Now that NASA has announced its goal of sending a manned space mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s, the race is on to accomplish many of the scientific discoveries that will be required to support human life in space. Here on Earth, researchers will be dealing with the engineering challenges posed by long-term space flight, including supporting human life for the two or three years necessary to complete a mission to Mars or how much fuel can be provided without making a craft too heavy for launch.
On October 7th, NASA announced the In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge to drum up new ideas on how to use the resources available on the Red Planet to support life there. A prize pool of $15,000 will be distributed amongst three winning entries that will be announced by NASA next January; first place will receive $10,000, while the two runner-ups will each receive $2,500. Discoveries coming from this scientific competition will help to dramatically reduce the costs associated with sending a manned mission to Mars. The competition will close on December 3rd.
Any rocket launch to a low Earth orbit (LEO) costs approximately $10,000 per kilogram of weight. Research has indicated that every kilogram of material found in situ, or in its original place on the surface of Mars, a manned Mars mission can eliminate 11 kgs of weight between reductions in the amount of transportation propellant and spacecraft mass necessary to support a manned mission. The ability to utilize just one kilogram of Mars resources in situ instead of sending similar resources along with astronauts saves $110,000 for one trip.
The surface of Mars is largely covered by a volcanic rock known as basalt, a material which is often found along Earth’s own ocean floor. It’s been suggested that Martian basalt could be utilized as a construction material, enabling astronauts to build an infrastructure including launch pads, shelters, or even as a material for the 3D printing of tools. This basalt bedrock is covered by a fine soil known as regolith, a loose heterogeneous material that contains chemical nutrients needed by plant life to survive. Although easy water supplies and stores of nitrogen are largely lacking from the Mars regolith, NASA scientists have shown that there is some possibility of growing plants in a soil closely resembling Martian soil.
The soil found on the planet Mars does not have the same chemical makeup that nutrient-dense Earth soils have for supporting diverse plant life. Early analyses of Martian soil by rovers on that planet have observed a chemical composition which includes sulfur and chlorine substances, along with the presence of water. However, NASA tests have found that the soil on Mars is better for crops than the least nutrient-dense soils found on Earth, which still support plant life, and Martian soil performs much better than the nutrient-deficient soils found on the surface of the Moon. There has been proposals for NASA to send a satellite casing to serve as a Martian greenhouse for producing plants when the next Mars unmanned rover expedition takes off in 2020.
Basalt is a fine-grained volcanic rock which is found in abundance on Earth, the Moon and Mars. Recent Mars architectural concepts drawn up by German design firm ZA Architects envisions subsurface habitation of Mars by astronauts. The underground colony would be built by robots prior to the arrival of any astronauts. Providing effective shelter to astronauts is a concern because Mars experiences higher levels of solar radiation than Earth. The use of in situ basalt as a material for use in the 3D printing of blast protection structures, radiation storm shelters, hangars, antenna towers and more has also been the focus of research at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Human colonization on Mars is a topic that has been on the collective consciousness despite NASA’s plans of a manned Mars mission. The major motion picture The Martian had the second best October opening weekend of all time behind Gravity, giving deep space exploration a strong position among fall Hollywood blockbusters. The desire and drive to establish a human presence on the Red Planet, sparking the next generation of human accomplishment in space, is summed up in the words spoken by Matt Damon’s character: “I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong.”
This challenge is being run by open innovative systems provider NineSigma, a contractor that works with the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL). The NTL was established in partnership with Harvard University to support competition in software development for the computer code written to run NASA systems. Research will also be conducted with collaboration from Swamp Works, an engineering lab at the Kennedy Space Center dedicated to addressing issues in deep space exploration.
The Mars In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge is hardly the only innovation competition sponsored by NASA to push the boundaries of space exploration. The U.S. space agency is looking to find more solutions that address the problems of traveling to Mars through programs like the Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. This challenge offers a $6,000 stipend to up to four finalists for their plans to develop hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD) technology, which could be used to safely deliver more than 22 tons of material to the surface of Mars. NASA’s recent Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition resulted in a series of presentations from college-level students this June on how to make Mars and lunar pioneering missions less reliant on resources from Earth. NASA has even run challenges for K-12 students such as the 3-D Space Container Challenge, which received entries from children as young as five years old for designs of containers that can be 3D printed in space and used to hold supplies or experiments.
Anyone interested in learning more about the challenges developed by NASA to benefit future space travel can check out resources available online through the agency’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI). This program collaborates with other agencies throughout the federal government to inspire scientific innovation in an array of fields including Earth science, health and medicine, information technology, physical sciences, planetary science, living in space and more. Many of these challenges can also be found on the Challenge.gov website, the federal government’s official website for listing technical competitions sponsored by more than 80 federal government agencies.