Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Merging Sci Fi & Reality - NASA’s Martian & "The Martian" Share A Lot.


NASA is the purveyor of dreams – particularly when it comes to the imagination and that red fuzzy dot in the sky. Most know little of the cool gadgetry and awesome spacecraft that NASA has been developing the last decade or so. With the mission to Mars on the not too distant horizon and (thank the movie gods-there’s not enough space related movies!) a brand new Sci Fi movie entitled “The Martian” , NASA will be once more in the news, once more the reality and imagination are closer than many are aware and so we will explore technologies in both the movie AND real life/NASA.     


All the technologies…exploration starts with leaving Earth & getting there, quite simply.  NASA has been developing our next generation of ion thrusters-.NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster or NEXT. In the movie the Martian the crew utilizes ion propulsion to travel to and from the planet Mars. It is a very efficient method. Ion propulsion works by charging a gas such as argon or perhaps xenon then pushing the ions out into space at high speeds (200,000). While the spacecraft starts off slow it continually accelerates which allows for unheard of speeds. There are other advantages as well. As new power sources become available, higher power thrusters will be developed that provide greater speed and more thrust. Supporting technologies such as carbon-based ion optics and ECR discharges may greatly increase ion thruster operational life, enabling longer duration missions or high-power IPS operation. These technologies will allow humankind to explore the farthest reaches of our solar system. As the movie takes place not all that far into the future, seeing how much NASA has now & has in the movie, it all seems a reality.


Although not exactly a technological breakthrough, they are improving every day – I am speaking of solar panels. This is important because there are no gas stations (that we know) of on Mars. While there are resources that can possibly be gathered and assembled, the Movie/book The Martian shows us ‘Mark Watney’ fashioning solar panels and using them somewhat unconventionally on Mars in an effort to survive.


Speaking of surviving there are two more things that become necessary for the Martian and NASA already has them! That is a habitat (and not one of those lousy small claustrophobic ones!) and also a plant farm. In the movie Watney spends a lot of time in his habitat.


NASA’s habitat is called HERA. HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog) is a two-story habitat complete with living quarters, workspaces, a hygiene module and an airlock. NASA’s Johnson Space Center currently conducts testing within the module, subjects are tested regarding operational tasks, complete payload objectives and living together for 14 days (soon to increase to up to 60 days), simulating future missions in the isolated environment. 


As far as the Plant Farm, NASA in addition to pretend testing farming on Mars on Earth, also has a plant farm on the ISS even though the main sustenance of the ISS is provided via deliveries from cargo resupply vehicles. However, for man to survive on Mars he will need to grow crops as there is no resupply ship coming, or at least not soon. Important in the movie is space farming. Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm in “The Martian,” making potatoes the first Martian staple.


There are many other things I could detail such as the need for water and how NASA has developed both the technology for Mars and utilizes various methods on the ISS. How the same importance is carried into the movie. 


Or perhaps one might be concerned over the need for oxygen. NASA has many methods for dealing with the generation of oxygen. AND actually has a two part mission that will test the making of both oxygen & water on the moon and Mars. Think of it – being on Mars means having access to oxygen everywhere you go. , Watney first he has to make the oxygen. In his Hab he uses the “oxygenator,” a system that generates oxygen using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator.


Probably one of the most important factors, even more so then the oxygen, is a spacesuit. You can have all the oxygen in the world and just as much water but if you don’t have a good spacesuit on Mars, you can call it a day. Forget the atmosphere lacking the oxygen, its -70 to -200 Fahrenheit!


Mark Watney spends large portions of his Martian sols (sol = Martian day) working in a spacesuit. His long treks on the surface require a suit, so it needs to be flexible, comfortable, and reliable.


As far as NASA – well, have you heard of the Z-2 suit? Did you vote on te look for teir new spacesuit? 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.


AND one last area I want to cover – and that’s so that humans can cover the surface of Mars – especially if they need to stay there for a while. They need to be able to get around. Having a good suit will make the time conducting experiments or exploring easier, but so too will a rover. I give you - The MMSEV.  NASA has developed the technologies 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. Pretty cool right? So too does the Martian. 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).

NASA has done so many extraordinary things but nobody knows; nobody pays attention. BUT the makers of The Martian did. They showed what was needed and how NASA does it. I love this movie!

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