antenna. They operate autonomously and can be programmed to communicate and interact as a collective swarm. Swarmies present the potential to dramatically improve the ability for robots to efficiently locate, identify and collect resources over large and previously unexplored territory. In addition to being the most effective way to scour large territories for resources, robotic swarms are more robust, flexible, and scalable than monolithic robots operating alone.


Swamp Works recently constructed a Regolith Test Bin, nicknamed the "Big Bin," which is believed to be the largest indoor, climate-controlled facility of its kind, 26 feet on each side and packed with 120 tons of gray, simulated space dirt. It is helping engineers and scientists test mining technologies that could enable future explorers to live on another planetary surface by harvesting resources such as oxygen and water.


One of the challenges in exploring the moon or planets is dust created by rocket engines during landing or by human and mechanical activities taking place on the surface. Scientists in the Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory are developing ways to mitigate this problem. One of the technologies under development is an electrodynamic dust shield (EDS) to prevent debris from accumulating on various surfaces such as spacesuits, thermal radiators, solar panels, optical instruments and view ports. This technology works by creating an electric field that propagates across the material being protected like the ripples on a pond. When the EDS system was activated during the reduced gravity test flight, 99 percent of dust was removed from the surfaces protected by the dust shields


Work on several other exciting technologies is also underway in the Swamp Works laboratories. The “Dust to Thrust” demonstration project involves the conversion of regolith into propellant which will be used to fire a thruster. The project also includes the development of regolith tolerant valves as well as quick disconnect fluid and electrical couplers and interfaces. In the robotics area, sensors utilizing LIDAR, radar, and stereo vision are being investigated to help robots maneuver safely in dusty environments. Robots are also under development for the production and deployment of pavers to create landing pads for rockets. Methods for sintering regolith to manufacture pavers and other materials are also being explored. Researchers are additionally looking at how to utilize regolith for additive construction. This will involve the extraction of metals from regolith using molten regolith electrolysis, the use of regolith as a manufacturing feedstock, and voxel based manufacturing using regolith and other in-situ resources.