No spot on Earth is a perfect match for Mars, but by training at some of Earth’s extreme habitats, space agencies including NASA and ESA are fine-tuning techniques for a trip to the Red Planet. New Scientist gathered postcards from four of them
Want to Live on Mars? We have the ice house for you. NASA is crowd-sourcing ideas for future Martian habitats and the leading design is essentially a modified igloo. That’s right, the first humans to inhabit Mars, may reside in homes made of ice.
Last month, a research team from the University of Texas announced that Mars is hiding a secret supply of water just below its surface. They reported that a region on Mars known as Utopia Planitia is harboring as much water as Lake Superior here on Earth — only difference is the Martian reserves are frozen solid.
The ice reservoir is located a mid-northern latitudes — which means it’s about halfway between the equator and the poles — and is reportedly the size of New Mexico. Even though the supply may be buried under a layer of regolith ranging from 3 to 33 feet deep, this finding is still excellent news for a group at NASA’s Langley Engineering Design Studio in Hampton, Virginia.
In order to create a functional base on Mars, NASA and its private competitors will need to design the physical and digital technology needed to transport humans and what keeps them alive between a 33.9 million miles journey and a safe landing. But the mission won’t end there. Astronauts will need to work effectively together to make the whole project both sustainable and worthwhile. Given the extremity of the conditions, that’s no small ask.
Since 2013, HI-SEAS has run four separate behavioral experiments simulating the isolation and stress that a human crew would endure on the way to Mars and on the planet’s surface. The best way to do the latter, according to Project Manager Bryan Caldwell, is to send a bunch of scientists to live in hostile terrain. Mauna Loa, separated from civilization by 20 miles of lava fields and a simulated 22-minute communication delay, does the trick nicely. The first three experiments lasted four, four, and eight months respectively. The crew of HI-SEAS IV, a six-person team of scientists, were expected to treat the outside world as otherworldly and deal with the same deprivations as the first space pioneers for a full calendar year. As though retaining sanity wasn’t a big enough task, the scientists were also given various tasks and research to do while in the dome. While some of their duties simulated the day-to-day activities of real Mars astronauts, the crew’s primary function was to serve as test subjects in 13 different behavioral experiments. Outside of the dome, a team of multidisciplinary researchers monitored every aspect of the crew’s lives, hoping that they could pinpoint the “right stuff” for humanity’s next giant leap.
When Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, there’s a good chance he could scrap one of President Obama’s boldest visions for NASA: the asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.
ARM would ostensibly launch a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2023, capture the space rock, and tow it near the moon. Next, astronauts would ride NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System and Orion space capsule (which aren’t finished yet) to visit and dig into the asteroid sometime in 2025.
But ARM’s slipping deadlines, ballooning costs, redundancy with the recently launched asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx probe, and seeming incongruence with the space agency’s larger ambitions to send people to Mars will almost certainly doom the mission, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica in February. (The Trump-friendly House Committee on Science, Space and Technology also recently sent an unfriendly letter about ARM to NASA, and it appears to be yet another presumed nail in ARM’s coffin.)
So what could a Trump-controlled NASA replace it with?
Physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as the leader of NASA’s science mission directorate, is pitching a popular idea involving a retrieving a sample of Martian soil, as Berger reported on Monday.
Blockchains in space?
According to one research paper published by an Indian government official, the idea isn’t so far-fetched.
Dr Kartik Hegadekatti of India’s Ministry of Railways posits in a new paper, entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Applications of blockchains and Cryptocurrencies”, that the tech could provide the basis for a space-based money in lieu of paper money or physical coins. Hegadekatti works for the ministry’s Commercial Department.
Hegadekatti has written about cryptocurrencies in the past, exploring how a ‘NationCoin’ could be issued by a country in a paper from August. The paper’s timing is notable, given India’s controversial push away from paper currency and a rise in bitcoin purchase activity in the country.
Though the concept sounds a bit far-fetched and entirely speculative – humans have only set foot on the Moon a handful of times, and to date no manned mission has been launched to Mars – Hegadekatti argues that launching paper or coin-based monies into space is impractical given their cost and weight.
Bas Lansdorp, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer : “Mars One can only implement the mission to Mars if we can afford it – and we need investments to get going. Being listed on a stock exchange will make fundraising more straightforward. In order to make Mars One’s commercial activities an attractive investment with the potential of a good return on investment, Mars One had to adjust the timing of the planned unmanned and manned missions. This pushes the large expenses associated with the mission hardware back in time, making the company cash positive sooner. The delay we are currently announcing is also because it took us longer to get to this point than we originally anticipated. Of course the whole Mars One team would have preferred to be able to stick to the original schedule, but this new timeline significantly improves our odds of successfully achieving this mission roadmap”.
Mars One is currently raising up to €10 million in the first round of funding after the listing on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. This will provide enough funding to move the mission to Mars forward: award new contracts to suppliers, organize the next round in the astronaut selection process, hire team members with experience in implementing Mars missions, and crew selection and training. Additionally, Mars One Ventures, the commercial arm of Mars One, will build a core team of experienced media professionals to develop the Mars One brand, including by creating captivating media content for audiences around the world.
When scientists are trying to figure out how to live in near-isolation in a dome to simulate a Mars mission, the last thing they’ll need is an ill-fitting space suit. So one of the nation’s top design schools has come to the rescue.
Staff members and students at the Rhode Island School of Design have come up with a new, adjustable suit that closely resembles an actual space suit.
Real space suits are designed to work in zero gravity, meaning they’re too expensive and too heavy to use at the NASA-funded Mars simulation mission in Hawaii. The simulated space suits that are used instead wear out quickly and aren’t all that comfortable. They’re small and provide poor ventilation.
The new suit, unveiled Monday in Providence, is expected to be tested during the next Mars simulation mission in 2017 in Hawaii.
A yearlong Mars simulation mission ended in August. It was the fourth HI-SEAS, or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. NASA funded the study, run through the University of Hawaii.
Mars has no protective magnetosphere, as Earth does. Scientists believe that at one time, Mars also experienced convection currents in its core, creating a dynamo effect that powered a planetary magnetic field. However, roughly 4.2 billions year ago – either due to a massive impact from a large object, or rapid cooling in its core – this dynamo effect ceased.
As a result, over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind. Between the loss of its magnetic field and its atmosphere, the surface of Mars is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth. And in addition to regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, it receives occasional lethal blasts that occur with strong solar flares.
Mars has long been a source of fascination for everyone from scientists to filmmakers, but the Red Planet is no longer the mysterious world it once was. With NASA’s Curiosity Rover exploring the planet and Elon Musk’s Space X dedicated to planetary colonization, the dream of humans living on Mars may soon be more than a sci-fi plot line. But for now, it’s still up to the magic of Hollywood to give us a preview. National Geographic takes on this new frontier with Mars, a new six-part series that blends interviews with real-life astronauts and scientists from NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with the fictional story of a Mars landing in 2033. Developed with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the show, which debuts November 14 at 9pm ET on the National Geographic Channel, follows the international crew of the Daedalus as they attempt to land on Mars in a reusable rocket and built habitats.
Production designer Sophie Becher was tasked with creating an array of locations, from the headquarters of International Mars Science Foundation to the interior of the Daedalus to the habitat on Mars. Becher approached the projects from the characters point of view, especially when designing the extraterrestrial environments. “I become the astronaut,” she says. “What would I need to function? What sort of prop would help me keep my sanity?”
With the 2016 election now finished and Donald Trump confirmed as the president-elect of the United States, there are naturally some concerns about what this could means for the future of NASA. Given the administration’s commitment to Earth science, and its plans for crewed missions to near-Earth Orbit and Mars, there is understandably some worry that the budget environment might be changing soon.
At this juncture, it is not quite clear how a Trump presidency will affect NASA’s mandate for space exploration and scientific research. But between statements made by the president-elect in the past, and his stances on issues like climate change, it seems clear that funding for certain types of research could be threatened. But there is also reason to believe that larger exploration programs might be unaffected.