Technology, techniques shared

Space Seismic Gets Fine Tuning

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Jim Reilly
Jim Reilly

With apologies to novelist Thomas Wolfe, maybe you can go home again.

Just ask AAPG member Jim Reilly, a former geologist-turned-astronaut-turned geologist once more, who since returning to Earth is busy developing new tools for the space program that could eventually be used in the oil business.

Talk about the best of both worlds…

Reilly was chief geologist for Enserch Exploration when he left the oil industry in 1995 to join NASA, where he flew into space three times on Shuttle missions, logging more than 853 hours in space – including 31-plus hours of space walks and time on the ISS and MIR space stations.

Now working as vice president for product development for TAEUS International in Colorado Springs, Colo., Reilly believes several techniques currently being tested for the space program could be translated back to the energy business.

He’ll present a poster about those ideas at the AAPG Convention and Exhibition in Denver, titled “The Apollo Active Seismic Data and Lessons for PEGS (Planetary Exploration Geophysical System),” which is a prototype system for future lunar/Mars missions designed to acquire seismic data.

“A number of things we were testing could go right into the field,” he said.

For example, scientists are now considering new types of geophones.

“We’ve also been talking about how geophones would be constructed to make them more robust for robotic applications,” he said, although he added “that’s still a ways off.”

Must Have Been Moonglow

A critical component of NASA’s lunar surface exploration program was the Active Seismic Experiment, he said, which involved collecting lunar data using a thumper, a rocket propelled grenade launched from a mortar, an explosives package and sensors.

The “thumper” was a hand-held device that the astronauts carried with them while looking at regolith soils on the moon.

“We (NASA) were looking at the soil on the surface of the moon – all of it is mechanical debris from the impacts of over four billion years,” Reilly said. “It’s a fine dust.”

The seismic program, which set off charges on the moon after the crew left, provided velocity and thickness measurements of the moon’s shallow geology, which were helpful in calibrating the objectives of PEGS.

The gleaned data wasn’t just for academic purposes – when NASA returns to the moon (tentatively eyed in 2020) it will be better prepared to study the lunar subsurface.

“Not only the moon,” Reilly said, “but Mars. These two different geologies will require a lot of seismic to adequately describe the planet.

“We will be looking for resources on the moon and on the surface and subsurface of Mars,” he continued. “We’ll be looking for ice – and there’s a possibility of seeing hydrates on Mars.”

From Earth to the Moon

And as Reilly, a man of both worlds, likes to point out, some of the tools used for the space program eventually may be applied to the oil industry.

“Many of these things that you do for the environment for the space program are not too far to translate back into the terrestrial,” Reilly said.

“A lot of what we’ll do on Mars will be the same as field work and looking at what kinds of materials are in the subsurface,” he said. “We are seeing some methane on Mars and the same methane plumes in the atmosphere there.”

The question is whether these are methane releases from biogenic sources and if they could be part of hydrate that is decomposing, he said.

“So if we find that on Mars, that’s a great piece of news for us – it would give us water and fuel,” he said. “If we have methane with water and oxygen, then that’s an excellent rocket fuel. Those resources would be useful on Mars.”

Space program scientists also are going to borrow some tools from the petroleum business in looking for analogs.

“As part of this whole effort, we’re looking for earth analogs here that would mimic what we’ll see on the moon,” Reilly said.

For example, scientists are looking at ways of training people and what kinds of tools they will need on the moon, he said.

In fact, scientists on earth will prepare for space by continuing to go to the Taos gorge, which is very similar to parts of the moon and where “we’ve trained astronauts on that for generations,” he said.

Cold Hard Facts

Reilly served in the NASA astronaut office for 13 years, working with three others who also previously worked in the oil industry. These former oil industry professionals recognized the need for more seismic data and began talking about it some three to four years ago, he said.

“We piggybacked on some other projects. They had been testing some new space suits,” he said, “so first we set some geophones out and did some tests at Johnson Space Center.”

Later they tested the system at the Meteor Crater in Arizona.

“We were able to look at the geology near the crater, which would be similar to what we’d see in the moon and Mars,” Reilly said. “We repeated that test for three years.”

In the third year a team member wearing a space suit ran the thumper as a remote source from the prototype.

“We were trying to get information on how we could do this as a robotics system and a human system,” Reilly said.

A member of the team tested the geophones in Antarctica’s dry valleys a few years ago.

“Mars is a very dry place but it has the possibility of ice in the subsurface, Reilly said. “That was a good test bed to see whether the system is operative.”

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Reilly’s Poster in Denver

Jim Reilly will present his poster “The Apollo Active Seismic Data and Lessons for PEGS” on Monday morning, June 8, at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver. 

Reilly’s poster is part of the EMD session titled Lunar Field Exploration Equipment and Sample Documentation. 

His co-authors are AAPG member Matthew Brzostowski and Drew Feustel.