Tag Archives: NASA

9 Real Technologies in Ridley Scott’s film The Martian

9 Real Technologies in Ridley Scott’s film The Martian

Andy Wier’s great novel The Martian has been made into a blockbusting film, starring Matt Damon, and directed by Teesside’s own Ridley Scott (studied Art in my hometown of Hartlepool Ed). The film is due out in the UK in November, but it’s a great read too.

One of the reasons this particular story (of the many great stories about Mars) is so engaging, is that it transports you to a believable world, an experience so nearly within our grasp that you can taste it. This is achieved by reference to lots of things we already know about, and technologies that already exist. Let’s take a look at a few…

  1. The Hab. 

On the surface of Mars, Watney spends a significant amount of time in the habitation module — the Hab — his home away from home. Future astronauts who land on Mars will need such a home to avoid spending their Martian sols lying on the dust in a spacesuit.

At NASA Johnson Space Center, crews train for long-duration deep space missions in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). Not only does NASA have this tech, but this kind of analogue research is also the domain of the Mars Society.

Credit: The Mars Society
Credit: The Mars Society

2. The Plant Farm

Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm in “The Martian,” making potatoes the first Martian staple. Today, in low-Earth orbit, lettuce is the most abundant crop in space. Aboard the International Space Station, Veggie is a deployable fresh-food production system. Using red, blue, and green lights, Veggie helps plants grow in pillows, small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer, to be harvested by astronauts. In 2014, astronauts used the system to grow “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and just recently sampled this space-grown crop for the first time. This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars. This is also an area of analogue research for The Mars Society, and we recently posted a plea for help fundraising which saw their Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign reach their target to re-build their GreenHab after a fire.damaged GreenHab

Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

3. Water Recovery

There are no lakes, river or oceans on the surface of Mars, and sending water from Earth would take more than nine months. Astronauts on Mars must be able to create their own water supply. The Ares 3 crew does not waste a drop on Mars with their water reclaimer, and Watney needs to use his ingenuity to come up with some peculiar ways to stay hydrated and ensure his survival on the Red Planet.

On the International Space Station, no drop of sweat, tears, or even urine goes to waste. The Environmental Control and Life Support System recovers and recycles water from everywhere: urine, hand washing, oral hygiene, and other sources. Through the Water Recovery System (WRS), water is reclaimed and filtered, ready for consumption. One astronaut simply put it, “Yesterday’s coffee turns into tomorrow’s coffee.”

4. Oxygen Generation

Food, water, shelter: three essentials for survival on Earth. But there’s a fourth we don’t think about much, because it’s freely available: oxygen. On Mars, Watney can’t just step outside for a breath of fresh air To survive, he has to carry his own supply of oxygen everywhere he goes. But first he has to make it. In his Hab he uses the “oxygenator,” a system that generates oxygen using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator.

On the International Space Station, the astronauts and cosmonauts have the Oxygen Generation System, which reprocesses the atmosphere of the spacecraft to continuously provide breathable air efficiently and sustainably. The system produces oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which splits water molecules into their component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is either discarded into space or fed into the Sabatier System, which creates water from the remaining byproducts in the station’s atmosphere.

Oxygen is produced at more substantial rate through a partially closed-loop system that improves the efficiency of how the water and oxygen are used. NASA is working to recover even more oxygen from byproducts in the atmosphere to prepare for the journey to Mars.

5. Mars Spacesuit

Mark Watney spends large portions of his Martian sols (a sol is a Martian day) working in a spacesuit. He ends up having to perform some long treks on the surface, so his suit has to be flexible, comfortable, and reliable.

NASA is currently developing the technologies to build a spacesuit that would be used on Mars. Engineers consider everything from traversing the Martian landscape to picking up rock samples.

The Z-2 and Prototype eXploration Suit, NASA’s new prototype spacesuits, help solve unique problems to advance new technologies that will one day be used in a suit worn by the first humans to set foot on Mars. Each suit is meant to identify different technology gaps – features a spacesuit may be missing – to complete a mission. Spacesuit engineers explore the tradeoff between hard composite materials and fabrics to find a nice balance between durability and flexibility.

One of the challenges of walking on Mars will be dealing with dust. The red soil on Mars could affect the astronauts and systems inside a spacecraft if tracked in after a spacewalk. To counter this, new spacesuit designs feature a suitport on the back, so astronauts can quickly hop in from inside a spacecraft while the suit stays outside, keeping it clean indoors.

Credit: Giles Keyte/NASA
Credit: Giles Keyte/NASA

Then there are also these guys we’ve talked about a bit, Final Frontier Design

Credit: Final Frontier Design
Credit: Final Frontier Design

6. The Rover

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once humans land on the surface of Mars, they must stay there for more than a year, while the planets move into a position that will minimize the length of their trip home. This allows the astronauts plenty of time to conduct experiments and explore the surrounding area, but they won’t want to be limited to how far they can go on foot. Astronauts will have to use robust, reliable and versatile rovers to travel farther.

In “The Martian,” Watney takes his rover for quite a few spins, and he even has to outfit the vehicle with some unorthodox modifications to help him survive.

On Earth today, NASA is working to prepare for every encounter with the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The MMSEV has been used in NASA’s analog mission projects to help solve problems that the agency is aware of and to reveal some that may be hidden. The technologies are developed to be versatile enough to support missions to an asteroid, Mars, its moons and other missions in the future. NASA’s MMSEV has helped address issues like range, rapid entry/exit and radiation protection. Some versions of the vehicle have six pivoting wheels for maneuverability. In the instance of a flat tire, the vehicle simply lifts up the bad wheel and keeps on rolling.

7. Ion Propulsion

In “The Martian,” the Ares 3 crew lives aboard the Hermes spacecraft for months as they travel to and from the Red Planet, using ion propulsion as an efficient method of traversing through space for over 280 million miles. Ion propulsion works by electrically charging a gas such as argon or xenon and pushing out the ions at high speeds, about 200,000 mph. The spacecraft experiences a force similar to that of a gentle breeze, but by continuously accelerating for several years, celestial vessels can reach phenomenal speeds. Ion propulsion also allows the spacecraft to change its orbit multiple times, then break away and head for another distant world.

This technology allows modern day spacecraft like NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft to minimize fuel consumption and perform some crazy maneuvers. Dawn has completed more than five years of continuous acceleration for a total velocity change around 25,000 mph, more than any spacecraft has accomplished on its own propulsion system. Along the way, it has paid humanity’s first visits to the dwarf planet Ceres and the asteroid Vesta.

8. Solar Panels

In the film, Matt Damon is constantly re-arranging solar panels to stay alive.

On the International Space Station, four sets of solar arrays generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power more than 40 homes. The station doesn’t need all that power, but the redundancy helps mitigate risk in case of a failure. The solar power system aboard the space station is very reliable, and has been providing power safely to the station since its first crew in 2000.

Orion, NASA’s spacecraft that will take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before, will use solar arrays for power in future missions. The arrays can gather power while in sunlight to charge onboard lithium-ion batteries. In case no sunlight is available – for instance, if Orion were to go behind the Moon – there would still be plenty of power to allow it to operate.

9. RTG

For more than four decades, NASA has safely used Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators(RTGs) to provide electrical power for two dozen space missions, including Apollo missions to the Moon. Spacecraft such as the Mars rover Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover use an updated, next-generation model for electrical power.

RTGs are “space batteries” that convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into reliable electrical power. The RTG on Curiosity generates about 110 Watts of power or less – slightly more than an average light bulb uses.

In “The Martian,” the crew buries the plutonium-based RTG power source for the Mars Ascent Vehicle far away from the Hab in case of radioactive leakage. To prevent any leak, as suggested in the movie, Plutonium-238 has several layers of strong, advanced materials that protect against release even in severe accidents. The RTG mostly emits alpha radiation, which can only travel a few inches in the air and does not penetrate clothing or human skin. It could only affect human health if it were broken into very fine particles or vaporized, and inhaled or ingested. The isotope is manufactured in a ceramic form, so accidentally inhaling or ingesting it is unlikely, particularly as it does not dissolve in liquids.

In reality, the natural radiation environment on Mars is more extreme than the radiation produced from an RTG.  Ionizing radiation raining down on Mars from space is far more hazardous to human health.  Current Mars missions are analyzing the Martian radiation environment so that mission planners can design protection systems for future astronauts.

Future explorers will need assured, reliable and durable power sources for survival in place before they arrive.  Power system options might include a mix of more efficient radioisotope power systems, solar power, fuel cells, and nuclear fission.

Originally for Spaceflightuk.com with information from NASA and the Glenn Research Centre, Cleveland

Edited by Rob Adlard

Can you Believe It – 50 Years of Mars Missions

Can you Believe It – 50 Years of Mars Missions

How old is ‘old’ technology?  How about 50 years old tech that went to Mars! can you believe it’s already been that long…surely a manned mission can’t take another 25…watch this great little film from NASA’s JPL

What is the view like lifting off towards Mars? Here’s a helpful video…

So, what would you see if you were lifting off from Earth, on board NASA Orion spacecraft, the craft NASA hopes will eventually take astronauts to Mars?

Here’s a nice little video, it starts with the launch, and the the live stream from the test that NASA did earlier this year.

The Orion crew module is placed in a secure stand where it will undergo decontamination. Photo credit: NASA

The Orion crew module flown 3,600 miles into space during Exploration Flight Test-1 has arrived to the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company headquarters in Littleton, Colorado.

While in Colorado, engineers will perform final decontamination on the crew module, will continue post-flight analysis of select components, and will evaluate a new acoustic technology called Direct Field Acoustic (DFA) testing.  The evaluation of DFA testing will determine if the method can produce enough energy to simulate the acoustic loads Orion will experience during launch and ascent on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Test highlights:

  • Customized, high-energy speakers use a specific algorithm to control how much energy reaches the vehicle.
  • The speakers will be configured in a circle around the vehicle.
  • The amount of speakers needed for the test will fill up three tractor-trailers.
  • The testing is expected to conclude in early 2016.
Photo credit: NASA

If the method proves to be an accurate representation of SLS launch and ascent acoustic loads, it will be used to evaluate and verify Orion’s ability to withstand those loads during its next mission, Exploration Mission-1.

About Lockheed Martin

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 112,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services. The Corporation’s net sales for 2014 were $45.6 billion.

Buzz Aldrin’s Plan For Journey To Mars

It hit the news, and social media over the last few days – the story about Buzz Aldrin’s plans for a mars mission (not for him obviously, even though I bet he’d like to, he’s that kind of guy, but it’ll happen by 2040 in his vision) the new association is with the Florida Institute of Technology, and Buzz is relocating there (OMG take sandbags!)

Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University
Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University. CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW
Florida Tech’s president, Anthony J Catanese, left, talks with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he shows him the campus on Thursday in Melbourne, Florida Photograph: Craig Rubadoux/AP
Florida Tech’s president, Anthony J Catanese, left, talks with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he shows him the campus on Thursday in Melbourne, Florida Photograph: Craig Rubadoux/AP

While it’s great that there’s a lot of chatter about Mars finally filtering through to the mainstream media, let’s try to take a slightly more critical look at this – this is a new association with F.I.T, not a new idea – but what the heck, let’s start talking about it!

I’m guessing the mainstream interest is mostly because of the ‘Martian’ movie featuring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. The Martian is a great book, and inspiring to people thinking about Mars missions; it contains many themes that are current, and unresolved.

Creidt: Buzz Aldrin and Perdue University
Creidt: Buzz Aldrin and Perdue University

So, what’s this brand new plan all about? Well, the first thing is that it’s not so new, in a way it’s actually a few years old – that’s fine, it probably didn’t get mainstream attention in 2013, but the original details are here. It’s good stuff, from one of the most credible space advocates alive. In the document (produced in association with Perdue Univeristy, Indiana) Aldrin slams NASA’s goals, lack of funding, and also lack of cooperation with China. This is an interesting theme, expect to hear more about this, and indeed in The Martian (spoiler alert!) cooperation with China is a crucial element. He also advocates shelving NASA’s SLS system – it’s flagship program – but does endorse the Orion as the primary crew vehicle.

Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purde University
Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University

In addition to Orion development, Aldrin’s plan envisions a NASA-crafted manned Mars Exploration Vehicle (MEV). MEVs ultimately would be placed on orbits that regularly cycle between Earth and Mars, allowing for relatively routine round-trip transportation to the Red Planet.

Companion modules, called exploration modules (XMs), would accompany both Orion and the MEV on most of their missions. XMs would provide much of the living and storage space necessitated by long-duration spaceflight. This would all involve the cancellation of NASA’s plans for manned missions to asteroids, but it would mean a return to the moon. In the past Buzz had said that going back to the moon was unimaginative, but there is a growing argument for the fact that outposts from Earth could be more easily tested on the moon as a stage in the Mars  process.

Let’s hope we hear more about this plan; possibly an advocate with the profile of Buzz can actually change opinion sufficiently, but don’t forget that significant figures such as Robert Zubrin (The Mars Society) have been at it for years already. And, before we leave that topic Mars fans, don’t forget there’s only a couple more days to save the Mars Society’s GreenHab through their crowdfunding campaign because when you go to mars, you’re gonna need that!

Credit: The Mars Society
Credit: The Mars Society

The V2 to Saturn 5 – how the Nazi rocket program enabled NASA’s Apollo Program

policeman with engine
A British policeman looks at the remains of a V2 rocket engine in London during World War II

Most people know the connection between Werner von Braun, the brilliant German rocket scientist who was poached by the Americans after the war, and taken to the US to develop missiles for the US military. How this led to the Apollo moon missions must have been such an incredible personal journey for Von Braun, and one that still leaves us not sure how we should feel about that success, and the rocketeers origins. Much has been written about this topic, such as From Nazis to NASA by Bob Ward

Former Nazi SS officers Werner Von Braun with US President John F. Kennedy. Photo credit: NASA
Former Nazi SS officers Werner Von Braun with US President John F. Kennedy.
Photo credit: NASA

A strange little book, Peenamunde documents the progression of the Nazi rocket program until the end. It does oddly seem to involve phrases that go something like “sadly this rocket wasn’t successful in reaching it’s goal…” when actually the goal would have resulted in the death of more civilians in the allied countries in World War II. However, rather than that sounding as unsavoury as I’ve just suggested, it rather points to the problem of describing the successes and failures of a rocket engineer who ultimately had a great deal to do with the success of sending Americans to the moon – it’s odd isn’t it, you see where I’m going with that, right? You’d have to ‘begin’ your sense of pride at his achievements for America at a certain point in time, and block off all feelings about him before that…or maybe that’s not how people feel…

Werner von Braun is partially hidden, wearing his black SS uniform when Himler visits Peenamunde.
Werner von Braun is partially hidden, wearing his black SS uniform when Himler visits Peenamunde.

Von Braun was always interested in space travel, and the potential that rockets had to provide that. He famously said after the success of his first V2 rockets in killing people in Britain that “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet” and while working for the US military he wrote Das Marsproject, a ‘manual’ on how to get to Mars – still relevant today. Von Braun actually retired from NASA when he realised that there was no chance of the agency having the funding and political direction to carry on with the space exploration that had long been his motivation.

However, to enjoy the contribution he made to NASA. creating the Saturn 5, the greatest rocket ever built, you really do need to shut out some unpleasant truths. Von Braun claimed that he knew nothing of the horrors that were going on in Nazi Germany, however a friend, Adam Cabala described it thus (Sellier, Stuhlinger, IMT)

Prisoners at Camp Dora in striped atire with the V2 rockets, precursors of the Saturn V rocket which enabled the moon landing.

“… the German scientists led by Professor Wernher von Braun also saw everything that went on every day. When they walked along the corridors, they saw the prisoners’ drudgery, their exhausting work and their ordeal. During his frequent attendance in Dora, Professor Wernher von Braun never once protested against this cruelty and brutality . . . . On a little area beside the clinic shack you could see piles of prisoners every day who had not survived the workload and had been tortured to death by the vindictive guards . . . . But Prof. Wernher von Braun just walked past them, so close that he almost touched the bodies.”

Amy Shira Teitel, as ever, has presented a great like video about the Nazi rocketeers

Naturally Von Braun has to reinvent himself, and it is easy to believe that he was disgusted, and ashamed (hell, what human being wouldn’t be!) so what was he to do? Thinking about this isn’t as straightforward as it first appears, it’s a study in moral relativism and arguments about the greater good etc…The Nazi’s were students of American pioneer Goddard, and without his work the V2 wouldn’t have been possible, so further perspective provides further changes the emotion about this matter further.

War has always seen great strides in technology, but perhaps we’re entering a more positive era where commercial opportunity can provide the great strides in space technology that we can all feel positive about.

(Sellier) A History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets. André Sellier. 2003
Inside NASA’s glass Orion cockpit

Inside NASA’s glass Orion cockpit

After 10 years of evolution, the prototypes of NASA’s Orion “glass cockpit” are finally reaching maturity.

Introduction to the Orion craft. Video courtesy of NASA

The cockpit, a first for a NASA spacecraft, will be a critical part of Orion’s maiden manned mission in six years and distinguishes itself by virtue of its ability to eliminate a small mountain of switches and heavy wiring. “The Space Shuttle had about 2,000 switches and controls, in addition to all of its displays,” noted Dr. Lee Morin, astronaut and lead crew interface for NASA’s Orion Cockpit Rapid Prototyping Lab (RPL), during a recent visit to NASA by Design News. “During dynamic flight, about 1,247 of those were available to the crew. But that will change with the glass cockpit.”

Indeed, the glass cockpit represents a monumental change for NASA and its design engineers. Instead of the well-known cornucopia of switches, Orion’s capsule will employ six flat screen monitors about 20 inches from the noses of the astronauts, who will lie strapped beneath them. The monitors are called a glass cockpit because most of the spacecraft’s instruments are represented as images on them. All but 56 of the 2,000 switches will be transformed into software icons.

Orion's cockpit will use six screens - two in each of the large displays. Each screen is about the size of a sheet of looseleaf paper. (Source: EDN/Loretta Taranovich)

Orion’s cockpit will use six screens – two in each of the large displays. Each screen is about the size of a sheet of looseleaf paper. (Source: EDN/Loretta Taranovich)

”The goal was to build a cockpit user interface – a dashboard – that would allow the crew to control the spacecraft on these deep space missions,” Morin said.

Creating the glass cockpit has been a decade-long labor of love for engineers in the RPL. The design team prototyped hardware and software for the avionics, “drove” the prototype cockpits on simulators, evaluated displays and user interfaces, and corrected deficiencies. Then, they repeated this process again and again for 10 years.

Key to the process was the presence of astronauts at the Johnson Space Center. “We’ve had about 50 astronauts in here,” Morin said, referring to the RPL. ”Human factors people assign them to do different tasks and then we get their feedback.”

To speed the evolution of the glass cockpit, RPL’s team built many of the prototype parts themselves, rather than purchasing them off the shelf from vendors. The team built parts in a 3D printer and did subsequent machining. Morin, who keeps a four-axis milling machine in his garage, cut many of the hardware components, including mounts for the cockpit displays. He also used Arduino boards to prototype some of the display software. “These parts don’t have to fly in space,” he told Design News. “We can do it economically, get it just the way we want it, and produce it very quickly.”

In some cases, engineers built interface devices that will eventually be used aboard Orion’s space flights. One such part, known as the Cursor Control Device (CCD), will serve as an alternative to a computer mouse. Initially starting out as a box, the CCD was gradually transformed to a steam iron shape before evolving into a hand-friendly plastic blob containing rocker switches and castle switches. The current iteration of the CCD is expected to reside on the left side of each seat, near the astronauts’ knees. It will enable astronauts to move their cursors around the screens and select control icons.

Morin said that NASA engineers considered a wide variety of alternatives before settling on the current shape. “We had things that looked like motorcycle grips and Klingon battle swords,” he said. “There were some pretty wild-looking designs, but we eventually gravitated toward the blob.”

To test it for every imaginable human factor, a NASA branch chief even brought in his 9-year-old daughter. “He explained how it worked and asked if she was able to turn it on,” Morin recalled. “She did it right away. That was the acid test.”

The current evolution of the glass cockpit uses three large DU-1310 screens from Honeywell International, Inc. It also employs electronic procedures software (dubbed “eProc”) that will enable the team to eliminate hundreds of pounds of paper manuals from the Orion’s storage space.

Team members say that refinements on the Orion capsule will continue, but they don’t expect major changes at this point. “We’re approaching it with an intent that we don’t make lots and lots of changes,” Stuart McClung, NASA’s crew and service module functional area manager, toldDesign News. “There’s an expense to keeping a design team in place.”

Still, the journeys ahead continue to provide motivation for engineers to bring the glass cockpit as close to perfection as possible. “We know that these are the screens that the first humans who go to Mars will be looking at, as that mission unfolds in the decades ahead,” Morin said.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years, and wrote this article originally for Design News.