Dune-Inspired Stillsuits Could Allow Astronauts to Recycle Their Urine Into Water

A Fremen from Dune wearing a stillsuit. Credit: DALL-E generated image

If history has taught us one thing, it is that science fiction often gives way to science fact. Consider the Star Trek communicator and the rise of flip phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or how 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted orbiting space stations and reusable space planes – like the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle. And who can forget Jules Verne’s classic, From the Earth to the Moon, and how it anticipated that humans would one day walk on the Moon? Almost a century later, this dream would be realized with the Apollo Program.

The latest comes from Cornell University, where a team of researchers has developed a novel in-suit urine collection and filtration system inspired by the suits the Fremen wore in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Once integrated into NASA’s standard spacesuit—the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)—this system has the potential to provide astronauts with additional water while reducing the risk of hygiene-related medical events. In short, the stillsuit technology has the potential to enable longer-duration missions on the surface of the Moon, Mars, and orbit.

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Resources on Mars Could Support Human Explorers

Mineral map of Mars showing the presence of patches that formed in the presence of water. Credit: ESA

In the coming decades, multiple space agencies and private companies plan to establish outposts on the Moon and Mars. These outposts will allow for long-duration stays, astrobiological research, and facilitate future Solar System exploration. However, having crews operating far from Earth for extended periods will also present some serious logistical challenges. Given the distances and costs involved, sending resupply missions will be both impractical and expensive. For this reason, relying on local resources to meet mission needs – aka. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – is the name of the game.

The need for ISRU is especially important on Mars as resupply missions could take 6 to 9 months to get there. Luckily, Mars has abundant resources that can be harvested and used to provide everything from oxygen, propellant, water, soil for growing food, and building materials. In a recent study, a Freie Universität Berlin-led team evaluated the potential of harvesting resources from several previously identified deposits of hydrated minerals on the surface of Mars. They also presented estimates of how much water and minerals can be retrieved and how they may be used.

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A New View of Olympus Mons

100,000 orbits requires some sort of recognition. NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter captured this single image of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system, on March 11, 2024. Besides providing an unprecedented view of the volcano, the image helps scientists study different layers of material in the atmosphere, including clouds and dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

After 100,000 orbits and almost 23 years on Mars, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has seen a lot. The spacecraft was sent to map ice and study its geology, but along the way, it’s captured more than 1.4 million images of the planet.

A recent image captured the Solar System’s tallest mountain and volcano, Olympus Mons.

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Basketball-Sized Meteorites Strike the Surface of Mars Every Day

This is an image of the first meteoroid impact detected by NASA’s InSight mission; the image was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter using its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA’s InSight Mars Lander faced some challenges during its time on the red planet’s surface. Its mole instrument struggled to penetrate the compacted Martian soil, and the mission eventually ended when its solar panels were covered in dust. But some of its instruments performed well, including SEIS, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure.

SEIS gathered Mars seismic data for more than four years, and researchers working with all of that data have determined a new meteorite impact rate for Mars.

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Determining the Safest Martian Caves for Future Astronauts

Image of a lava tube skylight entrance on the Martian volcano Pavonis Mons obtained by NASA’s HiRISE camera onboard the Mars reconnaissance Orbiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

When astronauts land on Mars someday, they might have to live in lava caves or lava tubes to survive the harsh radiation that rains down on the Martian surface every second. But which caves could offer them the best chance of survival? This is what a recent study presented at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference hopes to address as Dr. Anatoliy P. Vidmachenko from the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine investigated where, how, and why lava tubes and lava caves could aid future Mars astronauts regarding their survival. This study holds the potential to help scientists and engineers help mitigate risks for future Mars astronauts and what steps that need to be taken to make that a reality.

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Perseverance Found Some Strange Rocks. What Will They Tell Us?

This image shows a jumbled field of light toned rocks with unusual ‘popcorn’-like textures and abundant mineral veins. NASA's Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Right Mastcam-Z camera. This image was acquired on June 10, 2024 (Sol 1175) at the local mean solar time of 14:04:57. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Perseverance Rover has left Mount Washburn behind and arrived at its next destination, Bright Angel. It found an unusual type of rock there that scientists are calling ‘popcorn rock.’ The odd rock is more evidence that water was once present in Jezero Crater.

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Marsquakes Can Help Us Find Water on the Red Planet

The Mars InSight lander's seismic detector was used to observe seismic waves from Marsquakes and impacts. Courtesy NASA
The Mars InSight lander's seismic detector was used to observe seismic waves from Marsquakes and impacts. New research shows that the lander's seismic and magnetic data could be used to detect subsurface water on Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Earth is a seismically active planet, and scientists have figured out how to use seismic waves from Earthquakes to probe its interior. We even use artificially created seismic waves to identify underground petroleum-bearing formations. When the InSIGHT (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander was sent to Mars, it sensed Marsquakes to learn more bout the planet’s interior.

Researchers think they can use Marsquakes to answer one of Mars’ most pressing questions: Does the planet hold water trapped in its subsurface?

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Don't Get Your Hopes Up for Finding Liquid Water on Mars

In the coming decades, NASA and China intend to send the first crewed missions to Mars. Given the distance involved and the time it takes to make a single transit (six to nine months), opportunities for resupply missions will be few and far between. As a result, astronauts and taikonauts will be forced to rely on local resources to meet their basic needs – a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have spent decades scouting for accessible sources of liquid water.

Finding this water is essential for future missions and scientific efforts to learn more about Mars’s past, when the planet was covered by oceans, rivers, and lakes that may have supported life. In 2018, using ground-penetrating radar, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter detected bright radar reflections beneath the southern polar ice cap that were interpreted as a lake. However, a team of Cornell researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that suggest there may be another reason for these bright patches that do not include the presence of water.

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NASA is Considering Other Ways of Getting its Mars Samples Home

Artist's impression of the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission. Credit: NASA

In 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. For the next three years, this astrobiology mission collected soil and rock samples from the crater floor for eventual return to Earth. The analysis of these samples is expected to reveal much about Mars’ past and how it transitioned from being a warmer, wetter place to the frigid and desiccated place we know today. Unfortunately, budget cuts have placed the future of the proposed NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission in doubt.

As a result, NASA recently announced that it was seeking proposals for more cost-effective and rapid methods of bringing the samples home. This will consist of three studies by NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). In addition, NASA has selected seven commercial partners for firm-fixed-price contracts for up to $1.5 million to conduct their own 90-day studies. Once complete, NASA will consider which proposals to integrate into the MSR mission architecture.

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Frost Seen on Olympus Mons for the First Time

This simulated perspective oblique view shows Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano not only on Mars but in the entire solar system. The volcano measures some 600 km across. CREDIT Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (A. Valantinas)

It’s been known for years that there are large quantities of water ice locked up in the Martian poles. Around the equator however it is a barren dry wasteland devoid of any surface ice. Recent observations of Mars have discovered frost on the giant shield volcanoes but it only appears briefly after sunrise and soon evaporates. Estimates suggest that 150,000 tons of water cycle between the surface and atmosphere on a daily basis. 

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