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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 21 October, 2014

Life on Mars: how close are we to living in space?

Mankind’s fascination with space has long sparked fantasies of living away from Earth, but is this any closer to becoming a reality?

The shuttle Enterprise en route to its retirement location, New York city's Intrepid museum.
The shuttle Enterprise en route to its retirement location, New York city's Intrepid museum.
Image: John Minchillo/AP/Press Association Images

AS NASA PREPARED TO land another exploratory rover on Mars in little over a week, TheJournal.ie has been looking into humankind’s preparations for landing an astronaut on Mars.

Decades after the launch of space programmes around the world, just how close are we getting to living on the Red Planet – or anywhere in space, for that matter?

Getting there

In 2009, NASA released a comprehensive report following its review of human spaceflight plans. While the Augustine Report affirmed the ultimate goal of human exploration being to “chart a path for human expansion into the solar system”, the report suggested nearer destinations which should be considered as human spaceflight objectives in the short- to medium-term, including the Moon, Mars and near asteroids.

Currently, NASA is looking into ways to land a person on the surface of the Moon by the 2030s.

Last summer saw the end of the US space shuttle programme and retirement of NASA’s ageing fleet – but no immediate replacement service is in place. Since the shuttle retirement, international astronauts are ‘hitching’ lifts to the International Space Station on board Russian Soyuz rockets.

Dr John Charles from NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston told TheJournal.ie that the difficulty now is trying to develop the right kind of spacecraft (and a suitable launching mechanism) which will accommodate astronauts for space flights of up to two-and-a-half years.

Too big and it’s unwieldy and fuel-heavy for travelling such distances, but too small and the space restrictions could take a toll on the astronauts’ health.

“We expect a Mars vehicle to be about as massive as the International Space Station – about a million pounds,” he said. “The ISS is huge; if six astronauts are on board and you loose sight of someone, it’s easy to lose them. And that’s actually happened. The guy wasn’t ‘lost’ but the others couldn’t see where he was because he was working on a project in a different part of the station.”

“A Mars vehicle will be necessarily more constrained in volume.”

The Apollo capsules which travelled to and around the Moon in the late 60s and 70s were very small – just enough room for three people. But this was adequate for the short mission span and crew size.

But exercise is essential in keeping a crew fit and healthy through the physically-demanding space flight. Muscle mass, bone density and the cardiovascular system are all affected.

The HRP has identified the minimum exercise required to help astronauts maintain bone density, and researchers are looking into exercise to bolster muscle strength and cardiovascular systems in space.

Devices such as a treadmill and bicycle simulator are being tested as part of the research – but any equipment taken on board will have to fit snugly. Not just that – they will have to be designed for use in the more constricted space of the craft.

The (very snug) Apollo 11 command module and its three crew members, from left, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin carrying out an inspection ahead of their 1969 lunar mission. (NASA)

Living in space

Patterns of night and day are important for regulating human sleep cycles.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts is conducting research into natural lighting and has a special laboratory which can replicate different patterns of night and day and study the effects on humans.

The Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day – something NASA’s Dr Charles says could help astronauts in their adjustment because it’s easier to adapt when you’re able to sleep more, rather than less.

He also says that some people seem to have a better capacity to adjust to different time zones or daylight patterns than others and although Circadian rhythms haven’t been one of the criteria for selecting astronauts before, “it might be fortuitous” if the people selected for Mars would have longer rhythms.

Food – fresh and tasty

“It’s very attractive to live off the land  - to cut down trees, plant crops, scoop fish from the water, kill animals for food and clothing,” Charles said.”That’s not likely on Mars though.”

One option being pursued by researchers is the development of a kind of ‘mini-factory’ for propagating crops on the Martian surface.

The main component of the atmosphere there is carbon dioxide and scientists have discovered large quantities of subsurface ice; it could be possible for astronauts to use these elements to generate oxygen and water which could then be used to develop crops or to fuel a Mars launch vehicle.

“You might be able to establish a sort of Mars surface greenhouse to develop food crops and get mother nature to manipulate the Mars surface materials which are useful to the astronauts – but that’s a bit further down the stream,” Charles said.

Mars: 817 images taken by a camera on NASA’s exploration rover Opportunity combined to form a full-circle panorama. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University)

In the meantime, the food supply for space missions has to be brought on board from Earth – but more work is needed on improving the nutritional content – and taste – of the pre-packaged food.

“The supply of food for the earliest missions in-flight is to use military food, the meals that are ready-to-eat,” Charles explains. “Those haven’t been found to be useful for long durations, such as two-and-a-half year missions because they’re are not fully provided with all of the nutrients you would need.”

“So the goal we’re pursuing now is to develop the right kind of food, and particularly the right kind of packaging for preserving the food and the nutrients. But the food has to be attractive and appealing or astronauts will lose interest in it – as shown on previous flights.”

Video, photos: Simulated mission to Mars ends after 520 days of isolation >

NASA refines Mars landing – but brings it closer to dangerous landing zone >

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