NASA amps up its endeavors to further technologies that will not only allow manned missions to Mars, but also the ability to inhabit the planet. Their ambitions, however, are not without competition.
In recent years there has been a growing stir around the topic of a manned missions to Mars and ultimately progressing towards inhabiting it. Recent studies push the exploration of Torpor and alternative resourcing, and countries have begun competing against each other to be the first to get a man to set foot on the Red Planet. It’s the moon, all over again—only this time we plan on staying.
From what it looks like, Mars may actually hold the potential to be a destination for humans. In order to pursue the plausibility of this new dream, NASA has begun to invest in technologies for In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)—for us less-scientifically inclined folk, that’s the ability to find and use natural resources beyond Earth.
“We don’t yet know what clues astronauts will uncover in the Martian soil or atmosphere that reveal new knowledge about our solar system, but one thing is certain, Mars contains critical resources that can sustain a human presence. Harvesting those resources will be key to pioneering the Red Planet,” NASA stated on their website on Friday.
The variety of ISRU techniques that NASA has been exploring are pretty expansive, ranging from storing consumables such as oxygen and drinking water, to the ability to grow food, create rocket fuel, and source local materials for the 3D printing of parts that are needed for structures. In an announcement in August, NASA said that it planned to outfit the Mars 2020 Rover with Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), in hopes of securing the ability to convert carbon dioxide collected from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. If successful, the oxygen could be used to sustain human life or even to fuel an ascent vehicle bound for Earth.
If NASA can successfully develop a way to produce oxygen, they will have one less thing weighing down the vessel for a Mars missions.
“The ability to produce oxygen on Mars decreases the amount of cargo we will need to launch in advance of human missions or send with crews, which could significantly decrease the costs of those missions as well,” NASA stated.
Other ISRU exploration projects being headed up by NASA are the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) experiment, which will outfit a rover with specific technologies needed to characterize and map ice and other substances on the moon in an effort to extract hydrogen and water ice from the soil, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which aims to redirect near-Earth asteroids into orbit around the Moon so that materials from these asteroids can be sourced for propellant, consumables or radiation shielding.
Essentially, NASA is going all out to source every plausible material in space.
It wouldn’t be a race without a little competition
Though NASA is dedicated to exploring ISRU and finding a way to sustain human life on Mars, they are certainly not alone in their quest. The ever-ambitious Elon Musk has stated that his company SpaceX plans to send people to marks by 2026, which is nearly 10 years before NASA’s forecasted date.
Whether or not SpaceX’s claims are more hype than reality remains to be seen, but what we do know is that NASA at least has one advantage over Musk’s technology giant: they’ve actually put a man on the moon and at least a rover on Mars. SpaceX, however, has merely completed missions to space stations and back. Though SpaceX talks a lot of hype, they have not put forward any specifics as to how they plan to execute missions to the Red Planet. For all we know, the claim to set foot on Mars within the next decade could just be one more crazy thing Musk has said.
There’s no telling who will get there first, but whoever does manage to set foot on Mars will be the first to face far more difficult hurdles than just making it there. After the half-year-long journey, the odds of survival can only be increased with such things as ISRU. Not only that, but due to the orbit of the planets around the sun, astronauts will face a fixed time period on the Red Planet. They will either need to leave after 30 days, or be forced to stay beyond 500 days. Though SpaceX hasn’t mentioned anything that addresses these concerns, NASA seems to be pretty confident that with all of its ISRU exploration either of the aforementioned mission time frames will not be an issue. On the contrary, NASA optimistically looks forward to man’s “first breath of fresh air made on another planet.” Now all they need to do is fix that extensive travel time issue with a little warp speed.
To follow the progress of NASA’s ISRU programs visit the official exploration website.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Mock scene of astronaut on mars