NASA’s Next-Gen Spacesuit

NASA_suitIt’s like something Buzz Lightyear would be seen in, minus the death ray laser. It’s called the Z-1 spacesuit, a prototype that NASA hopes to incorporate into their equipment lineup by 2015. Not only does this new design offer a wide range of advantages compared with the space agency’s previous suit – the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit – it also represents the first major overhaul in spacesuit technology since 1998.

For example, it boasts a rear-entry hatch which lets an astronaut put on the suit from the back, as opposed to putting on the top, bottom and helmet separately. This hatch also coincides with a feature known as the suit port, which allows the suit to be attached to the outside of a vehicle (such as a rover), thus allowing the astronaut to simply enter the suit from inside the vehicle. This is a big step from the current space suits which must be stored and put on internally.

I don't see a resemblance, do you?
I don’t see a resemblance, do you?

On top of that, the Z-1 excels in the areas of mobility and visibility. The former arises from the fact that the suit comes as a single piece rather than being made up of multiple segments. The larger, bubble dome helmet is what ensures that the astronauts has a better field of view. And finally, NASA plans to address the issue of life support through the portable PLSS 2.0 which condenses all life support systems into one package and does not need external components.

The PLSS 2.0 design also incorporates a massive bonus in the form of the Spacesuit Water Membrane Evaporator temperature regulator, which would actually make it possible for future astronauts to comfortably walk on extraterrestrial planets. According to NASA’s PLSS engineer Carly Watts, the PLSS 2.0 “can be used in a Martian environment. It can be frozen without damaging the unit, and it’s not particularly sensitive to contamination.” Good news for the astronauts heading to Mars in 2030, assuming the budget environment remains friendly after President Obama is no longer in power.

Check out this video of NASA Public Affairs Officer Brandi Dean talking with Cristina Anchondo, Z1 spacesuit test director, about the Z1 spacesuit at the Johnson Space Center.


“Earthshaking” News From the Red Planet?

In an interview with NPR earlier today, John Grotzinger – the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Labs – said a recent soil sample test with the SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars) shows something”‘earthshaking.” Like any good scientist (or a terrible tease), Grotzinger and his team are awaiting confirmation before announcing just what it is they’ve found. Nevertheless, the announcement of a potential discovery which could be “one for the history books” has fueled speculation and put many on the edge of their seats.

Thus far, the smart money has been on the discovery of organic molecules in the Martian soil, which is precisely what Curiosity has been up to for the past few months. This is because the very purpose of the SAM instrument to examine the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil, specifically to determine if anything organic is capable of living there. If so, it will end the age-old argument of whether or not life can exist on the surface Mars, even if it doesn’t currently.

It will also prove to be a boon for those who are seriously looking ahead, and plotting manned missions to the Red Planet with the intent of making it habitable for humans. As I’m sure all people are aware of by now, there are plenty of people who are monitoring Curiosity’s findings and hoping they will help determine whether or not terraforming can be carried on the the planet, with the long-term goal of creating a “Green Mars” where terrestrial species can live and thrive, crops can grow, and oceans and rivers can once again exist.

I think I speak for them and myself when I say, “Grotzinger, best of luck to you, and this better not be some kind of media stunt!” Oh, I can’t wait to hear what they find!

Source: Universe Today

Engineering Life for Mars

And we’re back with some more news of and about the Red Planet! Thanks to Curiosity’s ongoing efforts to discover potential life on Mars, scientists back at home have begun to seriously contemplate engineering life that will help in our own colonization efforts someday. The rational seems to be, “why search for life on Mars when you could create it?”

And the reasons for this seem pretty straightforward. Though Mars may have supported life at one time, it is not an especially hospitable environment right now. If in fact human beings settle there someday, survival won’t be easy. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 60 degrees Celsius, and the almost-nonexistent atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide.

And although water exists in Mars’ ice caps and there’s some evidence that oceans once existed, today it’s essentially a deep-frozen desert. If the would-be settlers ever want to live beyond sealed domes, and eat something other than hydroponically grown food and melted ice that is constantly being recycled, efforts to be got underway to ecologically engineer the surface.

And one such group is a team of undergraduate students from Stanford and Brown Universities that are busy applying synthetic biology to space exploration, outfitting microbes to survive the extreme Martian conditions and produce resources needed to sustain a human colony. According to Ben Geilich, the team Captain, the benefits are obvious: “Obviously, bringing up heavy machinery or building materials is going to be really expensive. The benefit of having bacteria that can do this for you is they’re really small and very light. Once there, they could grow food, produce medicine, extract minerals, and build building material.”

The fruit of their labor is the Hell Cell, a genetically engineered assemblage that could enable a bacterium to withstand extreme cold, dryness and radiation. It includes genetic modules, or BioBricks, based on DNA from a variety of ultra-tough organisms, including a cold-resistant species of Siberian beetle that makes “antifreeze” proteins, a radiation-resistant bacterium that sequesters large amounts of the element manganese, and E. coli, which produces a nutrient that confers cold and drought resistance.

It’s part of a process that Andre Burnier, one of the team’s mentors and a lab technician at NASA’s Ames Research Center, described in the following way: “You go into nature and find genes, and then you can recombine them into circuits that you cannot find in nature.” After presenting their Hell Cell during the regional International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) challenge this month, the team has since moved on to developing bacteria that could extract minerals from Martian sediment or recycle rare metals from spacecraft electronics. In addition, they are also investigating heat and acid-tolerance mechanisms that could be useful in other planetary environments, particulary Venus, which as you may recall, is also a candidate for terraforming.

Needless to say, Geilich is excited by all the doors theirs and the research of others is opening. “In the coming years,” he says, “I think we’re going to see a huge boom in stuff done with bacteria, only limited by our imagination and creativity.” But of course, not all agree. As Burner indicates, there are ethical implications that are likely to upset some, should the concept ever be made viable. After all, if there is no life on planet to begin with, then there are no ethical implications about transforming it. But send in the bacteria to change up a world that already boasts life, and you are essentially committing eco-genocide.

All of this puts me in mind of the Genesis Project from Star Trek II and III. There, scientists created a device which could alter the configuration of any planet within minutes. With a name like “Genesis”, the purpose was pretty self-explanatory – to create life from lifelessness. But this made it absolutely necessary to find a lifeless planet, otherwise whatever was already there would find itself permanently altered.

Funny how science fiction predicts real science, up to and including the ethical implications. They were pretty good movies too, go heck them out. And follow the link below for more reading on the subject!