Mars-mania aside, humans don’t just want to go to Mars. We want to go beyond Mars. Spacecraft is just going to have to keep us alive long enough to actually get there — and make the return journey.
Before we venture to the Red Planet, NASA wants its Orion spacecraft to pull off a mission that will fly past the moon, 1,000 times further than where the ISS is floating in low-Earth orbit. Orion will take astronauts deeper into space than our species has ever been, which is why vital built-in technologies are being developed for it to endure the harsh unknown.
Orion and future spacecraft heading into deep space will need systems for living and breathing that are as compact as they are advanced. The system currently being tested will free up space for the crew while keeping air breathable by removing CO2 and humidity. Keeping water vapor out of the air will also prevent damage to hardware and highly sensitive instruments on board. Being so far from the home planet and risking cabin depressurization during that time also means you need a spacesuit that will keep you alive for another six days or until you touch back down on Earth.
You also need to fuel a spacecraft, and because we haven’t yet figured out a large-scale method of using electrolysis to produce pure hydrogen to burn, Orion’s superpowered service module will need 33 engines and nearly 2,000 gallons of propellant to keep from crashing and burning millions of miles from Houston. Never mind the backup it will need just in case the main engine fails for whatever reason. That engine will be the driving force that maneuvers Orion and shoots it into and out of lunar orbit, while the other 32 are meant for steering and control.
Keep your cool
Space is freezing, but spacecraft generate more heat the further they travel, and heat that could literally make lava bubble can happen when you’re zooming through the darkness at 20 times the speed of sound. This is why Orion is being equipped with a heat shield made of a material called AVCOAT that breaks down as it heats up. Its thermal controls will also keep it from melting into junk metal as it faces the intense temperature changes during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, while the crew inside keeps cool at 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Radiation is brutal outside Earth’s magnetic field (if sun-blasted Mars could talk, it would rant for hours). The consequences are more than just sunburn or starburn. Human exposure to massive amounts of space radiation from solar storms and onslaughts of charged particles can cause health problems from temporary radiation sickness to cancer, while the spacecraft’s equipment would also suffer glitches. This is why Orion has radiation sensors and a quad of self-checking computers that are still able to zap commands in extreme cases. NASA also gave the spacecraft a makeshift storm shelter and is now testing a prototype of an anti-radiation vest.
Stay in touch
Forget GPS when you’re moon-bound or Mars-bound. Communication satellites orbiting our planet just can’t reach spacecraft at that distance, so Orion will have to stay connected Houston using the Deep Space Network. Just in case there is a communication breakdown, the module will use optical navigation, a new technology that takes pictures of the Earth, moon and stars with a camera to autonomously determine Orion’s position. There is also an emergency communications system. Its backup communication and navigation systems ensure that in space, at least someone will hear you scream.