|Living and Working on Mars
“Creative design concepts of USC students meet the challenge of the harsh Mars environment.”
| Bob Calverly
USC ETTC intern Madhu Gupta, a master’s degree candidate in the USC School of Architecture, has designed living quarters for a Mars habitat as part of an aerospace engineering class at USC this spring. Her modular habitat design, which she calls a “hoberMars,” was reviewed recently by a team of experts that included Mars scientists from JPL and space-related toy designers from Mattel. Gupta and a few of her classmates will travel to Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in May to present new concepts for a mobile Mars habitat to Mars mission planners there.
Month: May 2016
Selective Separation Sintering (SSS), a new 3D-printing process developed by a USC engineer to enable the construction of physical structures in space, won first place in the NASA In-Situ Materials Challenge. The competition was held in collaboration with the Kennedy Space Center and Swamp Works to advance construction and human habitation in space.
How else can we further space exploration, mused Behrokh Khoshnevis, other than building landing pads, roads, hangars, blast walls and radiation shields on the moon and Mars? Khoshnevis is the two-time NASA competition winner, Dean’s Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering and Astronautics Engineering, and director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
It’s too expensive to rely on materials sent from Earth to build in space. In addition, using resources found in space could save considerable time.
The NASA competition mandated competitors to identify novel concepts in advancing the technology and methodology of utilizing materials found on the moon and Mars — regolith, crushed basalt rock or others — to construct structures or fabricate objects needed for future planetary and space missions.
Using synthetic material created by the Johnson Space Center that mirrors the existing gravel and material available on the moon and Mars, Khoshnevis and his team developed “a robotic fabrication process” that uses high melting-point ceramics such as magnesium oxide (readily available on the moon and Mars) and ordinary regolith (planetary soil) to produce tiles that could withstand the heat and pressure of exhaust plumes of landing spacecraft.
Selective Separation Sintering, Khoshnevis said, “is a novel powder-based additive manufacturing method that can build parts of various scale out of polymers, metals, ceramics and composites.”
The new SSS process builds on Khoshnevis’ existing Contour Crafting, a mega-scale 3-D printing process that captured the grand prize in a 2014 NASA competition. Khoshnevis demonstrated in a NASA Innovative Advanced Concept research project that Contour Crafting can use a mix of sulfur and regolith to build structures such as walls and hangars on the moon and Mars. While Contour Crafting is an extrusion-based 3-D printing process suitable for construction of large-scale monolithic structures, SSS is a powder-based method ideal for building smaller-scale objects such as interlocking tiles and bricks, as well as a large array of functional objects such as metallic parts.
“SSS is the only powder-based process that can effectively work in zero gravity condition and as such it is ideal for use in the International Space Station for fabrication of spare parts and tools,” Khoshnevis said.
According to the longtime engineer, it costs about $10,000 to launch a kilogram into low Earth orbit, $100,000 to send the same load to the moon and even more to send that cargo to Mars. He estimates that his team’s innovation could reduce the need for sending cargo from Earth, thus potentially saving agencies such as NASA considerable funds.
It could make space pioneering more cost-effective and feasible.
“It could make space pioneering more cost-effective and feasible,” he said.
“There are no viable, direct, high-temperature metal, ceramic or composite fabrication methods that can work in zero-gravity conditions. SSS will be the first such process,” he added.
Advantages at hand
Khoshnevis believes the SSS process his team created offers certain advantages, including speed, independence from expensive laser and electron beam technologies and even perhaps greater accuracy than these methods.
“There is high potential for the space and planetary use of this technology. SSS is a minimally complex but highly capable technology that can effectively assist planetary exploration, utilization and colonization,” he said.
The research team plans to further test the SSS process in a vacuum chamber of USC’s Astronautics Rocket Lab and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center facilities. The engineers hope to collaborate with local aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area.
Ryan McGlothlin takes a sugar-like powder, stirs in a substance that resembles flour, pours the mix into a mold and bakes it.
The end result is not a cake but a small, shiny, black bar designed to shield against radiation. The “sugar” really is polyethylene, and the “flour” is a gray topsoil.
McGlothlin, a chemistry major at the College of William and Mary, and chemistry department chairman Richard Kiefer are using those ingredients to develop a material to make bricks that would protect astronauts against radiation on Mars. They are working with aerospace researcher Sheila Thibeault at NASA Langley Research Center in nearby Hampton.
“What we’re doing is the basic research, establishing that yes, you can do this,” Kiefer said. The work also could have applications on Earth, such as use in shields around nuclear reactors, he said.
NASA hopes to put people on Mars within the next several decades. Because of the different orbits of Earth and Mars, the window of opportunity for travel between the two planets occurs only once every two years. That means that anyone traveling to Mars would have to stay there for a long time.
The prospect of an extended stay on Mars prompts a number of concerns, among them the health effects of galactic cosmic radiation, found nearly everywhere in space. The magnetic field surrounding the Earth deflects the radiation, but Mars does not have such a field.
Radiation can cause illness or even death, depending on the dosage and length of exposure. Therefore, astronauts will need a material they can use to build shelters and laboratories that also will shield against radiation.
The lighter the material is in terms of mass, the better its shielding properties, and research has shown that liquid hydrogen is the best possible shield, Kiefer said. “But that’s a little impractical to take to Mars,” he said.
So the next best thing is a solid polymer, or chemical compound, that contains a lot of hydrogen. And polyethylene, a very cheap plastic from which plastic bags are made, has more hydrogen than other polymers, said McGlothlin, 21, of Lebanon, Va.
Using Material on Mars
Loading lots of building material onto the space shuttle would create a heavy weight at launch, which would use up a lot of energy. So, the researchers are trying to figure out how much — or little — polyethylene is needed to create bricks by mixing it with a material that astronauts can find in abundance once they get to Mars: regolith, or topsoil.
“We’re trying to find the most efficient way to get the least payload and the maximum pay out,” Kiefer said.
Obviously, Mars topsoil isn’t easy to get on Earth. Chemical analysis of soil samples obtained by probes has shown that Mars topsoil is similar to that on the moon. But since that isn’t plentiful on Earth either, the researchers are using regolith from a quarry in Minnesota that is similar to lunar soil.
Regolith contains very little hydrogen, so it would not shield very well against radiation without the addition of polyethylene, Kiefer said.
At a laboratory at NASA, McGlothlin experiments with mixing different concentrations of polyethylene and regolith to see what works best. He has created small “Mars bars” containing 10 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent polyethylene.
Once the polyethylene and regolith are thoroughly mixed, McGlothlin puts the mixture in a drying oven to remove moisture.
The mixture then is poured into a stainless steel mold that creates a small sample bar, such as 3½ inches by ¾ inches. The mold is heated for a half hour at 245 degrees Fahrenheit.
Back at William and Mary’s chemistry labs, McGlothlin does thermal mechanical analyses on the samples to find out how the material reacts under extreme temperatures. The bricks also are tested to make sure they can withstand pressure, so bricks toward the bottom of a building would not crumble or crack.
The topsoil the researchers are using is gray, so bricks made from it are black. Bricks made from Martian topsoil would be a reddish color.
Kiefer said another student who since has graduated began testing Mars bricks using a different polymer a year ago. McGlothlin picked up the project this summer and will continue the research until he graduates next May.
Development of the nearly supersonic transportation system known as the hyperloop reached a new milestone Wednesday as entrepreneurs propelled a small sled about 100 yards at half its eventual targeted speed.
The demonstration before reporters in the north Las Vegas desert is the latest hype-building event for the hyperloop, a concept that business mogul Elon Muskmade fashionable in 2013. Two Los Angeles companies, students across the country and others worldwide are trying to develop the propulsion, autopilot and safety technologies that would underpin a hyperloop system.
Hyperloop One Inc.’s Nevada showcase is expected to be among many from the industry as the downtown Los Angeles company and its competitors zip toward a full-scale test. That would happen by the end of the year in a best case scenario, said Hyperloop One, which had been called Hyperloop Technologies until Tuesday.
Even then, the hundreds of millions of dollars going into hyperloop research don’t represent a sure bet. Questions remain about what exactly the systems would look like and who would pay for them. And though significant development is happening in California and Nevada, early signs point to the first hyperloops coming to Europe — if they materialize at all.
Musk intended to kill California’s long-delayed and costly high-speed rail project when he raised the possibility of erecting sealed tubes that would act as a sort of vacuum. They would suck vessels filled with people and cargo from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes. At 700 mph, or close to the sound barrier, they would be faster than any traditional high-speed rail system — as well as more affordable and quicker to build, at least in Musk’s vision.
But on the eve of its test in Nevada, Hyperloop One announced that it would study placing hyperloops in Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. Its chief rival, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. in Playa Vista, previously said it was looking at the feasibility of hyperloops in Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.
The most likely scenario to bring a hyperloop to California would be one that ships goods from the docks in Long Beach and San Pedro to warehouses in the Inland Empire, Hyperloop One Chief Executive Rob Lloyd has said.
Almost any other major California project would require overcoming mountainous terrain and securing expensive real estate along farmlands and urban corridors. Both issues have slowed the state’s high-speed rail effort. Other countries offer fewer environmental and cost hurdles.
Lloyd’s 2-year-old company has raised $93.3 million by selling shares to more than 70 investors since December, according to regulatory paperwork filed Wednesday.
Recent investors include French National Rail, General Electric’s venture capital unit and Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley fund whose high-profile bets on clean technology have produced a mix record.
Lloyd, formerly a president at IT giant Cisco Systems, has called the hyperloop one of the best investment opportunities in decades, perhaps since the creation of the Internet.
“It’s the new broadband, for the movement of people and things,” he said in an interview this year.
The company has been working out of a warehouse in the Arts District, where Chief Technology Officer Brogan BamBrogan has introduced parts of the development process that experts credit for some of SpaceX’s success. BamBrogan, formerly known as Kevin Brogan, was an early employee at Musk’s SpaceX. The rocket-builder has focused on manufacturing its own parts to bring down costs. Likewise, Hyperloop One is exploring a similar setup.
Wednesday’s spectacle, with reporters watching from bleachers, saw a trapezoidal hunk of metal dart across a track. It slowed by crashing into a sand barrier, sending a large dust cloud into the air.
The electromagnetic propulsion displayed might be the hyperloop’s heart, but engineers are still determining how it will work with the technology’s lungs, brains and belly.
The more significant test would come when Hyperloop One brings the components together and attempts to accelerate a pod inside a miles-long tube as soon as this winter. Lloyd has described that potential milestone as the company’s “Kitty Hawk moment,” referring to the North Carolina town where the Wright brothers tested their airplane. Passenger travel on a hyperloop wouldn’t come until the early 2020s, according to Hyperloop One.
The other company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, hopes to break ground on its own track at the end of the year. Chief Executive Dirk Ahlborn congratulated Hyperloop One on its “amazing” progress in a short amount of time and expressed pleasure with the company’s name change. But he said the motor used Wednesday is hardly among the main innovation challenges.
“It’s a fairly old technology to move the cart along the tracks,” Ahlborn said. “It’s an important part but a very small part of what needs to be done.”
Ahlborn’s company said Monday that it would exclusively license magnetic levitation technology from Lawrence Livermore National Labs that will be crucial to the movement of its hyperloops. The technology will help reduce costs by eliminating the need for power stations along tracks because it doesn’t require electricity, he said. The company has meager funds compared with Hyperloop One, but workers can collect shares for their service.
Engineering and design firms such as Aecom and Arup have teamed with the hyperloop ventures to lend their expertise and monitor the progress, lest they be shut out of a big innovation.
An organization in the Netherlands is holding an open competition for ideas about how a hyperloop might fit in there. This summer, SpaceX plans to test student-created passenger bay designs on a track near its Hawthorne headquarters. The frenzy is helping bring more hype and investment to the industry.
“The time is right to bring new thinking to old problems and harness new technologies and services to make a quantum leap in transportation,” Lloyd said.
Kids Talk Radio Science is exploring the the country of Cabo Verde. We will be visiting a live volcano on the Island of Fogo and will be posting a series of photo essays for our Occupy Mars Geology Team in Los Angeles, California. Our XQ Super School member Angelo Barbosa will be hosting the science expedition. The first three photos were taken by Angelo Barbosa.
Bob Barboza, educator, STEM journalist and founder of the Barboza Space Center is speaking at the III Strategic Dialogue at the Institute of Pedro Pires.
Although there is no unanimity on the relationship between education and development, there is consensus around three fairly provable statements:
- The geography of education coincides with the geography of well-being: health, income, information and knowledge, exercise of human rights, social awareness and appreciation of the common good.
- Education and the promotion of knowledge are the engine of personal development, of the development of organizations and of the development of countries.
- There is no knowledge, nor its contribution to development, without historical and social underpinnings, based on purposeful investment in education.
A hardly refutable fact is that education is the strategic number one development factor and a key factor for the social transformation and progress of societies.
Bob Barboza is establishing three Kids Talk Radio science and technology distance learning projects. The STEM and STEAM++ centers will be located in Praia, Cabo Verde, Providence, Rhode Island and Downey, California.
Conference Date: Sunday, 14 May 2016
Praia, Cabo Verde