Tag Archives: astronauts

Martian outposts could be made with astronaut’s blood, sweat, and pee — quite literally

Building the future’s space colony will take grit, blood, sweat, and tears — quite literally so, according to new research.

Image credits Tatiana Belova.

Researchers at the University of Manchester plan to build astronauts’ future space lodgings out of the astronauts themselves. More to the point, they plan to use the albumin protein naturally present in their blood, alongside urea, a waste product naturally excreted through urine and sweat. These compounds can be mixed with martian soil — regolith — to create building materials that are comparable to, and even out-perform, concrete.

With the sweat of our brows

“Scientists have been trying to develop viable technologies to produce concrete-like materials on the surface of Mars, but we never stopped to think that the answer might be inside us all along,” says Dr. Aled Roberts from The University of Manchester, a co-author of the paper describing the process.

Size and mass are important limitations for any transportation effort, but none much more so than space transportation. Every cubic inch of volume and every gram of weight in a spaceship are carefully planned and accounted for. Nothing is wasted, and nothing that isn’t essential is included — simply because taking something to space takes a fortune in fuel, design, and logistical costs.

This means that it’s simply not economically viable to take a load of concrete or bricks up to Mars or the Moon, for example. Naturally, this is an issue, as we want to have people living on these (and many other) worlds in the future. In a bid to try and solve this issue, the team at Machester worked to develop a way to make local resources usable by the astronauts as building materials.

Maritan regolith has been investigated for this purpose in the past, especially in conjunction with any local water resources. Together, these can produce a mixture that, while not ideal, is appropriate for lightweight construction duties, enough to give missions their first staging base that’s viable for long-term habitation.

The team realized that one resource will never be missing from crewed missions: the crew. The material they developed, AstroCrete, uses the protein albumin isolated from human blood plasma as a binder for lunar or Martian dust. The finished product can withstand compressive strengths as high as 25 MPa (Megapascals). For comparison’s sake, ordinary concrete can withstand forces between 20-32 MPa depending on its exact composition. Further research showed that incorporating urea, a waste product naturally excreted by our bodies through urine, tears, and sweat, can fortify AstroCrete even more, allowing it to withstand close to 40 MPa.

Although these results are based on simulated lunar and martian dust, not the real thing, they are definitely encouraging. The authors estimate that a crew of six astronauts can produce around 500 kgs of high-strength AstroCrete over a two-year mission. It likely won’t be the main material used for construction, but it has potential as a mortar for sandbags or vitrified (heat-fused) regolith bricks. Used in this way, each crew member could supply enough albumin and urea to expand the habitat enough to support one new member. Lodging could thus be doubled on each successive mission at the same site.

“It is exciting that a major challenge of the space age may have found its solution based on inspirations from medieval technology,” said Dr Roberts, noting that animal blood has been used as a binder for building materials in the past.

“The concept is literally blood-curdling”.

The effect can be explained by the proteins in the blood, including albumin, denaturating — in essence, curdling. This results in a much longer molecule that effectively acts the same way as rebar in reinforced concrete, tying everything together.

The paper “Blood, sweat and tears: extraterrestrial regolith biocomposites with in vivo binders” has been published in the journal Materials Today Bio.

The European Space Agency is hiring for the first time in 11 years

Do you want to explore the great, dark expanses of the Universe? Ever wondered what it’s like sleeping in zero gravity? Feel like you have to get out of Earth before things get worse? Can’t blame you — but ESA can help you.

The Main Control Room at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany. Image credits European Space Agency.

The European Space Agency has issued a new call for astronaut recruits, for the first time in a decade. Applications will start being accepted on March 31st, and everyone is encouraged to apply — ESA seeks to “expand gender diversity in our ranks”.

AstrEUnaut

“To go farther than we ever have before, we need to look wider than we ever have before,” said ESA director general Jan Wörner in a statement declaring the new campaign.

“This recruitment process is the first step and I look forward to watching the agency develop across all areas of space exploration and innovation, with our international partners, in the years to come.”

David Parker, the ESA director of human and robotic exploration, says that the agency’s drive for diversity should focus not only on “origin, age, background or gender of our astronauts, but also perhaps physical disabilities”, which is definitely a fresh take on what we consider astronaut material. However, given the rising interest in space exploration, from both public and government agents, having such individuals as part of the crew will undoubtedly help us discover and develop ways of overcoming the issues that will affect them uniquely in space.

Parker adds that due to this reason, he will also be launching the Parastronaut Feasibility Project — “an innovation whose time has come” — alongside the recruitment program.

After the window for applications closes (it will be running from March 31 to May 28), candidates will contend with a six-stage selection process, which will end by October 2022. As far as requirements go, applicants must be nationals of an ESA member state aged 27 to 37, be between 153 to 190 cm (5 to 6.3 ft) tall, and be able to speak and write in English. You’ll also need a university degree in natural sciences, engineering, or medicine (or an equivalent), and you’ll be at an advantage if you have at least three years of professional experience in these or a related field.

The ESA and NASA signed an agreement in October to work together in the future to develop sustainable lunar exploration. Crews from both agencies will collaborate on the Artemis Gateway lunar outpost, meant to serve as a first stop for astronauts traveling from Earth to the lunar surface. If you’re one of the people who manage to finish ESA’s recruitment drive, it’s very likely you’re probably going to work on that project.

Applications should go here — good luck!

Space doesn’t make for a good sleeping spot, a new paper reports

A new study on astronauts serving on the Mir space station finds that getting a good night’s sleep in outer space is surprisingly hard.

The International Space Station as seen from space shuttle Atlantis in 2011.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Researchers Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, and NASA Ames Research Center say space naps might not be all you’re hoping they’ll be. The team studied the sleeping patterns of four cosmonauts (Russian personnel) and one astronaut before, during, and after missions in space. While still preliminary, the findings show that they got around one hour less sleep per day on average, while spending significantly more time awake in bed.

Sleep in space

“There were marked shifts in sleep architecture compared to baseline, and some of these evolved over the course of the mission,” said lead author Oliver Piltch, an undergraduate researcher at Harvard College.

“Our findings were consistent with previous studies that focus on the issue of sleep continuity. We found significant decreases in sleep efficiency during spaceflight despite similar times in bed.”

Living in microgravity can lead to shorter sleep duration, more time spent awake, and changes in sleep cycles (the relation between different states of sleep).

The crew involved in this study slept a daily average of 5.7 hours in space, the team reports, compared with an average of 6.7 hours on Earth. Furthermore, they spent around 14.1% less time in non-REM states, and 25.8% less in a REM state. It took around 1.5 times longer for the participants to reach their first episode of REM sleep in space compared to on Earth. Other notable differences include a decrease in the total time spent in bed in space, alongside an increase in the time needed to fall asleep.

Summed up, these impacts can lead to a 17.7% reduction in overall sleep efficiency, the authors add.

A better understanding of how living in space impacts sleep would help us improve the life quality, health, and efficiency of space crews. It could also go a long way towards ensuring the success of settlers on the Moon or Mars, and could even help us improve sleep down here on Earth.

“The significant sleep changes induced by the extreme environmental conditions of spaceflight can magnify and help reveal similar, though potentially less noticeable, changes that are induced by the more moderate conditions of Earth,” he said.

“Our results support other studies indicating that sleep architecture can adapt to different environments. Also, the sleep deficits that our subjects were facing while working around the clock in a high-pressure environment provide further evidence for the danger of stress and shift-work schedules for humans anywhere.”

The paper “0278 Changes in Sleep Architecture During Long-Duration Spaceflight” has been published in the journal Sleep.

More than 12,000 Americans want to become NASA astronauts for the Artemis mission

Public interest in space exploration is as strong as ever, as NASA reports receiving over 12,000 applications for its upcoming Artemis program.

Image credits Paul Hudson / Flickr.

NASA started accepting applications for its Artemis mission in March, the first time it has issued a call for astronaut volunteers since 2017. As part of this mission, the agency aims to send the first woman to the Moon by 2024 and first humans to Mars in the 2030s.

The previous call saw a “record number of Americans apply to #BeAnAstronaut”, according to the agency, after it received more than 18,300 submissions. This class of astronauts graduated in January.

With over 12,000 applications from every U.S. state, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories, this marks the second-highest number of applications NASA has ever received for one of its missions, according to a statement released on Wednesday.

Many were called, few to be chosen

“We’ve entered a bold new era of space exploration with the Artemis program, and we are thrilled to see so many incredible Americans apply to join us,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in the statement.

The agency’s Astronaut Selection Board is hard at work reviewing the applications, although, given the high interest it raised, they are still in the early phases of the process. Eventually, the most promising candidates will be contacted by NASA and invited to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for final interviews and medical tests.

The new astronauts are expected to finish training and be mission-ready in the summer of 2021. Until then, they will train in skills such as spacewalking, robotics, and spacecraft systems. Final training will be handled aboard the International Space Station, where the fresh astronauts will prepare for their ultimate mission on the Moon and Mars.

“We’re able to build such a strong astronaut corps at NASA because we have such a strong pool of applicants to choose from,” said Anne Roemer, manager of the Astronaut Selection Board.

“It’s always amazing to see the diversity of education, experience and skills that are represented in our applicants.”

The volume of applications is even more surprising considering that NASA increased minimum qualification requirements for applications from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree in a science, technology, math, or engineering field and that they shortened the submission window from two months to just one.

The new astronauts may also be the first to launch aboard NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. NASA plans to also use this opportunity to send the first female astronaut to the Moon and establish “sustainable lunar exploration by 2028”. This step will help them better prepare for exploring Mars, a step currently scheduled for sometime in the 2030s.

Despite the huge volume of applications, NASA’s selection process is especially stringent. Since the 1960s, NASA has only selected 350 people to train as astronaut candidates. The US’s active astronaut corps currently only numbers 48 members. However, given their planned missions, the agency will need more astronauts to man their spacecraft and any eventual space settlements.

Urine, the future material to build new bases at the moon

The Apollo lunar flights ended in 1972 but interest in the moon and the possibility of going back is still going strong. NASA hopes to send astronauts to the lunar South Pole by 2024, working with commercial and international partners.

Credit NASA

Doing so raises many logistical questions, such as the establishment of a base for the astronauts. Sending materials to the moon to build a base can be expensive and difficult, however, so space agencies are investigating new approaches, including the use of urine.

In a new study, researchers have found that urea, the major organic compound found in human urine, could be useful for making concrete for lunar structures. Its use could make them less brittle and more flexible, and resulting in hardier buildings.

“The two main components of urine are water and urea, a molecule that allows the hydrogen bonds to be broken and, therefore, reduces the viscosities of many aqueous mixtures,” said materials scientist Ramón Pamies of the Polytechnic University of Cartagena in Spain.

Pamies and a group of researchers from Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy conducted a number of experiments testing the use of human urea as a plasticizer. To do so, they used a material developed by the European Space Agency similar to lunar regolith.

They tested this material with urea and with other plasticizers, seeing how much weight it could support. They first tested its resistance after heating the material to 80ºC (176 ºF), followed by repeatedly freezing and thawing it. This was meant to see if the material would endure weather conditions at the moon, where temperatures can vary from 120º C (250º F) during the day to -130°C (-208°F) at night. Any building materials there would have to withstand significant thermal change while still insulating the interior.

Thankfully, the tests showed promising results. The urea that was used as a plasticizer could support heavy weights, remain stable, and keep its shape despite the harsh weather. Nevertheless, there are still challenges ahead before we’ll be able to actually use the urea.

“We have not yet investigated how the urea would be extracted from the urine, as we are assessing whether this would really be necessary, because perhaps its other components could also be used to form the geopolymer concrete,” Anna-Lena Kjøniksen, one of the researchers from the Norwegian university, said in a statement.

The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

NASA requests $1 billion in funding for Artemis mission to take man back to the moon by 2024

NASA officials presented an updated budget request to the US Congress this Monday. The agency is requesting an additional $1 billion in funding for their upcoming 2024 Moon mission, dubbed the Artemis Mission.

NASA sign.

Image via Pixabay.

In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, who was the namesake of the program that sent 12 American astronauts to the Moon between 1969 and 1972. It’s only fitting then that NASA would christen the mission aiming to take man back to the moon after her name. But, as often was the case with Greek gods, there is drama afoot.

Funding request

“This additional investment, I want to be clear, is a downpayment on NASA’s efforts to land humans on the Moon by 2024,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says.

NASA’s original plan was to carry out the moon return mission in 2028, but Vice-President Mike Pence announced in March that the current administration wants to push those plans for 2024. This way, the mission would line up with a possible second term for President Trump. The present budget revision is intended to bring the Agency’s funds up to speed with the new deadline.

The ball, however, is firmly in Congress’ court — they will have to decide whether to back up the Trump administration on the new timeline or not. New York Times writes that NASA’s original budget for the 2019 fiscal year (which ends on Sept. 30) is $21.5 billion strong. The president’s original budget request for the 2020 fiscal year aimed to cut this sum by $500 million; if Congress greenlights the new budget request, this will effectively increase NASA’s 2020 budget by $1.6 billion.

That money is definitely needed. Bridenstine says NASA needs the extra $1.6 billion to pay for the new ground and space vehicles needed to carry out the Artemis mission on the revised deadline. Around $651 million is earmarked for the Space Launch System (SLS), the new large rocket NASA is developing, and the Orion capsule that would take astronauts to the moon and other deep-space destinations. The rest, around $1 billion, will fund the development of a commercial landing system to help take astronauts to the moon’s surface. NASA also plans to scale back and delay plans for Gateway, an outpost in orbit around the moon, to limit costs until Artemis.

The final costs of Artemis will likely be much higher, with Bridenstine calling the current request a “down payment.” When asked how much the new mission would cost in total, he quipped to a reporter: “I would love to tell you that.”

However, there are some concerns that NASA can pull off the mission on its accelerated timeline. Spacefaring isn’t exactly something you want to rush, and there have also been issues with the development of the SLS (being carried out by Boeing). Hopefully, some quick cash is all NASA needs to iron out these issues.

Moon footprint.

Mock lunar dust kills cultured cells, alters DNA — raising concerns about the real thing’s toxicity

Don’t forget to dust off your spacesuit if you go trekking out on the Moon — else you might risk cellular and DNA damage.

Moon footprint.

Footprint made by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission.
Image credits NASA.

A new study has revealed one more thing we’ll have to plan for when and if we decide to settle on the moon: lunar dust can be quite harmful if inhaled. While this isn’t the first signs we’ve seen of moon dust causing trouble for humans — Apollo mission astronauts complained of sneezing and watery eyes after bringing the stuff into their ships on spacesuits — this is the most thorough look at the health risk it poses.

Dust out

“Very small particles in the breathable range or smaller can interact directly with cells,” Bruce Demple, a professor at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine and the study’s corresponding author told Gizmodo.

The study, unfortunately, didn’t involve sending anyone to the Moon. Instead, the team cultivated human lung and mouse brain cells in Petri dishes in a lab, then exposed them to simulated lunar dust. The team reports that the substitute could damage or outright kill cells, as well as compromise the integrity of their genetic material. Up to 90% of human lung cells and mouse neurons died when exposed to dust particles that mimic soils found on the Moon’s surface.

The dust was especially dangerous to living tissue when crushed down into small, micrometer-sized bits.

One interesting find is that it’s not the dust’s chemical interactions with cells — which the team gauged by its ability to generate free radicals — that caused the damage. They’re not exactly sure what does, however. Demple suspects the way these dust particles are shaped might have something to do with it. Past research has looked into using physical rather than biochemical defenses against bacteria, and some animals also sport similar defenses, so Demple’s theory isn’t as far-fetched as it may first seem.

Moon-dust-montage.

Pieces of moon dust under the microscope.
Image credits NIST.

All in all, though, it’s not the best of news. Moon dust is much drier than the one we’re used to seeing down here and likely to be electrostatically charged, on account of there being no atmosphere, the paper notes. Last but not least, it’s also likely composed of much tinier particles — ground down by billions of years of meteorite bombardments. In other words, lunar dust has a tendency to be drawn to and stick to everything. It’s also tiny enough to bypass most filters and be a nuisance for some seals. Together, these properties would make dusting off spacesuits and equipment an exercise in frustration.

Given how dangerous this dust may be to living cells, this might become quite a health hazard for potential lunar colonists. The team reports that long exposure to the dust could lead to bronchitis or other health problems. The hay-fever-like symptoms the Apollo astronauts experienced suggests that longer exposure to the dust could impair airway and lung function, Demple explains. If the dust also causes inflammation in the lungs, it could increase the risks of diseases such as cancer.

“If there are trips back to the Moon that involve stays of weeks, months or even longer, it probably won’t be possible to eliminate that risk completely,” Demple adds.

Still, the results aren’t conclusive as of now. The study itself is quite limited since it used a moon dust substitute, as the original wasn’t available and quite hard to reach. Cultured cells are also a poor substitute for the complexity of a whole, living organism. However, it does suggest that dust from the moon could pose a serious threat to health, a finding that is supported by previous research. Dismissing the findings outright based on the study’s limitations would thus be quite foolish.

The team is fully aware of these shortcomings, but they hope that the results will convince NASA to let them work with real lunar dust, recovered by the Apollo missions.

The paper “Assessing Toxicity and Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA Damage Caused by Exposure of Mammalian Cells to Lunar Regolith Simulants” has been published in the journal GeoHealth.

Foale Ochoa ceremony.

Ellen Ochoa and Michael Foale join the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame

Two more NASA Astronauts join the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in recognition of their achievements, bringing the total number of those honored as such to 95.

Foale Ochoa ceremony.

Image credits NASA.

Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and current director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston alongside Michael Foale, the only U.S. astronaut who can boast service on both the ISS and Russian space station Mir have been inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on Friday in recognition of their unique achievements.

The ceremony in honor of their naming was presided over by Bob Cabana, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a fellow hall of famer, which was held at Kennedy’s visitor complex.

Otherworldly achievements

After earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, Ochoa joined the agency in 1988 as a research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Two years later, she joined the Johnson team as an astronaut candidate and served the 9-day long STS-56 mission aboard Discovery after completing astronaut training. As part of the mission, she studied the atmosphere to understand how solar activity impacts Earth’s climate and the environment in general.

She has flown to space four times on the STS-56, STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110 missions, logging an impressive 1,000 hours off-planet. She is Johnson’s first Hispanic director and the center’s second female director, and has also served as its deputy director and director of Flight Crew Operations.

Foale, a naturalized U.S. citizen, earned a doctorate in laboratory astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in June 1987, and before his maiden flight helped test the flight software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory simulator.

He has taken part in six different space missions: STS-45, STS-56, STS-63, STS-84, STS-103 and Soyuz TMA-3, and good thing he did, too. During STS-84, Foale was one of the brave few who patched Mir back to working conditions after the station was crippled by a collision and subsequent depressurization. Overall, Foale has some 374 days in space under his belt, and four spacewalks totaling some 22 hours and 44 minutes.

What’s more, Foale served as chief of the Astronaut Office Expedition Corps, assistant technical director of Johnson, as well as deputy associate administrator for exploration operations at NASA’s Washington headquarters. His last assignment before retiring in 2013 was as chief of the Soyuz Branch, Astronaut Office at Johnson, supporting Soyuz and International Space Station operations and space suit development.

NASA is designing small away-from-home-ecosystems to make space exploration sustainable

Researchers at NASA and the University of Arizona, Tucson will be working together to bring long-term sustainability to our space pioneers — one greenhouse at a time.

NASA's Greenhouse.

The prototype greenhouse housed at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Image credits University of Arizona

Astronauts have already shown the world their green thumbs by growing plants and veggies aboard the ISS. But when going farther away from our blue cradle, crews will have to rely on on-site resources for food and oxygen. To make sure they’re well stocked with both on future journeys, NASA researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the University of Arizona (UA) are working out how to grow enough plants to feed and air a whole crew on a long-term journey.

“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead scientist in Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research, about the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project. “The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.”

The prototype is an inflatable greenhouse specifically tuned to keep the plants happy and continuously growing and will provide food, scrub the breathing air while recycling both water and waste. They’re cylindrical, measuring 18 feet in length and more than 8 feet in diameter. They were designed and built by Sadler Machine Company, one of the project partners.

These greenhouses will maintain a waste-none, closed-looped process called a bioregenerative life support system. The CO2 astronauts exhale will be fed through the greenhouse so the plants can photosynthesize and generate oxygen. Water will either be shuttled along from Earth or sourced from “the lunar or Martian landing site,” NASA notes. The liquid will be enriched in gases and nutrient salts and will be pumped across the crop’s roots then recycled — basically, hydroponics in space.

Inside_greenhouse.

The crops were selected to provide not only food, but air revitalization, water recycling and waste recycling.
Image credits University of Arizona.

Researchers at the UA are currently testing different species of plants to determine what would survive best, and what buds, seeds, or other material are required to make the greenhouses self-sufficient on a mission. Figuring out what to take and how to best use local resources afterward will be key, since deep space missions will be hard and pricey to constantly supply from home. So, NASA researchers are working on systems which can harness such resources — with an emphasis on water.

“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”

The greenhouses will likely need to be buried under soil or rock to protect the plants inside from cosmic radiation, which means specialized lighting will be required to keep them alive. Currently, the team has succeeded in using either electrical LED light or hybrid methods “using both natural and artificial lighting” — which involves the use of light concentrators on the surface to track the movement of the sun and feed its light underground through fiber optic channels.

What’s left to do now is to find out how many greenhouses will be needed per crew. Giacomelli says the next step on the agenda is to test with additional units and computer models to ensure a steady supply of oxygen can be produced from the lunar greenhouses.

 

NASA establishes first Space Technology Research Institutes to make Mars a self-sufficient colony

When going to space, pack light — that’s what NASA is planning for the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars. In an effort to conserve space and keep payloads as light as possible, the agency is looking into new methods to manufacture various goods on Mars rather than shipping them from Earth.

One of NASA’s epic Mars recruitment posters shows space colonists will have quite a bit of DIY on their hands.
Image credits NASA / KSC.

Going to space is hard work, but staying there is even harder. So, NASA has decided to fund two STRIs (Space Technology Research Institutes) to help them with the task at hand. These novel multi-disciplinary research institutions led by universities will tackle issues essential to humanity’s expansion into space. NASA’s key concerns are to make sure that astronauts, and later colonists, can make it into space and be relatively self-sufficient once there — in other words, that they have the right materials to settle space and the tools to make whatever they need on-site without having to wait on shipments from Earth.

Explore, expand, exploit

Fans of 4x games will know that the faster you can access new resources and start secondary centers of production, the better. It seems that NASA has taken the lesson to heart since they’ve decided to invest a lot of money into two research bodies which will help humanity send humans to Mars in 2030, and establish a colony there and on more planets in the future.

For this purpose, the agency has selected the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering Space (CUBES), which intends to focus on the production of food, fuel, and medicine for the mission, and the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), concerned mainly with the development of building materials to be used on Mars. Each STRI will receive US$15 million in funding from NASA to help them reach these objectives.

And the best part about science? It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The fact that these STRIs are researching what is essentially space-tailored science doesn’t mean their work won’t be applicable here on good ole’ Earth.

“While the research goals of the CUBES institute are to benefit deep-space planetary exploration, these goals also lend themselves to practical Earth-based applications. For example, the emphasis on using carbon dioxide as the base component for materials manufacturing has relevance to carbon dioxide management on Earth,” a NASA statement reads.

“Results of [US-COPM] research will have broad societal impacts, as well. Rapid development and deployment of the advanced materials created by the institute could support an array of Earthly applications and benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector.”

Ah NASA… Researching space tech to make the US great again. I love it.

Getting blood from a stone

And because you can’t make new stuff without starting from raw stuff, the agency has also enrolled the help of University of Central Florida professor Sudipta Seal to develop a refining method called molten regolith electrolysis. This is actually a crazily awesome process through which astronauts and future colonists will shovel Martial soil (known as regolith) into a reaction chamber, heat it up to 3,000°F (1650 °C), and extract oxygen and molten metals. They can breathe or burn the first and use the second to 3D print the stuff they need.

A very big stone. Lots of blood to be had.
Image credits Reimund Bertrams.

“It’s essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it,” Seal said regarding the research.

It’s not very different from a method used in ore refining here on Earth. At those temperatures, the chemical bonds between atoms locked in the regolith will be weak enough that two oppositely charged electrodes in the reaction chamber can detach oxygen from metal. On a planet where you’d have no idea how to start mining and there’s no free oxygen, this process might be a game changer. And the best part is that Mars’ soil is relatively abundant in both iron and oxygen — that’s why it’s so rusty red — so dirt-refining might be quite lucrative.

All this research will add up towards an essential goal — lighter initial payloads. It would be virtually impossible for today’s crafts to carry everything a burgeoning settlement will require, and constant shipping would be prohibitively expensive at its best or dangerously unreliable at its worst. Having the means to produce food, construction materials, and basic goods on-site should thus ensure that colonists want for nothing on alien planets.

Wearing NASA’s new Starliner space suit is reason enough to become an astronaut

Yesterday, NASA unveiled the new space suits astronauts will wear in the Boeing Starliner on their way to the ISS — and they’re icy cool.

Incidentally, they’re also icy-blue.

Image credits Boeing.

The suits were designed to be lighter, more comfortable, and less cumbersome than their earlier counterparts. The agency reports that the whole shebang weighs in at about 20 pounds (9 kg) with all accessories. That’s a full 33% lighter than the orange launch-and-entry suits you see astronauts wear on TV. Another feature bound to make crewmembers really happy is that the Starliner suits allow water vapor to pass through, away from the astronauts, while remaining airtight. No more stuffy suits!

A new architecture and material composition for the knee and elbow sections as well as re-vamped joint patterns throughout the suit makes them much more flexible too. The helmet and visor are now part of the suit so you don’t have to worry about misplacing them. Several zippers can be pulled up or down to make the suit more form-fitting during sitting or walking. Finally, touchscreen-sensitive fingertips tie it all together.

Image credits Boeing.

But there’s only one thing you really need your space suit to do, and these blue babies definitely deliver:

“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” astronaut Eric Boe said.

“It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”

Astronauts have already had the chance to get a feel for their new threads inside a Starliner mock-up, to learn how best to use both. They repeatedly climbed in and out of the mock-up, interacted with all the buttons, screens, or knobs around, and of course tested the suits at that all important space-going activity — sitting.

Houston, we have a-comfortable.
Image credits Boeing.

“The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft’s redundant life support systems,” said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”

These suits will keep the crew safe and comfy inside the spaceship, and on the ISS in case of emergency. The heavy duty outer-space suits (called extravehicular mobility units, or EMUs) are already on board the station. So between the cool new wearables, the awesome postables, and the ridiculously cool Mars recruitment campaign NASA has been spoiling us with lately, you’re probably dreaming of becoming an astronaut yourself.

Well dream no longer, because we’ve got you covered. Go get’em tiger!

Taking a glance at space food

space food

space food

Astronauts definitely don’t have it easy; preparing and training for most of your life, to go on a mission that is dangerous in most cases, and that has many difficulties to say the least. But perhaps the most interesting aspect in the life of an astronaut is eating. Because there’s not any room for your mother’s pancakes, or your favorite food. On a space ship, they use syringe to prepare food.

Basically, one of the most common foods for them is made in the following way; you take the needle and put it in the frozen and dried shrimp cocktail that NASA cooked for you, and inject a bit of water. That’s dinner for you. However, things have evolved in the past years, and you can choose from more than 150 beverages to “eat”, but all the focus is on how many nutrients they have, not how tasty they are.

Astronauts cook by heating a thermostabilized food pouch by putting it in an electric warmer, no bigger than a backpack, or by putting the frozen dehydrated food in a rehydration station. There are instructions, in English and Russian, about how to cook the foods, and they’re also double packed, so astronauts cut them with scissors, which are way useful than your traditional dishes in space.

Also, nutritionists have to take in considerations other factors, such as portability and shelf life, which are way more important than the taste and flavor for the food. Actually, flavor doesn’t matter one bit in space, because they can’t go up the nose. A menu could consist of foods such as beef, beans and tortillas, chicken, peanut sauce, and many more. You can have desert too, but don’t expect the world from it. Still, the food is way healthier than your average, and when you get to space, the final frontier, you definitely need food…. the final frontier.