NASA vision for future on Mars might require some physics laws to be bent

“If we stick with the things that we’re doing today, we will never make it to Mars. We will never make it even to the Moon.” That’s the verdict from Dr Christyl Johnson of the Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA.

If there’s a thriving human colony on Mars by 2100, it will have started with the first woman and first person of color landing on the Moon. This is set out to be the first major milestone of the Artemis program, an international initiative led by NASA to send the first astronauts to Mars.

“This time, when we go to the Moon, it won’t be to plant a flag. It won’t be just to make a quick stop. It will be setting a sustainable presence for humans on the Moon,” Johnson, who is a deputy director of technology and research investment at Goddard, told a packed audience room at Tech Show London.

The Moon will serve as a proving ground for technologies needed both to get to Mars and establish a long-term human presence there. “We’ve got to create and invent so many different things that we don’t have today,” Johnson said.

That includes producing oxygen, water, and energy on a level that is able to sustain a large group of people and is a reliable source of continuous power supply. NASA is already doing some work in this area. Last year, it commissioned a design concept for a nuclear power plant it wants to send to the Moon by the end of the decade.

International research will also have to pick up the pace when it comes to advanced farming technologies to ensure sustainable food sources. “You’re going to have to put it on steroids in order for us to do that on another planetary body,” Johnson said.

And then there’s health challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought front and center, including the effects of long-term isolation on mental well-being, which NASA took “very seriously.”

“We have a whole program that's focused on what we call human factors. And so that's even [including] the comfort of your seat,” Johnson said.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of effective disease prevention and control measures that could be even more crucial in confined spaces of interplanetary travel than here on Earth. One recent innovation at NASA in this area includes a handheld breathalyzer capable of ‘sniffing’ human breath to detect diseases.

“There will be viruses and bacteria and parasites that we've never encountered before because they don't necessarily exist here,” Johnson noted.

There are also surgery-performing robots ready for testing, and plans for sensor-based body scanners that would replace MRI with virtual reality imaging. “You can actually have a virtual reality of the heart,” Johnson said, “to determine exactly what needs to be done so that you can help the person very, very quickly.”

Rocket to Mars (artist impression). Image by NASA

Printed cities and deep-space navigation

Advances in automation and artificial intelligence bring science fiction closer to the real world far beyond health issues, with “intricate designs that humans wouldn’t be coming up with” in fields like spacecraft modeling.

“Those are the types of technologies and capabilities we're going to need when we go to another planet. In addition to that, we've got to figure out where we're going to live, what are the habitats [where] we're going to be able to do,” Johnson said.

Robots 3D-printing buildings around the clock – Avatar-style – could become a reality on Mars “if we are able to find materials that will allow us to resist the radiation on top of the ground,” she said.

If not, humans might have to rely on inflatable habitat technologies and build underground. First settlers are in any case likely to look for shelter in so-called “lava tubes” – natural caverns left by volcanic activity on Mars that would provide meters-thick protection from extreme conditions outside.

Lava tubes are also believed to be where any traces of past or present life on Mars could be found – as well as ice that could be melted, purified, and serve as a water source for the settlers.

Much of the exploration is expected to be carried out by robots, and NASA hopes to broadcast it live for people back on Earth. Transmitting information between planets without delays may require a breakthrough in quantum communication that would allow it to travel faster than the speed of light, potentially bending the laws of physics.

“But even if we don't get to a place where we can have instant transfer of information from one planetary body to another, it's still going to be very important for us to have accurate, timely information,” Johnson said.

Relying on satellites for navigation will become an untenable solution, as “we're not going to put 24 satellites around the Moon and then 24 satellites around Mars,” she said.

Which brings us to another exotic theory on using neutron stars as GPS for deep-space travel.

Neutron stars result from a supernova explosion and have the mass of two compressed suns despite being the size of a city. The frequency of their electromagnetic radiation is so regular that it is comparable to an atomic clock – and potentially makes it the most reliable way for interplanetary navigation.

Orion spacecraft for Artemis I mission. Image by ESA

‘No way that NASA can do it by itself’

“There are some physics theories and laws that you'll have to address in order to make that happen,” Johnson told the audience, “but these younger generations of students [...] are the ones that are helping us to disprove some of the theories that we’ve held so tightly to for all of these years.”

Johnson stressed that diversity will play a key role in overcoming challenges that may still prevent humanity from becoming an interplanetary species – and it comes in many forms, whether in organizations that NASA works with or people it hires.

“Diversity is the reason, it is a secret, and the key to why we've been so successful over the years,” Johnson said.

From a high-tech Speedo bodysuit that was so good athletes were banned from wearing it by world swimming authorities, to life-saving medical devices, there are “literally thousands” of examples of out-of-the-box thinking and unexpected collaborations in space research that contribute to improving life here on Earth, she said.

International cooperation and commercial partnerships are a backbone of the Artemis Program, as “there is absolutely no way that NASA can do it by itself.” Successful cooperation with SpaceX is a case in point.

“NASA and SpaceX have been arm-in-arm for so many years, and NASA has put millions of dollars into the investment that SpaceX is realizing today. So that's not going to stop,” Johnson said.

“We are going to continue working with Boeing and Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. And then we've got so many of the new space companies that are coming on board,” she added.

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