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10 techs for future Martian settlers

#10: Flexible Solar Panels
#10: Flexible Solar Panels
Brian Enke

To celebrate Thursday's opening of the 16th Annual Mars Society Conference in Boulder, the Examiner takes a look at the top ten technologies required for people to reach Mars or live on its surface.

This list is limited to technologies that already exist or are well on their way. To mount a human mission to Mars within the next 10 years, organizations like NASA or Mars-One must verify and apply these near-future technologies wisely. They can't afford to rely upon far-future science fiction solutions... and fortunately, as you'll see, they don't have to.

#10: Flexible Solar Panels
#10: Flexible Solar Panels Brian Enke

#10: Flexible Solar Panels

A Mars crew can quickly deploy flexible solar panels as an ideal backup power supply during times and seasons of ample sunlight. Energy from the panels must be stored in batteries or, much better, bound into high density fuels like methane or benzene using a technology later in the list.

Mars plays a cruel joke on potential mission planners. The best verified sources of water on Mars - and therefore the best locations for settlements - are in the mid latitudes where settlers cannot rely primarily upon solar power. Backup power sources must be light, durable, and extremely reliable. Flexible solar panels achieve these requirements at a very reasonable cost.

HighFlex Solar built the flexible solar array pictured here. This approximately 20'x20' array provides a simple power source for NASA's HI-SEAS Mars research station on the Big Island of Hawaii.

#9: Low Tech Beats High Tech
#9: Low Tech Beats High Tech Brian Enke

#9: Low Tech Beats High Tech

Sometimes less is more.

Mars settlements must be sustainable, and that means the settlers must accomplish a maximum amount of useful work with a minimum amount of background technology. Complex tools break - and break the bank - while simple, every day tools we take for granted here on Earth will prove their usefulness on Mars every day.

The collection of tools pictured above - all found in or near the garage of your Denver Space Industry Examiner, includes a broom, duct tape, chisel, sand bag, wheelbarrow, air filter, bucket, pliers, sledge hammer, funnel, air compressor, vacuum, and lots of bricks. The usefulness of all these materials within a Mars settlement (or any Earthly household) should be pretty obvious.

Plenty of high-tech is needed too, of course. But for manual labor by humans or machines, low tech can't be beaten.

#8: Mobile, Connectible Habitats
#8: Mobile, Connectible Habitats Mars-One

#8: Mobile, Connectible Habitats

Before humans live in settlements like the pictured Mars-One settlement, mission planners must transport and assemble payloads to an optimal landing site on Mars. Until the technology exists to land truly massive payloads on Mars (on the order of thousands of tonnes), key settlement components like habitats must land individually. NASA research has greatly tightened the landing ellipse of missions like the Curiosity rover, but habitats could still land several kilometers away from the final assembly point.

The assembly process could follow at least two paths: 1) self-roving habitats; 2) transportable habitats.

A self-roving habitat would move itself to the assembly point via an internal motor and a wheeled chassis. This approach offers maximum future flexibility, since each habitat could rove the surface under human guidance once the settlers arrive. However, truly mobile habitats also suffer from strict weight, volume, and power limitations.

A transportable habitat may need a lighter-weight frame and wheels or skids. A rover would transport the habitat to the assembly point after attaching to it, or perhaps after lifting it atop a trailer. Rover and trailer capabilities become the limiting factor with this approach.

Either approach could benefit from autonomous decision-making within the vehicles and remote guidance from human controllers on Earth. A later technology in the list will address this concern.

After components arrive at a central location, assembly of the settlement may begin. The assembly phase requires linkages for consumables (air, water, etc) between the modules. These linkages add complexity to the task and introduce more up-front failure points, but the final completed settlement will achieve a much higher degree of safety and redundancy because future human inhabitants can quickly reroute consumables and replace faulty modules.

#7: Robust GMO Crops
#7: Robust GMO Crops University of Colorado

#7: Robust GMO Crops

Crops serve many purposes on Mars beyond the obvious one, i.e. the human settlers need food to eat. Robust plant life also provides a psychological link with Earth, recycles waste products, and generates free oxygen for the settlement.

Low air pressure is a unique challenge - and opportunity. Optimal crop growth requires direct sunlight, so settlers will grow most crops in pressurized greenhouses. Low air pressure in these greenhouses minimizes structural integrity requirements, which allows them to be larger and/or constructed out of local materials.

How low should the air pressure be? The lower the better, though early settlers might want to keep the air pressure high enough for human handlers to tend the plants without gloves.

A team of students at the University of Colorado constructed the pictured system as their entry into NASA's 2013 X-Hab Challenge competition. Many researchers around the world use genetic modifications to safely improve the range of environments tolerable by crops. GMO crops can potentially survive a wider range of air pressures, temperatures, and drought conditions. While these improvements are essential for Mars, the real benefits will be applied back on Earth as we find new ways to feed our starving billions.

#6: Mars BioSuit
#6: Mars BioSuit Professor Dava Newman: Inventor, Science Engineering; Guillermo Trotti, A.I.A., Trotti and Associates, Inc. (Cambridge, MA): Design; Dainese (Vincenca, Italy): Fabrication; Douglas Sonders: Photography

#6: Mars BioSuit

What will every fashionable Mars settler be wearing in a few years? If you're thinking about bulky, clunky Apollo-era spacesuits, think again.

MIT professor Dava Newman leads the field in development of the next generation of spacesuits for use on planetary surfaces. Her BioSuit technology promises to fulfill all the mobility needs of any would-be Mars settler.

Rather than expounding on the many benefits, refer to this article written by Dava herself. Note her dreams of using her Mars BioSuit technology to aid children on Earth with disabilities... yet another undeniable example of space technology improving our lives here on Earth.

#5: 3D Printing
#5: 3D Printing Aleph Objects, Inc

#5: 3D Printing

As was noted in a previous list item, manual labor on Mars requires a healthy dose of low tech. However, the settlement control systems require high tech. So how do we equip our settlers with the tools they need to survive and thrive regardless of technology level? Will their first task upon arrival be to build a huge warehouse of spare parts delivered from Earth at major cost?

Fortunately, no. A much better approach is to provide a simple and reliable mechanism for the settlers to create their own low/high tech tools and systems. Until recently this approach was science-fiction... but no longer. Several companies now offer early versions of 3D printers capable of printing simple circuits or low-tech bulky tools.

The settlement experts over at the Mars Foundation even believe it may be possible, though perhaps not very efficient, to print major components in a Mars settlement. According to founder Bruce MacKenzie, "Many pieces of equipment, household furnishings, and kitchen utensils can be made after the first settlers arrive. It would be more efficient to make larger pieces of furniture [or other large low tech components] with sheets of plastic cut with a water jet or laser cutter."

The LulzBot 3D printer pictured above comes from local Loveland company Aleph Objects, Inc, a Silver Sponsor of the Mars-One settlement effort. Among its other useful capabilities, a LulzBot printer can even replicate itself!

The benefits of this technology within a Mars settlement are pretty obvious, but some less obvious implementation challenges include lower gravity and relatively low quality of input materials. Once these challenges are solved, a pathway towards a truly sustainable Mars settlement opens wide.

#4: Inflatable Heat Shields
#4: Inflatable Heat Shields NASA

#4: Inflatable Heat Shields

Landing heavy payloads on Mars remains a huge challenge. Van-sized rovers like Curiosity may seem big, but a settlement requires several modules nearly an order of magnitude larger and heavier.

Retro rockets with high velocity exhaust might be an option for slowing down larger payloads prior to landing, and indeed this approach may be used in a Red Dragon mission. Yet this solution begs for improvement. One of the greatest advantages of Mars as a human spaceflight destination is its nice, relatively dense atmosphere. Yet this atmosphere is too thin for conventional aerobraking and too thick for conventional retro-rockets.

How do we use the atmosphere to our advantage? Simple - with a bigger heat shield. But launching a whoppingly big heat shield from Earth is extremely difficult and costly. Likewise, constructing a lunar settlement that could manufacture large heat shields would break the bank, even at NASA.

The best solution may very well be inflatable heat shields. Several companies, including Bigelow Aerospace, have researched inflatable technology for building habitats and greenhouses. Heat shields provide another golden use for this promising technology.

Research into variants like doughnut-shaped inflatable ballutes proceeds at several companies, including Global Aerospace. NASA's Hypersonic Inflatable Heat Shield research (pictured above) also offers the potential to solve the Mars landing dilemma once and for all, for robust human or scientific missions.

Testing of any Mars landing system is difficult. Flight testing of an inflatable heat shield can be done high in the Earth's atmosphere at levels approaching Mars air densities, but reaching those atmospheric levels requires expensive rocket launches. Testing an inflatable landing system on a real Mars mission also seems a wise precursor to human missions, but convincing a scientific PI to take a chance on this new technology may prove the most daunting challenge of all.

#3: ISRU

#3: ISRU

Transporting materials or people to Mars will remain an expensive endeavor even after companies like SpaceX reduce launch costs. A growing Mars settlement will need vast quantities of consumables, and transporting all these materials from Earth is not cost effective.

Yet the best reason for settling Mars is to tap into the local natural resources. Why should we transport tonnes of water from Earth to Mars, for example, when frozen oceans exist just beneath the surface?

Settlers of Mars must learn to live off the land via ISRU, or "In-Situ Resource Utilization." Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood leads the way in demonstration of ISRU hardware. Lately, NASA has conducted some excellent ISRU research at the Kennedy Spaceflight Center too.

The image above illustrates a full-sized RWGS (Reverse Water Gas Shift) testbed built at NASA-KSC. This unit was based on a prototype built at Pioneer Astronautics.

#2: Nuclear Batteries
#2: Nuclear Batteries Los Alamos National Labs

#2: Nuclear Batteries

Until recently, the list of reliable energy sources with no moving parts - therefore requiring minimal maintenance due to wear and tear - included solar power and .... well, that was about the only option.

No longer. Self-regulating nuclear reactor technology from Los Alamos National Laboratories promises to revolutionize the generation and transportation of energy on Mars and Earth. People casually call this technology "nuclear batteries" because the devices operate much like a household battery. A terrestrial power company would bury this battery, and it would provide steady, reliable power for over ten years - with virtually no moving parts or maintenance.

Such a safe power source would be perfect for a Mars settlement. No other power source can compare to nuclear when it comes to energy density. A Gen4 Module (G4M) provided by Denver's Gen4 Energy (formerly Hyperion Power Generation Inc) could provide up to 25 megawatts of electrical output or 70 megawatts of heat without refueling.

Unlike solar energy, a Gen4 Energy unit could be used as a primary power source anywhere on Mars. The system must be scaled down because a growing settlement requires far less power than a Gen4 Module produces. Early research suggested that hot tub sized units could generate more than enough electricity and heat for a growing Mars settlement. Small units are better, especially since a Mars settlement might want to have more than one for added security.

#1: Telerobotics
#1: Telerobotics NASA

#1: Telerobotics

Topping the list of useful Mars technologies is a tech so powerful that it provides a primary motive for sending human explorers to Mars: Telerobotics. The awesome power of humans and machines working together demands an equally awesome challenge, the exploration and conquest of the vast untamed wilderness of Mars.

Existing NASA rovers like Curiosity or Opportunity have accomplished significant scientific contributions, yet these machines are mere toys compared to the next generation of machines for exploring Mars once humans are close enough to control them.

Think about how humans explore and develop the Earth. We rely upon human-guided automobiles or airplanes for transportation, human-guided construction equipment for building grandiose high-rises, human-guided biology equipment in the laboratory, etc etc etc. Placing humans "in the loop" leads to exponential growth in capability as well as the ability to use well-proven equipment and techniques from Earth.

Yet Mars poses unique challenges because we must keep these valuable human control geniuses safe. Therefore, the primary use for telerobotics in an early Mars settlement will be to reduce risk. Humans will minimize their excursions into the dangerous surface environment once they have the option of controlling a human-shaped, hardened robot that relays tactile sensations back to the user.

In this area more than any other, NASA leads the way in technology research applicable to Mars settlement. The goal of NASA's highly successful Robonaut (pictured) program is to explore a planetary surface using teleoperated robots. These robots can use human-designed tools. Through sensory feedback, a human controller can use those tools naturally. Robonaut prototypes also have a limited ability to learn tasks, so a human controller can let the machine take over autonomously once it knows how to do a repetitive task.

Other useful telerobots may include roaming cameras, rovers, diggers, balloons, and hoppers. As more machines come to Mars and help unlock its vast potential, networks of machines will work together to accomplish even more. These networks will require significant navigation and control information. Perhaps someday soon, Mars will have its own constellation of GPS satellites?

The primary long-term concern with telerobotics is wear and tear. However, as was noted earlier in the list, 3D printing offers the ability to create new parts as old ones wear out. Robot maintenance will be a primary task of the human engineers maintaining the settlement.

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