Technologies for deep space survival
by Staff Writers for Launchspace
Bethesda, MD (SPX) Aug 22, 2018
Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion concerning human space travel beyond the near-Earth zone. Mars colonization has been a favorite topic for quite some time. However, getting to Mars, or any other planet, is a very challenging proposition.
Given current technologies, the trip to the Red Planet would take roughly eight months each way. The implications are clear. Spending eight months in a capsule with the exposure to direct solar radiation and zero gravity is not only stressful but is downright unhealthy. Add to this the need for life support and you have a really-complicated set of problems.
While it is true that humans have learned to endure several months, and even a year, in the International Space Station (ISS), this is a special case. Logistical support has been readily available via resupply missions from Earth. Solar radiation levels are attenuated, thanks Earth's magnetic field. And, communications with Earth have been continuous.
When humans venture into deep space, an array of new technologies is needed to insure safe flights. The crew cannot just call home for a repair kit in case of malfunctions. In fact, the crew may not even be able to call home during certain phases of a flight. Thus, crew capsules for long-range flights must incorporate more reliability than that for the ISS.
One of the new required technologies addresses life support. Since mass is always limited on spacecraft, systems that keep the crew alive must be lightweight and small. Orion, one capsule option for lunar exploration, will be equipped with systems that are designed for a several-day missions. For example, a new system being tested aboard the ISS will remove carbon dioxide and humidity from inside Orion.
A new compact toilet will also be on Orion. To keep astronauts safe and in shape there is an automated fire suppression system and exercise equipment. For lunar trips, Orion will have spacesuits capable of keeping astronauts alive for six days in case of cabin depressurization.
Another technology for long flights is more capable propulsion systems that must maintain the flight course with great precision and be capable of getting the crew home. In the case of Orion, there is a highly complex service module that incorporates propulsion capabilities for lunar go-arounds and return-to-Earth maneuvers.
Thermal control is another critical technology for space flight. One important aspect is related to the return reentry as the spacecraft comes back from the planets. The farther a spacecraft travels in space, the more heat is generated on it return to Earth. When Orion returns from the Moon, it will be traveling nearly 25,000 mph. Its heat shield is designed to ablate away as it heats up. While Orion's heat shield is the largest ever built an even bigger one would be required for a Mars return.
Radiation protection will be critical for travel beyond the Earth's magnetic field. Humans exposed to large amounts of radiation can experience both acute and chronic health problems ranging from near-term radiation sickness to the potential of developing cancer in the long-term. Orion was designed with built-in features to ensure reliability and safety during potential radiation events. For example, this capsule has a makeshift storm shelter for use in case of a solar radiation event.
Clearly, the complexity of a crew capsule increases with the expected travel distance from Earth. Progress toward crewed lunar transfers is well underway with Orion, but travel to Mars will require further giant steps in technology advances.
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