Space engineers are thinking a lot about Mars these days.
Visionaries see our neighboring planet as a place to do everything from mining essential minerals to storing DNA samples and a record of human history.
Now engineers are testing habitat designs that can keep people alive and healthy once they get there.
NASA is sifting through applications from folks who want to join the crew of four that will be sealed for a year in its Mars Dune Alpha pod, a 3D-printed simulated Mars base at the Johnson Space Center.
The pod, not quite 30 by 60 feet in size, will have crew cubicles at one end, a research area at the other, and living, dining, and recreation facilities in between.
In addition to science experiments and space-suited strolls outside the pod, the 12-month mission will test how well the crew handles equipment breakdowns, disrupted communications with Mother Earth, and other emergencies—and, of course, how well four people manage living cheek by jowl for a year with nowhere else to go.
Bjarke Ingels Group, which designed Mars Dune Alpha, is also the architect of Dubai’s Mars Science City.
In 2017, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates announced its intent to colonize the red planet within 100 years. To test ways to live there, the UAE plans to create a series of pressurized domes that not only will test possible Martian habitats but also give scientists a place to work as they develop the equipment needed to survive there.
Another hermetically sealed space meant to mimic life on other planets is the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM), built out of the shell of the famous, or infamous, 1990s’ Biosphere 2 experiment in the Arizona desert.
That previous venture sealed eight people into a 3-acre greenhouse with its own coral reef, rain forest, desert, savannah, and farm. Four men and four women were to live there shut off from the exterior world, growing their own food and recycling their own waste.
The experiment was scheduled to last for two years but ended early when microbes in the habitat’s enriched soils gradually took more oxygen out of the atmosphere than expected and the plants in the soil couldn’t absorb it all, leaving the humans with less and less oxygen to breathe.
The new version is less ambitious: it uses the original Biosphere’s greenhouse and has attached shipping container-like modules to accommodate living spaces and a workshop. A “bioregenerative life support system” will continuously clean the internal air and water.
SAM, situated in a Mars-like desert, sits beside a half-acre “Mars yard” where crews can test rovers and pressure suits and something called a “gravity offset rig” that will simulate walking on a surface with gravity weaker than Earth’s.
SAM’s developers are reviewing proposals from people interested in conducting experiments locked in there for a few days to a few months.
SAM’s advisory partners include the University of Arizona, National Geographic, and NASA.
For other would-be space tourists, there’s the Mars Desert Research Station outside the Utah desert town of Hanksville. Crews can sign up for a week or two of isolation to conduct experiments, test rovers, and sense what it would be like to carve a human footprint onto another planet.
Get your application in now. The private Mars Society, which operates the station, is already booking for the 2023-24 season.
TRENDPOST: Although these experiments have a fanciful side, they will discover things that will benefit those of us who stay here on Earth as well as those who leave it.
Biosphere 2 gleaned new information about carbon dioxide emissions on plants and oceans and also weather effects on rainforests.
Building on earlier work, the new trials will uncover more new and usable information about how closed systems work and their impact on nature and on the human psyche.