June 13th, 2019

NASA’s Mars 2020 Will Blaze a Trail – for Humans

This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans. Credit: NASA

When a female astronaut first sets foot on the Moon in 2024, the historic moment will represent a step toward another NASA first: eventually putting humans on Mars. NASA’s latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, aims to help future astronauts brave that inhospitable landscape.

While the science goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to look for signs of ancient life – it will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission – the vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide and extremely thin (about 100 times less dense than Earth’s), with no breathable oxygen. There’s no water on the surface to drink, either. The landscape is freezing, with no protection from the Sun’s radiation or from passing dust storms. The keys to survival will be technology, research and testing.

Mars 2020 will help on all those fronts. When it launches in July of 2020, the spacecraft will carry the latest scientific and engineering tools, which are coming together as the rover is built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Here’s a closer look:

Touchdown, Oxygen, Water, Spacesuits, Shelter

June 11th, 2019

Device seeks to brew oxygen on Mars from dangerous salt

Professor John Coates, PhD, describing the process of how the device works with the two chambers separating the oxygen from the water using electricity and a Chlorate solution at the Coates Lab at UC Berkeley on October 20.2015.
Photo: Franchon Smith, The Chronicle

Having discovered flowing, liquid water on the once-imagined arid surface of Mars, NASA scientists are looking to the next missing element needed for human habitability on the Red Planet: oxygen.

Finding a way to produce oxygen on the planet is vital if the space agency is to fulfill its goal of sending humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s, they say.

They have considered sending microbes on the journey to fill large bio domes to be built by the astronauts on the planet’s surface. Another idea they’ve pondered is sending along a large machine to split up the oxygen-containing carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Then there is the Bay Area scientist who has NASA’s ear with his idea that a dangerous salt compound believed to exist on Mars’ surface can be converted into breathable oxygen.

The compound, a perchlorate, is known to be a threat to human health on Earth, interfering with the production of human growth hormones.

John Coates, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, has patented a mechanism he says can turn the perchlorate into oxygen fit for humans. Throughout the development process, he consulted NASA scientists who see Coates’ invention as a partial answer to the oxygen issue, but not the entire solution.

“What happens if astronauts are 10 miles from home (base) and they have a big problem and need oxygen? That is the niche that the perchlorate would fill,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “When you are (on Mars) out in middle of nowhere, scooping up a bag of dirt to produce oxygen would be easy to do.”

June 5th, 2019

An Atomic Clock for Deep Space

A glimpse of the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the middle bay of the General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.
Credits: NASA

NASA’s Orbital Test Bed satellite is scheduled for launch via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 22, with live streaming here. Although two dozen satellites from various institutions will be aboard the launch vehicle, the NASA OTB satellite itself houses multiple payloads on a single platform, including a modular solar array and a programmable satellite receiver. The component that’s caught my eye, though, is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a technology demonstrator that points to better navigation in deep space without reliance on Earth-based atomic clocks.

Consider current methods of navigation. An accurate reading on a spacecraft’s position depends on a measurement of the time it takes for a transmission to flow between a ground station and the vehicle. Collect enough time measurements, converting them to distance, and the spacecraft’s trajectory is established. We know how to do atomic clocks well — consider the US Naval Observatory’s use of clocks reliant on the oscillation of atoms in its cesium and hydrogen maser clocks. Atomic clocks at Deep Space Network ground stations make possible navigational readings on spacecraft at the expense of bulk and communications lag.

While GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) use onboard atomic clocks, the technologies currently in play are too heavy for operations on spacecraft designed for exploration far from Earth. That puts the burden on communications, as distant spacecraft process a signal from an atomic clock on the ground. What the spacecraft lacks is autonomy.

June 3rd, 2019

SpaceX beginning to tackle some of the big challenges for a Mars journey

A rendering of what a Super Heavy Starship launch would look like.

Earlier this month, the principal Mars “development engineer” for SpaceX, Paul Wooster, provided an update on the company’s vision for getting to the Red Planet. During his presentation at the 2019 Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC, Wooster said SpaceX remains on track to send humans to Mars in the “mid-2020s.” He was likely referring to launch opportunities for Mars in 2024 and 2026, but he also acknowledged that much work remains to reach that point.

SpaceX plans to bring humans to Mars with a two-stage rocket: the Starship upper stage and a Super Heavy booster (the latter formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR). Iterative design versions of the Starship are being built at facilities in both Boca Chica, Texas, and near Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is expected to provide an update on their development in late June.

Wooster said that SpaceX is working to “minimize the number of things that we need to do in order to get that first mission to Mars.” Part of that minimization involves a massive payload capacity. Starship, once refueled in low-Earth orbit, is planned to have a capacity of more than 100 tons to Mars.

This will allow SpaceX to take a “brute force” approach, which will greatly simplify the overall logistics of the first missions. For instance, this will allow for taking more consumables instead of recycling them, more equipment and spare parts, and other infrastructure, Wooster said.

May 24th, 2019

Comet Inspires Chemistry for Making Breathable Oxygen on Mars

In Giapis’s reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen.
Credit: Caltech

Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.

So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.

One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.

May 14th, 2019

A New Idea for Putting Out Fires in Space: The Vacuum Cleaner?

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (white shirt) and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (blue) practice a fire drill training in NASA’s Space Station mock-up in Houston, TX. (Image Credit: NASA)

Current safety regulations ensure that only low-flammable materials are brought into space. Fires in locations like the International Space Station (ISS), however, are still possible.

Short circuits happen, for example. Cosmic rays may cause structural damage to materials, altering their flammability.

At present, the ISS has a CO2 gas extinguisher, combined with a water mist, to dilute the local oxygen concentration and remove heat.

The method, however, leaves harmful fumes in the enclosed space. Crewmembers who put out the fires must put on oxygen masks due to the risk of the high concentration of CO2 in the cabin.

Researchers from the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have developed a new type of fire extinguisher that is optimized for space-use and does not require the use of any oxygen masks.

The Vacuum Extinguish Method (VEM), a concept demonstrated in the academic journal Fire Technology, is a bit like the hoover in your living room, says lead researcher Dr. Yuji Nakamura.

“Think of it as simply sucking the flame like a vacuum cleaner to ‘clean up’ your firing zone,” Dr. Nakamura told Tech Briefs. “Then, the flame, as well as any other harmful products, is sucked in.”

The extinguishing system has two boxes. Once the first vacuum box is filled, a valve opens, sending the collected gas to the second container; the first box, meanwhile, continues its vacuuming.

April 25th, 2019

Dartmouth’s Mars Greenhouse Wins 2019 NASA BIG Idea Challenge

A team of Dartmouth engineering students has been named winners of the 2019 NASA BIG Idea Challenge for its innovative design for a Mars greenhouse that can grow food and sustain a crew of astronauts on a future mission to the red planet.

The team, made up of undergraduates at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, pitched their winning proposal to top scientists at NASA and National Institute of Aerospace at NASA’s Langley Research Center this week in Hampton, Virginia, where they competed against four other top university-team finalists for the top honor.

“The BIG Idea Challenge has been an amazing experience and I’m thrilled that we won,” said Zoe Rivas ’18, co-manager of the Dartmouth team. “I’m so excited to see what happens next with our greenhouse design and what NASA will do with all of the great ideas we saw in this competition.”

This is the first time that a Dartmouth team has entered – and won – NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, a national engineering competition that elicits solutions from some of the best and brightest students for some of NASA’s pressing, real-time space exploration challenges.

The team’s greenhouse design, initially conceived as the students’ senior capstone project, won for its innovation in food production and crop cultivation, as well as mechanical and aerospace engineering elements of the design.

“I can’t begin to explain how exciting this is,” said Alexa Escalona ’18, the team’s co-manager. “This validates all of the late nights and hard work.”

April 19th, 2019

Fabric from University of North Dakota developed spacesuit to spend year in space

NDX-1 Mars Prototype Suit

Pieces of fabric from the University of North Dakota-developed NDX-1 spacesuit was launched into space aboard a Northrup Grumman “NG CRS-11 Cygnus” Resupply Mission, on Wednesday, on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch took place at the Wallops Flight Facility in Greenbelt, Md. Wallops is operated by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
NASA selected five technologies to test as part of its Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE)-11 mission, including the NDX-1 spacesuit sample provided by the UND Space Studies Department.

The MISSE program provides long-term exposure of materials to the inhospitable environments of the space environment, according to Pablo de León, a space studies professor at UND and primary inventor of the NDX-1 suit. All the materials are slated to remain in space for at least one year, allowing researchers to assess the long-term impact of temperature extremes and radiation on their performance.
MISSE has been a successful part of ISS research since 2001 when its original flight hardware became the first payload to be installed on the outside of the space station.

April 12th, 2019

This technology would place humans traveling to Mars in a ‘sleep-like state’

SpaceWorks torpor habitat concept rendering (Photo: SpaceWorks)

SpaceWorks submitted a proposal to NASA in 2013 outlining technology that focused not on propulsion or advanced materials, but instead on affecting human biological systems and astronauts’ deep space travel habitat.

Its plan is simple: put the astronauts to sleep for about 80% of their voyage.

“I encountered this technology in the medical field called therapeutic hypothermia that places an individual into an inactive kind of sleep-like state,” said Bradford. “And they would cool the patient down for two or three days at a time, and that basically gives the body time to recover.”

According to Bradford, therapeutic hypothermia would provide a myriad of benefits. The crew would see reductions in the rates of muscle atrophy and bone loss from the lower metabolic state. He argues there is evidence that a “torpor state” could help build radiation shielding. Additionally, the space vessel would be stripped down to only the parts necessary to maintain the temperature of the habitat.

One design cuts the weight of NASA reference model from 45 tons to 20 tons for the SpaceWorks vessel for the same mission.

April 9th, 2019

NASA Selects Two New Space Tech Research Institutes for Smart Habitats

Illustration of the interior of a deep space habitat
Credits: NASA

As exploration missions venture beyond low-Earth orbit and to the Moon — and eventually Mars — NASA must consider automated technologies to keep habitats operational even when they are not occupied by astronauts. To help achieve this, NASA has selected two new Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) to advance space habitat designs using resilient and autonomous systems.

The selected proposals create two multi-disciplinary, university-led research institutes to develop technologies critical to a sustainable human presence on the Moon and Mars. The smart habitat, or SmartHab, research will complement other NASA projects to help mature the mission architecture needed to meet challenging exploration goals.

“Partnering with universities lets us tap into new expertise, foster innovative ideas, as well as expand the research and development talent base for both aerospace and broader applications,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We’re excited to work with these two new STRIs to develop smart habitat technologies for exploration missions on the Moon and Mars.”

Each STRI will receive as much as $15 million over a five-year period.