Student engineers in the States say they've built the perfect tent for camping on Mars. The inflatable habitat podule is apparently radiation-proof and tough enough that pesky meteors simply bounce off it: and it features a lightweight Sabatier reactor capable of producing water from the Martian atmosphere.
"One of the big issues, in terms of a manned mission to Mars, is creating living quarters that would protect astronauts from the elements – from radiation to meteorites," says textile engineering undergrad Brent Carter of North Carolina State uni. "Currently, NASA uses solid materials like aluminum, fiberglass and carbon fibers, which while effective, are large, bulky and difficult to pack within a spacecraft."
Carter and his fellow embryonic engineers from the textiles and aerospace departments have fashioned a 1900 square foot tent which includes Demron radiation-proof fabric of the sort used in protective suits and gold metallicised film to reflect various harmful spectra such as UV away from the interior. It is also airtight, allowing it to be inflated with a breathable atmosphere. According to an NCSU statement:
The space is dome-shaped, which will allow those pesky meteors, prone to showering down on the red planet, to bounce off the astronauts' home away from home without causing significant damage.
Apart from radiation and meteorites – generally judged to be serious enough issues on Mars that many planners consider that manned landings should be made near handy caves – the student engineers tackled another issue of life on the red planet: that of providing water.
One means of producing water in sufficient quantities – and other useful things such as methane fuel for ships lifting off from the Martian surface, plus oxygen for the ships and for the explorers to breathe – is the Sabatier reaction, named for the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who discovered it. A Sabatier reactor is already at work in space, supplying extra water for the crew of the International Space Station to supplement supplies from the station's famously buggy urine recycling system.
However existing Sabatier reactors are unacceptably heavy, according to the NCSU students. In particular the nickel catalyst, generally installed in the form of metal pellets, could use improvement. Thus the Mars camping team also brought out a new fibre material to which they applied a coating of nickel nanoparticles, so offering the same active surface area with much less weight.
The students intend to enter their Mars tent and improved Sabatier reactor in NASA's Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASCAL) competition next month.
Previous NCSU students designed an inflatable Moon tent along similar lines a couple of years back, but President Obama has since nixed the idea of a manned return to the lunar surface. However boots on Mars remains an aspiration of the US space programme, so the redesign – or elements of it – might see service on the red planet one day.
The earliest that most analysts can envision a manned Mars mission setting out is at some point probably well into the 2030s, however, so it would seem that Carter and his fellow Martian camping aficionados will probably be well into their 40s by the time they see their kit fly. ®