A large number of space agencies have committed to landing humans on Mars, as well as the research of permanent settlements on the Red Planet. These agencies include public ones like NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, and ISRO, as well as private organizations such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.
Nasa has previously said that it aims to get the first humans to Mars somewhere between 2030 and 2040. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has the financial clout to reach Earth’s next door neighbour and is aiming to get people to the Red Planet by around 2030, with the first people there being tasked with beginning to build a new civilisation.
Mars Base Camp is Lockheed Martin’s vision for sending humans to Mars by 2028. The concept is simple: transport astronauts from Earth to a Mars-orbiting science laboratory where they can perform real-time scientific exploration, analyze Martian rock and soil samples, and confirm the ideal place to land humans on the surface.
China is also preparing for ambitious mission to Mars in 2020 for “robotic and human settlement” on the mysterious planet. Zhang Rongqiao said China is seeking to become the first country to conduct joint orbital and surface exploration of Mars in a single mission. The probe will provide invaluable data on temperature, atmospheric conditions and landscape, before Beijing dispatches further missions to retrieve soil and rock samples.
Mars exploration missions are technically challenging and risky. Two out of three missions to the red planet have failed.
To get there, Spirit and Opportunity, the two Mars Exploration Rovers will have to fly through about 483 million kilometers (300 million miles) of deep space and target a very precise spot to land. Adjustments to their flight paths can be made along the way, but a small trajectory error can result in a big detour and or even missing the planet completely, Dr. Firouz Naderi, manager of the Mars Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The road to the launch pad is nearly as daunting as the journey to Mars. Even before the trip to Mars can begin, a craft must be built that not only can make the arduous trip but can complete its science mission once it arrives. Nothing less than exceptional technology and planning is required.
The space environment isn’t friendly. Hazards range from what engineers call “single event upsets,” as when a stray particle of energy passes through a chip in the spacecraft’s computer causing a glitch and possibly corrupting data, to massive solar flares, such as the ones that occurred this fall, that can damage or even destroy spacecraft electronics.
Permanent settlement missions place even higher demands on the crew than a return mission. A first permanent settlement crew would be on Mars for two years before the second crew joins them. They would be able to communicate with friends and family on Earth, but only with time delays. Crew selection, training and testing on Earth would be necessary to make sure they can deal with this. Besides that, they would need to learn all the skills to survive on Mars without support from Earth, other than information. They would need to be able to fix every technical and medical problem, grow food and expand the settlement with hardware for upcoming crews. Crew selection is the biggest challenge of a permanent settlement mission to Mars.
Our challenge of going to Mars was enormous. For example, there are many unknowns about its surface topography, climate and environment. We do not even know what we do not know about. To equip our rover for an unknown environment, we carried out comprehensive mission planning and testing on Earth. We decided on a suspension system for Zhurong with six independently driven wheels, which enable it to move in unique ways, such as walking like a crab or wriggling like a worm. Because of Mars’s thin atmosphere, we also came up with unique ways of changing the aerodynamic shape of the landing capsule to slow it down and guarantee stability during descent. Sticking to schedule was also a challenge — the launch window only comes once every 26 months, so we would have had to wait for more than 2 years if we had let this one slide by, said Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of the Tianwen-1 mission.
According to Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. , setting the date for colonizing Mars had to wait, until we had begun to master four kinds of new physics breakthroughs: controlled thermonuclear fusion, as the primary source of energy used, lasers and other forms of coherent electromagnetic pulses as a basic tool, new developments in biological science of the kind now emerging around optical biophysics, and much more powerful, more compact computer systems to assist us in handling these new physics technologies.
Nuclear powered propulsion
Mars is over 30 million miles from Earth. With current propulsion technology, distances of that size are simply too long for human travel. At present, experts seem to agree that nuclear-powered propulsion will greatly alleviate this problem. Technologies like nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion have been touted as the most likely solutions.
Nuclear electric rockets are extremely efficient but lack thrust power. Nuclear thermal rockets aren’t nearly as efficient as their nuclear electric counterparts, but they boast a lot more power in terms of thrust and top speed.
“For example: to bridge the long distances between Earth and Mars, we need continuous acceleration for about half the journey, and continuous deceleration for the second half. For the sake of the health of the passengers, it would be desirable to maintain the equivalent of a standard gravity on the surface of the Earth during the flight; the easiest way to do this is to fly the spacecraft at the appropriate constant rates, of both acceleration or deceleration. The proper way to achieve such continuous acceleration, is by use of controlled thermonuclear fusion, preferably using modes of fusion we call inertial confinement.”
“On the surface of Mars, we shall require a great deal of artificial energy. We shall consume much more energy per person than in the most developed industrial regions of Earth today, simply to maintain an agreeable artificial environment. The basic industries we develop on Mars, to produce essential materials from the natural resources available there, will operate at much higher temperatures than are used in any basic industries on Earth today. For these uses, we require energy generated at very high energy densities. This requires what we call today the second-generation level of controlled thermonuclear fusion, which should be on-line about 25 to 30 years from now.”
Heat shields protect spacecraft against atmospheric hazards like intense heat and friction. There are currently no shields capable of allowing humans to safely enter Mars’ atmosphere. However, many space agencies are working on advanced heat shields.
Weight and spatial considerations limit the amount of heat shielding a spacecraft can have. NASA, for example, is close to completing an inflatable heat shield, one that can maximize surface area coverage whilst still remaining as compact as possible when not in use.
The most common industrial tool we shall use on Mars is advanced forms of what we call lasers and coherent particle beams. To master the problems of biology, both on Mars itself, and in long interplanetary flights, we require development of what we call today optical biophysics. Work in this area has been under way in the Soviet Union for decades, and, has begun to take off in the Western countries more recently.
“To handle the new kinds of industrial processes used, both on Mars and in interplanetary flight, we require systems which use much more powerful computers than exist today, computer units which can perform the equivalent of a billion floating-point arithmetic operations in an average second, and also computer units which can perform what are called nonlinear calculations at the speed at which the controlled processes are reacting. The first kind of improvement in computer systems is already in progress, and first steps are now being made on the second problem.”
“Before beginning to construct the first permanent colony on Mars, we shall have made a significant number of interplanetary flights from Earth-orbit to Mars-orbit, and return. These flights will haul the materials needed to begin the colonization from something like a great railway freight classification yard, in an orbit perhaps about 22,000 miles above the surface of Earth. The spaceships will haul this material from Earth-orbit to Mars-orbit, and return for another load.”
Food and Water
Another challenge is how to have safe food and water to eat and drink when far from Earth. On the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts are able to get resupplies from Earth from cargo spacecraft visiting the space station, taking just six hours to get there. But the journey time to Mars is eight months minimum. And if you’re on the Red Planet, you need to go it alone. Scientists have been working to address this problem. They’ve been looking at ways for astronauts to produce their own clean water and grow their own food. And just as importantly, they’re making sure any risk of contamination is reduced, to keep astronauts as safe and healthy as possible on long-duration missions.
Exploring the rough terrain of Mars requires a vehicle with specific capabilities. Astronauts need a vehicle with high mobility, full life support, and several features related to exploration and discovery, such as lab equipment and surveillance tools.
RV-style vehicles are the ideal solution. Astronauts can travel in comfortable clothing thanks to a pressurized cabin. These vehicles should be able to house everything that the astronauts need to survive for extended periods away from their landing site
If you’re on Earth, it’s not very practical to have a conversation with someone on Mars at the moment. Our current means of communication, as instantaneous as they might appear to us, are extremely slow in terms of interstellar communication.
Current radio systems take years to transfer information between Earth and Mars, which is why laser technology is being considered a more viable form of data transfer. NASA proved the efficacy of laser communications in 2013 when they used lasers to transmit data from the Moon to Earth at a much higher speed than any other technology.
China’s Mars programs
In May 2021 , China landed a rover on Mars, completing the most difficult stretch of its mission to send an orbiter, lander and rover to the red planet. It was China’s first independent mission to Mars, and made the country only the second, after the United States, to successfully place a rover on the planet.
The mission ambitiously involved a combined orbiter and rover and is set to launch in summer 2020 with a fleet of vehicles from other nations that includes NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars Mission and ExoMars 2020.
The two demarcated areas are in relatively low-lying regions which offer advantages to first-time Mars entry, descent and landing (EDL) attempts, says Mason Peck, an associate professor at Cornell University and former NASA chief technologist. “The atmosphere of Mars is really inconvenient. It’s too thick to ignore—so, aerothermal heating is important—but too rarefied to offer an easy descent by parachute. So, the lower the elevation, the more atmosphere the spacecraft encounters on its way to the surface, and, therefore, it can decelerate more easily,” Peck says. “If one is unsure of one’s decelerator technology, this is the best-odds approach.”
The landing will involve the use of blunt body aerodynamics, deployment of a supersonic parachute and powered descent to safely set the rover down on Mars. Part of the team that developed the Chang’e-3 lunar lander and rover, which successfully soft-landed on the Moon’s Mare Imbrium region in late 2013, is working on the mission, though Mars presents different and greater challenges: notably remoteness, more gravity, the presence of a thin atmosphere and less solar energy reaching the planet.
“It’s all very hard,” says Peck. “The smallest errors in orbit maneuvers or failure to correctly model the atmosphere can have catastrophic consequences.” To date, about half of Mars missions have failed, although NASA has a very good track record.
“The EDL sequence carries a lot of risk. Many technologies have to perform perfectly, for the first time: the aeroshell/heat shield, the aerodynamic decelerator (or parachute(s)), position and velocity measurement relative to the ground, and the landing subsystem,” Peck says. “Getting any one of these right is a remarkable technical achievement. Getting these all right is what’s necessary to land on Mars.”
The orbiter will meanwhile be carrying seven payloads, including medium and high-resolution cameras (with the latter similar in capabilities to NASA’s HiRISE), an ion and neutral particle analyzer, a magnetometer, subsurface detection radar, a mineral spectrum detector and an energetic particle analyzer. The instruments will be variously used for stated science goals of analysis of the Martian ionosphere and interplanetary environment, investigating the type, distribution and structure of Martian soil and the topographic characteristics of Mars.[JD1] [JA2] The subsurface detection radar will, in particular, be used to detect water and ice on the Martian surface and below.
Due to the remoteness of Mars, which ranges from between 54.6 million to 401 million kilometers from Earth, and subsequent telecommunication delays, China is developing autonomous control technology for both the orbiter and rover.
China is now working on a complex mission to collect Mars rock samples and deliver them to Earth by building on the successes of recent moon and Mars missions. The mission, likely to be named Tianwen-2, could launch as soon as 2028 with the goal of returning samples around 2030. Such a mission has never before been attempted.
NASA and ESA are already collaborating to conduct a Mars sample return mission. The Perseverance rover touched down on Mars in February and in September collected the first samples for potential later delivery to Earth. Launches of a NASA-led rover and European Space Agency rover, to pick up the samples and send them into orbit around Mars, and an ESA-led orbiter for the return to Earth, are to launch no earlier than 2026, with samples returning in 2031.
In July 2020, NASA launched their Perseverance Mars Rover – one in a long line of sophisticated robots sent to explore the red planet. Its job is to take samples from Mars’ uninhabitable terrain to see if life could have once been supported there. It is due to reach Mars in 2021.
The 240 kilogram solar-powered rover is twice the mass of China’s lunar rovers and, according to academic papers authored by key figures involved in Chinese space exploration missions, slated to carry six payloads. These are a navigation and topography camera, a multispectral camera, a subsurface detection radar, a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument similar to Curiosity’s LIBS instrument, a Martian surface magnetic field detector, and a Mars climate detector.
AN AUSTRALIAN company has struck a deal with NASA that will see them work together build an experimental rover, which will be put on Mars by 2024. NASA will assist Gold Coast-based company Gilmour Space Technologies in building a rover designed to extract water from the red planet. This is believed the first time an Australian-based space start-up has entered into a Space Act Agreement with NASA. Testing of the rover prototype will take place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is just one of several projects the two companies are working on together.
Robotic Bees for the Exploration of Mars
The US space agency has had great success with its rovers, especially Curiosity and Opportunity, but these are limited in the extent of land they can cover. The rocky terrain of Mars is hellish for everything that moves on wheels, so the idea of NASA’s aerospace engineers is to use robots that can collect data by flying over the surface.
As part of the NASA program called Innovative Advanced Concepts—which promotes the development of technologies capable of revolutionizing the future of space exploration— researchers from The University of Alabama in Huntsville and from George Washington University (USA), together with the Tokyo University of Science (Japan), have obtained 125,000 dollars (107,000 euros) in funds to develop the concept of Marsbees. This is a swarm of robotic bees, each with the approximate size of a bumblebee, which will carry integrated sensors and wireless communication devices. The swarm of flying biorobots would land on Mars through a rover, which would also serve as a charging base and communications centre with scientists on Earth.
The biggest impediment to a flying object on Mars is the low atmospheric pressure, less than 1% of the Earth’s, making it difficult to get the necessary lift. “Our preliminary numerical studies suggest that a bumblebee with wings like those of a cicada could reach the height and lift necessary to fly in the atmosphere of Mars,” explains Chang-Kwon Kang, an aerospace engineer at the University of Alabama and one of the leaders of the ambitious project.
However, it will be at least ten years before the bees endowed with artificial intelligence are ready to populate the red planet. The Japanese team will first need to build and test a robot specifically designed to operate on Mars. These researchers have already developed what they call a hummingbird micro aerial vehicle that has flown successfully on Earth. The next step will be to test it in a vacuum chamber to simulate the atmosphere of Mars. Meanwhile, the US researchers will perfect the models and calculate the parameters needed to create the Marsbees.
“The objective of phase 1 is to determine the design of the wing and to specify the movement and weight that will allow the robot to float with optimum power in the atmospheric conditions of Mars. For this we will use high-fidelity numerical models,” says Kang. The researcher adds that issues such as the optimization of systems engineering, the development of the manoeuvring capabilities of Marsbees, their resistance to wind gusts and their performance at take-off and landing, as well as the energy and remote sensing implications, will be analysed in phase II, still pending approval.
David Weintraub, astronomer and author of the book Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go (Princeton University Press, 2018), considers that the concept of Marsbees is “interesting,” and that the plan makes sense and can work. “I imagine you could learn a lot about the atmosphere, especially in terms of wind patterns and circulation patterns – it could be an incredibly economical way to learn more about the planet.”
Space Radiation Won’t Stop NASA’s Human Exploration
Space radiation is quite different and more dangerous than radiation on Earth. Even though the International Space Station sits just within Earth’s protective magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth. Outside the magnetic field there are galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped space radiation.
Initial estimates suggest it would take humans around nine months to get to Mars. During that time, astronauts would be constantly bombarded from radiation from the sun, whereas people on Earth are protected by the planet’s atmosphere. However, Deep-space and long-duration missions, where both crew members and spacecraft no longer benefit from the protection of Earth’s magnetic fields, are considered high risk for adverse radiation impacts. Long term exposure of astronauts to radiation is problematic and the effect that space radiation has on spacecraft electronics and software is equally challenging.
A recent report based on study on mice found that radiation from cosmic rays could be twice as potent as had been estimated. Health scientist Frank Cucinotta and Eliedonna Cacaoat the University of Nevada Las Vegas re-examined previous studies of cosmic rays on mice and found that the rodents were two times more likely to develop tumours in space. The scientists say that the increased risk of cancer is a result of how the cosmic ray damages DNA which then spreads to other DNA.
When cosmic rays hit cells, the DNA is damaged which subsequently gives off chemical signals that results in other cells mutating. The duo say that previous studies have not accounted for this. In their paper published in the journal Nature, they write: “Studies … are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere.”
While it’s true that space radiation is one of the biggest challenges for a human journey to Mars, it’s also true that NASA is developing technologies and countermeasures to ensure a safe and successful journey to the red planet. “Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that’s not the current situation,” said, Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead. “When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth.”
NASA is able to protect the crew from SPEs by advising them to shelter in an area with additional shielding materials. However, GCRs are much more challenging to protect against. These highly energetic particles come from all over the galaxy. They are so energetic they can tear right through metals, plastic, water and cellular material. And as the energetic particles break through, neutrons, protons, and other particles are generated in a cascade of reactions that occur throughout the shielding materials. This secondary radiation can sometimes cause a worse radiation environment for the crew.
“One of the most challenging parts for the human journey to Mars is the risk of radiation exposure and the inflight and long-term health consequences of the exposure,” NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, Ph.D., said. “This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes.”
NASA is evaluating various materials and concepts to shield the crew from GCRs. Researchers are developing and evaluating shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits with state of the art models and at experimental facilities such as the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL). Scientists are investigating pharmaceutical countermeasures, which may be more effective than shielding to protect crews from GCRs. Teams are integrating radiation-sensing instruments into the Orion spacecraft, like the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are using Personal and operational dosimeters. Engineers are developing enhanced space weather forecasting tools and studying faster rockets to reduce the time spent in space and exposure to radiation.
NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division is also developing various space radiation detection and mitigation technologies. The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was one of the first instruments sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human exploration. It measures and identifies radiation on the Martian surface, such as protons, energetic ions, neutrons, and gamma rays. This includes not only direct radiation from space, but also secondary radiation produced by the interaction with the Martian atmosphere and ground.
“Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence,” Troutman said. We’ve already found valuable resources for sustaining humans, such as water ice just below the surface and past geological and climate evidence that Mars at one time had conditions suitable for life. What we learn about Mars will tell us more about Earth’s past and future and may help answer whether life exists beyond our planet.”
HPE takes teraflop computing to space – and beyond
Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are launching HPE’s Spaceborne Computer on a year-long journey to Mars. If successful, future space exploration missions can use high performance, commercial off-the-shelf computers that offer teraflop speeds (according to WhatIs.com, a measure of a computer’s speed and can be expressed as: a trillion floating point operations per second or 10 to the 12th power floating-point operations per second) in the harsh, radiative atmosphere of space, without the need for incorporating expensive and time consuming protective measures.
The goal of this powerful collaboration is to provide interplanetary missions with the latest supercomputing capabilities that support simulation, AI and real-time data collection and analysis, while reducing the latency and expense of transmitting data back to distant Earth.
Today, most of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth, due to the limited computing capabilities in space creating a challenge when transmitting data to and from space. While this approach works for space exploration to the moon or in low Earth orbit (LEO), when astronauts can be in near real-time communication with Earth, the further they go, the larger the communication latencies become. This means it could take up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth, and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts. The long communication lag makes any on-the-ground exploration missions challenging and potentially dangerous, especially if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios where immediate communication with Earth is absolutely essential.
Kena Setshogoe, Managing Director for South Africa at HPE, says, “A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime. To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order to better ensure mission success. By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction.”
Spaceborne includes the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed High Performance Computing (HPC) interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system. Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, HPE created a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space.
The HPC nodes are loaded with advanced self-care software to oversee and protect the computer’s progress for the year-long experiment on the ISS. During this mission, HPE Apollo servers will continuously run compute- and data – intensive HPC benchmark tests in the changing environmental conditions and monitor factors such as power consumption.
Setshogoe says, “A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime. To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order to better ensure mission success. By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction.” He adds that the goals of the mission are not reserved purely for space travel. Should the mission prove successful, the experiment will highlight that HPE equipment will be well-suited for any terrain, environment or project back home, on Earth.
“For both the local and international market, this means the likes of military, mining or other volatile environments will have the ability to use an HPE device to achieve real time data at the edge and in-touch capability. For example, an engineer undertaking seismic testing can rely on HPE equipment to withstand tremors, eruptions, and more, reliably computing, analysing and transmitting data directly from the source,” explains Setshogoe.
This dramatically shortens typical communication times and, with real-time analytics, could open up a world of possibility for disaster predictions, and can even mean the difference between life and death.” Setshogoe includes that this level of data-at-the-edge computing will allow businesses from every industry to reliably compute at the speed of thought, enabling them to make fast decisions, and respond to business trends more quickly than ever before.
The Food And Water Systems
A project called BIOWYSE hoped to find a solution to the water problem for long missions. The project looked at ways to store water for extended periods of time, monitor it in real time for contamination from microbes, and then dispense clean drinking water whenever needed by decontaminating the water with UV light rather than chemicals.
‘We wanted a system where you take it from A to Z, from storing the water to making it available for someone to drink,’ said Dr Emmanouil Detsis, the coordinator of BIOWYSE. ‘That means you store the water, you are able to monitor the biocontamination, you are able to disinfect if you have to, and finally you deliver to the cup for drinking.’ The end result was a fully automated machine that could perform all of these tasks. ‘When someone wants to drink water you press the button,’ said Dr Detsis. The water is checked, decontaminated if necessary, then delivered. ‘It’s like a water cooler,’ he said.
The machine could even analyse samples from wet surfaces inside a spacecraft to see if they had been contaminated and were dangerous to astronauts. ‘Inside the closed habitat, you start having the humidity build up and you may have corners or areas where they are not clean,’ said Dr Detsis. ‘So we developed something that could check these areas in a fast way.’ The project developed a prototype of this machine on Earth, measuring about a metre long, with the idea that a smaller version could be used somewhere like the ISS. Ultimately, however, the thought was that a system like BIOWYSE could be useful for future exploration, and the prototype remains available for any applicable missions in the future. ‘The system is designed with future habitats in mind,’ said Dr Detsis. ‘So a space station around the moon, or a field laboratory on Mars in decades to come. These are places where the water may have been sitting there some time before the crew arrives.’
Water is hard to come by, but it is not scarce in the solar system. The moon and Mars both have ice that could theoretically be turned into drinking water. But a more difficult prospect for self-sustainability is food – any food for astronauts needs to be brought from Earth. There are some developing ideas of how to grow food without constant resupply missions. For several years on the ISS, astronauts have been using machines like the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), launched in 2006, to research the growth of plants such as thale cress. The ECMS was replaced by a similar machine called Biolab in 2018.
Dr Ann-Iren Kittang Jost from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRiS) in Norway, was the project coordinator on TIME SCALE, a project that looked at ways to develop a new system to grow plants that are safe to eat in space. When Dr Kittang Jost started the project, the EMCS had already been in space for a decade and it was time to upgrade it, she says. ‘We (need) state of the art technologies to cultivate food for future space exploration to the moon and Mars.’ Dr Ann-Iren Kittang Jost, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space, Norway
TIME SCALE aimed to produce a method to recycle water and nutrients inside a future cultivation machine, and also monitor the health of the plants more easily, to develop an idea for a ‘greenhouse’ in space. ‘We (need) state of the art technologies to cultivate food for future space exploration to the moon and Mars,’ she said, as well as new ideas. ‘We took (the ECMS) as a starting point to define concepts and technologies to learn more about cultivating crops and plants in microgravity.’
TIME SCALE envisioned a machine that would have a larger space to grow plants than the suitcase-sized EMCS, with more functionalities. ‘We built a prototype demonstrating that we could recycle the nutrients and we could grow salad or lettuce in there,’ said Dr Kittang Jost. ‘We could produce them, and monitor the nutrients in the water. We proved the concept.’ As with Biolab and the ECMS, the prototype was designed to use a spinning centrifuge to simulate gravity on the moon and Mars to measure the plants’ uptake of nutrients or water, for example. Such ideas could not just useful for space travel, but for people on Earth too. ‘It’s important to find synergies with the challenges we have on the ground,’ said Dr Kittang Jost. And that includes finding ways to reuse nutrients and water in our own greenhouses, for example by improving sensor technology and developing better ways to monitor nutrients and plant health.
In order to travel to and even live on worlds like the moon and Mars, technologies like these will be crucial – allowing astronauts to be self-sustainable when they are far from Earth. And making sure any water stored at these locations is decontaminated and safe to drink is very important. ‘It will not be like the ISS,’ said Dr Detsis. ‘You are not going to have a constant crew all the time. There will be a period where the laboratory might be empty, and will not have crew until the next shift arrives in three or four months (or longer). Water and other resources will be sitting there, and it may build up microorganisms.’ Dr Kittang Jost says that in terms of producing safe food, we are nearing the goal of having a system that can be used on future missions. ‘We’re quite close,’ she said. ‘It’s a challenge of course. But building a greenhouse should be feasible.’
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