From long experience on the space shuttle and various space stations, we have some knowledge of how mammals, especially people, respond to 0-g. We have even more experience with 1-g on Earth. But we still don’t know what happens in between. What, for example, will happen to humans on Mars where the surface gravity is 0.38-g? Is that enough to keep human explorers functioning properly? And, importantly, how easily will they readapt to 1-g, once they return to Earth? In 2006 a group of mice-astronauts will orbit Earth inside a spinning spacecraft. Their mission: to learn what its like to live on Mars.
On January 3, Spirit, NASA
It’s wintertime in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and a flying saucer is about to land. Back on Earth where it comes from, the craft is known as the Beagle 2, sent to Mars by the European Space Agency in search of life. More accurately, the Beagle 2 will be looking for chemical traces of life–telltale signs that life once existed, or perhaps, exists right now on the red planet. Touchdown is scheduled for Christmas Day 2003. The Beagle 2 will precede two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, slated to land in January.
The ideal technology for space travel would be simple, robust, reliable, lightweight, and volumetrically efficient. It would have no moving parts, which would make it less likely to break. It would be a passive technology, not requiring any energy from the outside. It would be small. It would be light. An ideal technology for space, says chemical engineer Doug Way, is the membrane. Well, OK, membranes can’t do everything. Membranes won’t boost us into space. And they won’t carry us to Mars. But membranes could solve some of the problems of traveling there. And once we arrive, they could help us get back.
Life is a bit different in space, even for microbes. Research shows that the pattern of gene activity in some microbes differs in weightlessness, leading to differences in behavior. These differences could be behind a curious observation: the common food-borne pathogen salmonella becomes more virulent when grown in a form of simulated microgravity.
Here’s a challenge for you: Using only what you can find lying around your house, put together an experiment to test a question in science that’s never been answered. That’s essentially the challenge faced by some scientists who want their research done onboard the International Space Station (ISS). With the shuttle fleet grounded and space limited on Russian rockets, it’s not easy to send their equipment to orbit. What can they do? Improvise.
Mars’ closest approach to Earth was on August 27th–but the red planet is even easier to see now.
Astronaut Carl Walz once lived on the International Space Station (ISS) for 196 days–about six and a half months. That’s a long time to look down at Earth, and not be able to touch it. Before he went up in 2001, Walz recalls, the psychological support people asked him what kind of things he’d be interested in taking along. “I said, ‘Well, a keyboard would be nice.’ And they said, ‘We’ll look into that.'”
At 09:51 universal time (UT) on August 27th, Earth makes its closest approach to Mars in nearly 60,000 years. The two worlds, center-to-center, will be just 56 million kilometers apart–a short distance on the scale of the solar system. The last people to come so close to Mars were Neanderthals. Magazine articles, newspapers, and TV shows have touted the encounter for months. But they all omitted one detail: Which part of Earth?
A NASA-supported scientist is learning how to use carbon dioxide–the main gas in Mars’ atmosphere–to harvest rocket fuel and water from the red planet. When astronauts first go to Mars, it’ll be difficult for them to bring everything they need to survive. Even the first tentative explorations could last as long as two years–but spaceships can only carry a limited amount. “We might have to do what explorers have done for ages: live off the land,” says chemical engineer Ken Debelak of Vanderbilt University.