For long missions through deep space, astronauts will need room to sleep, operate, and conduct experiments. So on the way to Mars and back, Orion will dock to a habitation module made to store bulkier items that can’t fit in Orion, such as the crew’s work and sleep stations, exercise equipment, food, water, and personal effects. Before returning to Earth, the crew will detach from the habitat and descend to the Earth’s surface in Orion.
Life Support Systems
Life support systems must be designed to accommodate missions that can last months or even years. Consequently, they must do much more than simply provide recycled, breathable air. They must also keep the crew cabin pressurized, protect from extreme temperature variances, and detect and clear heat, moisture and odors generated during physical activity.
Germs In Space
Interplanetary contamination is a huge concern. We don’t want to pollute alien worlds with our microbes and we don’t want to risk setting potential alien microbes loose on Earth. To prevent contamination of planets we visit, spacecraft such as the MAVEN, in orbit around Mars, are built in very clean rooms and undergo continuous testing and alcohol treatments before liftoff. Spacecraft that actually touch the surface of a planet such as the InSight lander and Curiosity rover have to go through additional testing and cleaning.
Space is vast. Mars alone is 6-9 months away. So meticulous planning must balance astronauts’ nutritional needs and the need for variety with the weight of their food supplies. So, while in deep space, you’ll either grow your own food in a hightech “kitchen garden” or you’ll rendezvous with an unmanned spacecraft stocked full of long-lasting food and other supplies sent ahead in advance of the mission.
Lengthy stays in space have many effects. One that you must avoid is “muscle atrophy.” The longer the flight, the weaker your muscles get, including your heart. So two hours of exercise per day is a must while in deep space. Another potential problem is fluid building up in the upper half of the body. Your pressurized pants will help prevent this by drawing it into the lower half. Future spacecraft may also spin to simulate gravity for the astronauts.
Hallucinations, boredom and the stress of being millions of miles from home are some of the toughest challenges faced by astronauts. To counter these, psychological testing of prospective crewmembers is extremely demanding and may include confinement in mock capsules and simulated missions to help prepare for the real thing. During flights, astronauts are so busy, they can’t help but stay focused.
In deep space, astronauts may encounter solar storms, exposing them to massive amounts of dangerous radiation that can disrupt vital electronics as well as cause severe health problems. Orion’s design allows the crew to reconfigure the ship to form a storm shelter to protect themselves, their systems and their supplies. To test this, Orion is making several trips through the Van Allen Belts—bands of radiation just outside of Earth’s magnetosphere—to help us learn what we’ll experience in deep space.
Guidance & Navigation
In deep space, there are no landmarks and no GPS to help chart the course to Mars. So Orion will use star trackers—optical devices that measure the exact positions of distant stars to create a multi-dimensional map. Using star patterns, such as constellations, star trackers are vital to guiding Orion in the right direction.
The distance between Earth and Mars is always changing as the planets move around the Sun at different speeds. But even at their closest, they are so far apart that it can take radio communications over 3 minutes to travel from one planet to the other. At their furthest, transmissions can take over 22 minutes each way.
Our understanding of Mars has been shaped by 4 different types of robot spacecraft. The first were the Mariner missions—launched in 1960s and early 1970s, they flew by Mars and took the first images of the planet from space. Orbiters, such as MAVEN, circle the planet, constantly studying the planet’s surface and atmosphere. Landers, such as Viking and InSight set up shop on Mars and send back information, while rovers like Opportunity and Curiosity drive across the surface, performing experiments on the move. And soon, humans will join them.
Mars has two permanent polar ice caps. During winter, the lack of sunlight chills the surface of this ice and causes much of the thin Martian atmosphere to freeze into massive slabs of dry ice. When the summer sunlight hits the dry ice, it melts into a gas, creating fierce winds and clouds.
This vast canyon system is as long as the entire United States and extends across 20% of the surface of the Red Planet. Most researchers agree that Valles Marineris is a giant crack in Mars’ crust —formed as the planet cooled, and widened by erosion. Near the eastern side, some channels appear to have been formed by water, strong evidence that Mars was once a much wetter place.
This is the largest known volcano in the solar system—roughly the size of the state of Arizona. Unlike Earth, the Martian crust doesn’t move, so lava piles up to form massive structures like this one.
Viking I Lander
In 1976, Viking 1 was the first NASA spacecraft to successfully land and operate on Mars. Along with Viking 2, it was sent to capture images of Mars’ surface, analyze the planet’s soil, and search for evidence of life. These two landers built by Lockheed Martin, along with their orbiters, have produced over 50,000 photos of the planet and informed all successive missions.
On Mars, a day is called a Sol. And because the Red Planet rotates on its axis slightly slower than Earth, one Sol lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes, which is pretty similar to Earth’s day. However, a Martian year lasts about 687 Earth days, or about two Earth years.
Living on Mars requires lots of energy to run communications, computers and life support systems. Right now, that means plenty of solar panels— especially because sunlight on Mars is only half as strong as back on Earth. Other needs include a greenhouse to grow food and tunnels that allow astronauts to travel between buildings without their bulky space suits.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has been the jewel of 21st century space exploration. Its primary mission is to find out if Mars is suitable for life, or if life ever existed there. Its secondary mission is to help determine suitable sites for human missions by recording weather and radiation.
The greatest challenges that stem from Mars’ infamous dust storms aren’t due to the wind but the dust itself. Winds in the strongest Martian storms top out at around 60 miles per hour but because of the lower atmospheric pressure, only feel like a breeze. But because the dust particles are tiny and slightly electrostatic, they stick to surfaces. This is especially problematic in keeping solar panels clear and free to absorb sunlight.