October 3rd, 2018

Learn To Farm On Mars With This Fake Martian Soil

Fig. 1. Comparison of martian simulants. (a) MAHLI image of the scooped Rocknest soil; image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. (b) Photograph of MGS-1 prototype simulant produced for this work. (c) Photograph of JSC Mars-1. (d) Photograph of MMS-1 sold by the Martian Garden company.

If you watched or read “The Martian,” and wanted to try your hand at living on Mars or becoming a Martian farmer like Mark Watney, then today is your lucky day. Astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida have developed a scientific, standardized method to create soil like future space colonies might encounter on Mars. They’re selling it for about $10 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) plus shipping.

This soil, also called simulant, is designed and created to mimic the red soil on Mars. From how fine the grains are to what minerals are present, this simulant is about as close as you can get to real Martian soil. These researchers have also created an asteroid simulant and are working on developing a wider variety of simulants, like ones to mimic soils from different parts of Mars.

The only parts of the simulants that don’t match the real thing are the toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise dangerous components that exist in actual asteroids or in real Martian soil. “We leave out the dangerous stuff,” said Dan Britt, a physics professor and member of the UCF Planetary Sciences Group working on creating these simulants.

September 25th, 2018

Antarctica Greenhouse Produces Cucumbers, Tomatoes and More in Mars-Like Test

Paul Zabel with harvested kohlrabi. Credit: DLR.

Fresh vegetables on Mars, anyone?

An Antarctic greenhouse known as EDEN ISS not only survived the polar night but emerged from it with a harvest for local researchers, thus providing hope that future Mars colonists could also enjoy fresh food during their time on the Red Planet, German Aerospace Center (DLR) officials said in a statement.

Regularly withstanding temperatures below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius), the greenhouse provided herbs, lettuce and other vegetables to 10 people who were riding out the winter in the remote station, called the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Neumayer Station III. It’s the first time the greenhouse operated through the winter.

September 18th, 2018

Elon Musk reveals updated design for future SpaceX Mars rocket

SpaceX’s next generation vehicle—BFR—will be the most powerful rocket in history, capable of carrying humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

This evening, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave an update on the design of SpaceX’s future massive rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), during an event announcing the first passenger who will fly on the vehicle.

The rocket’s capability has changed. Musk claims that once the rocket is complete, it will be able to take up to 100 tons of payload all the way to Mars. That’s if the rocket gets refueled in orbit by some kind of tanker spacecraft. He also showed off a simulation of how the vehicle will land on the surface of Mars. “I can’t wait,” Musk said at the even. “I’m super fired up about this. This is amazing.”

it will be able to take up to 100 tons of payload all the way to Mars
The BFR is instrumental to SpaceX’s plans of sending humans to the Moon and Mars. In its final form, it will be a gigantic rocket, reaching a height of nearly 348 feet. That’s about the size of a 35-story building and roughly the same height as NASA’s Saturn V rocket that went to the Moon. It will also be powered by 31 main Raptor engines, a new SpaceX design that can provide a combined 5,400 tons of thrust.

Overall, the BFR is a combination of a giant rocket booster and a massive cargo spaceship, called the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS), which can hold up to 100 passengers comfortably. Both pieces are meant to do powered landings, meaning they use their engines to lower down the surface of Earth — or other worlds. It’s akin to how SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets right now.

September 17th, 2018

Resource Utilization On Mars Could Be The Model Of Efficiency And Sustainability

ISRU system concept for autonomous robotic excavation and processing of Mars soil to extract water for use in exploration missions.
Credits: NASA

You’re an astronaut settling into your first mission on Mars, a less-than-hospitable planet to which human beings are ill-adapted. The atmosphere is over 95 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and the temperature averages a chilly -81 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, despite this outright hostile environment, you and your crewmates brought relatively few supplies. Bringing enough food for the whole three-year mission was cost prohibitive. Even considering the dramatically lower launch costs offered by private companies like SpaceX, it might still cost $144 million or more to send three year’s worth of food to Mars for a crew of four (assuming SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can achieve a launch cost of $3,000 per pound and one astronaut consumes one ton of food per terrestrial year). Instead, you’re equipped with a variety of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies that will allow you to convert compounds into useful materials and advanced recycling systems that will help ensure nothing is wasted.

Here on Earth, humans haven’t historically been concerned with waste. The World Bank estimates that the world’s cities will be producing nearly 2.5 billion tons of solid waste annually by 2025. Yet on Mars, where resources are scarce, we’ll be forced to treat seemingly useless materials and byproducts like valuable commodities. Fortunately, NASA has already been perfecting many important recycling and upcycling technologies on the International Space Station (ISS). The objective is to create a closed-loop system in which the outputs of a process can be used as inputs in another process in perpetuity.

September 13th, 2018

NASA tests foldable heat shield that could help human Mars landing

Adaptable, Deployable, Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT )
NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched and tested a new umbrella-like heat shield on Wednesday, opening the door to landing humans on Mars.

The new technology – dubbed the Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology (ADEPT) – stores like a folded umbrella inside smaller rockets, opening handle-up in space to protect larger payloads as they enter a planet’s atmosphere, said Brandon Smith, NASA’s principal investigator on the project. The shape allows it to protect larger areas than current heat shields.

“At the larger scales, it could be used for something as grand as human Mars explorations, or potentially human cargo landings on Mars,” Smith told Reuters at the Spaceport America launch site, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

September 12th, 2018

This imaginative drawing liked by Elon Musk reveals just how crazy SpaceX’s first missions to Mars will be

A cutaway drawing that imagines the inside of Elon Musk’s Big Falcon Spaceship. SpaceX plans to build and use the vehicle for the first crewed Mars missions. Copyright of Nick Oberg

Elon Musk, the founder of the rocket company SpaceX, has “aspirational” plans to launch people to Mars in 2024 and ultimately colonize the red planet.

To make the roughly six-month one-way journey, Musk and his engineers have dreamed up a 347-foot-tall launch system called the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. The spacecraft is designed to have two fully reusable stages: a 19-story booster and a 16-story spaceship, which would fly on top of the booster and into into space.

SpaceX employees are now building a prototype of the Big Falcon Spaceship at the Port of Los Angeles. Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and COO, reportedly said Thursday that the spaceship may start small test-launches in late 2019.

Several official graphics of the spaceship’s internal structure exist, but none show exactly how the ship would be equipped for Mars. So spaceflight-loving artist Nick Oberg created his own illustration of how the vehicle might look and function on the inside.

Oberg is a 29-year-old scientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, where he’s working toward a PhD in astrophysics. But he used some spare time to make what he calls an “imaginative” cutaway drawing of the BFR spaceship. It includes detailed sketches of hydroponic greenhouses, messy crew cabins, and even a person pooping on a zero-gravity toilet.

September 6th, 2018

Communications Infrastructure On Mars Could Be The Envy Of Earth

A conceptual drawing of the MarCO cubesats orbiting Mars. NASA

You’re an astronaut bound for Mars, a dusty and barren planet with an atmosphere composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide that on a good day is 139,808,518 miles from Earth, a stone’s throw from a galactic perspective but a nine-month trip for you and your crewmates.

As your spacecraft—perhaps it’s NASA’s Orion crew vehicle or SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket or a variation of Boeing’s Starliner—hurtles away from home, communication becomes increasingly delayed. At first the lag is only a few seconds, but as the weeks go by, real-time communication becomes impossible. Depending on the relative position of Earth and Mars as they orbit around the Sun, the delay by the time you reach Mars could exceed 20 minutes, creating 40-minutes of silence in a two-way conversation. Incredibly, the 3 to 22 minutes it takes—again, depending on the positions of the planets—for information to travel from Earth to Mars at the speed of light is nothing compared to the 4 days it took a message to travel from New York City to Washington DC at the speed of stagecoach in 1800.

Although our communications capabilities have evolved greatly in the last 200 years, it’s operationally and psychologically critical to continue searching for new ways to achieve reliable communication between explorers and our pale blue dot. A study conducted by NASA on the International Space Station in 2014, for example, found that even a 50-second delay frustrated crewmembers and that real-time communication improves both performance and morale.

Yet, the time delay isn’t the only communications challenge you’ll face on the journey to Mars. Another is the quality of the signal you receive. The radio waves that currently carry wireless transmissions—including your WiFi signal—aren’t very data efficient and lose strength over distance due to their longer wavelengths. That’s why NASA is investing heavily in laser communications research. Lasers operate on shorter wavelengths, allowing for more data per wave and superior signal fidelity. They also require smaller transmitters and receivers and use less energy than radio technologies. One day, these laser communications systems could theoretically enable HD video to be streamed between Earth and Mars.

September 4th, 2018

New NASA Competition Aims to Convert Carbon Dioxide into Exploration Sweet Success

When astronauts begin exploring Mars, they’ll need to use local resources, freeing up launch cargo space for other mission-critical supplies. Carbon dioxide is one resource readily abundant within the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s new CO2 Conversion Challenge, conducted under the Centennial Challenges program, is a public competition seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds. Such technologies will allow us to manufacture products using local, indigenous resources on Mars, and can also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmospheric carbon dioxide as a resource.

“Enabling sustained human life on another planet will require a great deal of resources and we cannot possibly bring everything we will need. We have to get creative.” said Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. “If we can transform an existing and plentiful resource like carbon dioxide into a variety of useful products, the space – and terrestrial – applications are endless.”

Carbon and oxygen are the molecular building blocks of sugars. Developing efficient systems that can produce glucose from carbon dioxide will help advance the emerging field of biomanufacturing technology on Earth.

While sugar-based biomaterials are inexpensively made on Earth by plants, this approach cannot be easily adapted for space missions because of limited resources such as energy, water and crew time. The CO2 Conversion Challenge aims to help find a solution. Energy rich sugars are preferred microbial energy sources composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They could be used as the feedstock for systems that can efficiently produce a variety of items. Glucose is the target sugar product in this challenge because it is the easiest to metabolize, which will optimize conversion efficiency.

The competition is divided into two phases. During Phase 1, teams must submit a design and description of a conversion system that includes details of the physical-chemical approaches to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. NASA will award up to five teams $50,000 each, to be announced in April 2019. Phase 2, the system construction and demonstration stage, is contingent on promising submissions in Phase 1 that offer a viable approach to achieving challenge goals. Phase 2 will carry a prize purse of up to $750,000, for a total challenge prize purse of $1 million.

August 27th, 2018

Synthetic biology solutions for Mars colonization

Llorente B, Williams TC, Goold HD. The Multiplanetary Future of Plant Synthetic Biology. Genes. 2018; 9(7):348.

Even though plans to colonise Mars are progressing rapidly, it is very hard to actually comprehend what a permanent life out there would be like. One can’t help but imagine it to be pretty Earth-centric; we will need to design spaces and resource solutions that provide what we need and use down here, out there. Food will definitely be an issue; sushi is probably off the menu entirely and fresh produce will become a rare and precious commodity. Hydroponic greenhouses, which are already in the testing phase at the International Space Station, are one solution for growing fresh produce on site. The success of these greenhouses, and other Mars-based initiatives, is based on their ability to mimic conditions on Earth. However, maintaining these conditions will be hugely energy-intensive to support, as well as require constant refuelling from Earth, which greatly hinders the feasibility of long-term life on Mars. But like many challenges, sometimes we need to look at the problem from a different angle to find a solution.

It is said that the most innovative and revolutionary ideas are forged at the boundaries of different disciplines of thinking. Perhaps, instead of taking our Earth-based living to Mars, we could design our Earth-based living to be more Martian. When research at the macro, astronomical level meets research at the micro, molecular level, this radical and unrealistic idea starts to get some traction. Synthetic biology, and the designing and reshaping of living organisms, could offer new solutions for these daunting outer space challenges. Recently, three local, Aussie-based synthetic biologists published a paper outlining some of synbio-based solutions for realistically establishing human life on Mars. Briardo Llorente, Thomas Williams, and Hugh Goold, based at Macquarie University in New South Wales, outline some accomplishments in the synbio field that could already offer some solutions, as well as provide new and exciting synbio goals for novel, Mars-focused solutions.

August 17th, 2018

Science says waste beer could help us live on Mars

Flexible transparent aerogels as window retrofitting films and optical elements with tunable birefringence

Any project that starts with beer and ends with colonizing Mars has our attention. At its highest level, that describes new research coming out of the University of Colorado at Boulder — where scientists have developed a new super-insulating gel, created from beer waste, which could one day prove useful for building greenhouse-like habitats for Mars colonists.

“The Smalyukh Research Group at the University of Colorado Boulder has developed a super-insulating, ultra-light, and ultra-transparent aerogel film,” Ivan Smalyukh, a professor in the Department of Physics, told Digital Trends. “Aerogels are extremely porous solid objects that are made mostly from air, and are about 100 times less dense than glass panes. Our aerogel is made from nanocellulose, which is grown by bacteria that eat waste beer wort, a waste byproduct of the beer industry.”

The cellulose enables the researchers’ aerogel to be very flexible and durable. It can be produced very cheaply, and means the team can precisely control the individual size of particles which make up its solid structure. This lets the material allow light to pass through it without significant scattering.

“Our immediate real world use-case is to use our aerogel product to dramatically increase the efficiency of windows in homes and commercial buildings,” Andrew Hess, another researcher on the project, told us. “Replacing inefficient windows is a costly and difficult endeavor, especially for buildings with structural or historical constraints. We aim to commercialize a peel-and-stick retrofitting aerogel film for windows which will effectively turn single-pane into double-pane windows — all at an affordable cost well below that of replacing the windows.”

However, the team also has more far-flung ambitions for their research. The project was recently named one of the winners of NASA’s 2018 iTech competition, which aims to reward technologies that could one day be used to help people travel to space.