Ready to Leave Low Earth Orbit? Prototype Construction Begins for a Deep Space Habitat

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

In 2010, NASA announced its commitment to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the third decade of the 21st century. Towards this end, they have working hard to create the necessary technologies – such as the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft. At the same time, they have partnered with the private sector to develop the necessary components and expertise needed to get crews beyond Earth and the Moon.

To this end, NASA recently awarded a Phase II contract to Lockheed Martin to create a new space habitat that will build on the lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS). Known as the Deep Space Gateway, this habitat will serve as a spaceport in lunar orbit that will facilitate exploration near the Moon and assist in longer-duration missions that take us far from Earth.

The contract was awarded as part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (NextSTEP) program, which NASA launched in 2014. In April of 2016, as part of the second NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (NextSTEP-2) NASA selected six U.S. companies to begin building full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for this deep space habitat.

Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA

Alongside such well-known companies like Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada, Lockheed Martin was charged with investigating habitat designs that would enhance missions in space near the Moon, and also serve as a proving ground for missions to Mars. Intrinsic to this is the creation of something that can take effectively integrate with SLS and the Orion capsule.

In accordance with NASA’s specifications on what constitutes an effective habitat, the design of the Deep Space Gateway must include a pressurized crew module, docking capability, environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.

The design specifications for the Deep Space Gateway also include a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, and logistics modules that would be intended for scientific research. The propulsion system on the gateway would rely on high-power electric propulsion to maintain its orbit, and to transfer the station to different orbits in the vicinity of the Moon when required.

With a Phase II contract now in hand, Lockheed Martin will be refining the design concept they developed for Phase I. This will include building a full-scale prototype at the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well as the creation of a next-generation Deep Space Avionics Integration Lab near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Artist’s concept of space habitat operating beyond Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA

As Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP program manager, said in a recent press statement:

“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges. Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit. While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”

The full-scale prototype will essentially be a refurbished Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), which was one of three large modules that was flown in the Space Shuttle payload bay and used to transfer cargo to the ISS. The team will also be relying on “mixed-reality prototyping”, a process where virtual and augmented reality are used to solve engineering issues in the early design phase.

“We are excited to work with NASA to repurpose a historic piece of flight hardware, originally designed for low Earth orbit exploration, to play a role in humanity’s push into deep space,” said Pratt. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”

The Deep Space Gateway will also rely on the Orion crew capsule’s advanced capabilities while crews are docked with the habitat. Basically, this will consist of the crew using the Orion as their command deck until a more permanent command module can be built and incorporated into the habitat. This process will allow for an incremental build-up of the habitat and the deep space exploration capabilities of its crews.

Credit: NASA

As Pratt indicated, when uncrewed, the habitat will rely on systems that Lockheed Martin has incorporated into their Juno and MAVEN spacecraft in the past:

“Because the Deep Space Gateway would be uninhabited for several months at a time, it has to be rugged, reliable and have the robotic capabilities to operate autonomously. Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present. Lockheed Martin’s experience building autonomous planetary spacecraft plays a large role in making that possible.”

The Phase II work will take place over the next 18 months and the results (provided by NASA) are expected to improve our understanding of what is needed to make long-term living in deep space possible. As noted, Lockheed Martin will also be using this time to build their Deep Space Avionics Integration Laboratory, which will serve as an astronaut training module and assist with command and control between the Gateway and the Orion capsule.

Beyond the development of the Deep Space Gateway, NASA is also committed to the creation of a Deep Space Transport – both of which are crucial for NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”. Whereas the Gateway is part of the first phase of this plan – the “Earth Reliant” phase, which involves exploration near the Moon using current technologies – the second phase will be focused on developing long-duration capabilities beyond the Moon.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

For this purpose, NASA is seeking to create a reusable vehicle specifically designed for crewed missions to Mars and deeper into the Solar System. The Deep Space Transport would rely on a combination of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and chemical propulsion to transport crews to and from the Gateway – which would also serve as a servicing and refueling station for the spacecraft.

This second phase (the “Proving Ground” phase) is expected to culminate at the end of the 2020s, at which time a one-year crewed mission will take place. This mission will consist of a crew being flown to the Deep Space Gateway and back to Earth for the purpose of validating the readiness of the system and its ability to conduct long-duration missions independent of Earth.

This will open the door to Phase Three of the proposed Journey, the so-called “Earth Indepedent” phase. At this juncture, the habitation module and all other necessary mission components (like a Mars Cargo Vehicle) will be transferred to an orbit around Mars. This is expected to take place by the early 2030s, and will be followed (if all goes well) by missions to the Martian surface.

While the proposed crewed mission to Mars is still a ways off, the architecture is gradually taking shape. Between the development of spacecraft that will get the mission components and crew to cislunar space – the SLS and Orion – and the development of space habitats that will house them, we are getting closer to the day when astronauts finally set foot on the Red Planet!

Further Reading: NASA, Lockheed Martin

Is Human Hibernation Possible? Going to Sleep for Long Duration Spaceflight

Sleeping for Centuries?

We’ve spent a few articles on Universe Today talking about just how difficult it’s going to be to travel to other stars. Sending tiny unmanned probes across the vast gulfs between stars is still mostly science fiction. But to send humans on that journey? That’s just a level of technology beyond comprehension.

For example, the nearest star is Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.25 light years away. Just for comparison, the Voyager spacecraft, the most distant human objects ever built by humans, would need about 50,000 years to make that journey.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate living 50,000 years. No, we’re going to want to make the journey more quickly. But the problem, of course, is that going more quickly requires more energy, new forms of propulsion we’ve only starting to dream up. And if you go too quickly, mere grains of dust floating through space become incredibly dangerous.

Based on our current technology, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to take our time getting to another star.

And if you’re going to go the slower route, you’ve got a couple of options. Create a generational ship, so that successive generations of humans are born, live out their lives, and then die during the hundreds or even thousands of year long journey to another star.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Imagine you’re one of the people destined to live and die, never reaching your destination. Especially when you look out your window and watch a warp ship zip past with all those happy tourists headed to Proxima Centauri, who were start enough to wait for warp drives to be invented.

No, you want to sleep for the journey to the nearest star, so that when you get there, it’s like no time passed. And even if warp drive did get invented while you were asleep, you didn’t have to see their smug tourist faces as they zipped past.

Is human hibernation possible? Can we do it long enough to survive a long-duration spaceflight journey and wake up again on the other side?

Before I get into this, we’re just going to have to assume that we never merge with our robot overlords, upload ourselves into the singularity, and effortlessly travel through space with our cybernetic bodies.

For some reason, that whole singularity thing never worked out, or the robots went on strike and refused to do our space exploration for us any more. And so, the job of space travel fell to us, the fragile, 80-year lifespanned mammals. Exploring the worlds within the Solar System and out to other stars, spreading humanity into the cosmos.

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Come on, we know it’ll totally be the robots. But that’s not what the science fiction tells us, so let’s dig into it.

We see animals, and especially mammals hibernating all the time in nature. In order to be able survive over a harsh winter, animals are capable of slowing their heart rate down to just a few beats a minute. They don’t need to eat or drink, surviving on their fat stores for months at a time until food returns.

It’s not just bears and rodents that can do it, by the way, there are actually a couple of primates, including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur from Madagascar. That’s not too far away on the old family tree, so there might be hope for human hibernation after all.

In fact, medicine is already playing around with human hibernation to improve people’s chances to survive heart attacks and strokes. The current state of this technology is really promising.

They use a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the temperature of a person by a few degrees. They can use ice packs or coolers, and doctors have even tried pumping a cooled saline solution through the circulatory system. With the lowered temperature, a human’s metabolism decreases and they fall unconscious into a torpor.

But the trick is to not make them so unconscious that they die. It’s a fine line.

The results have been pretty amazing. People have been kept in this torpor state for up to 14 days, going through multiple cycles.

The therapeutic use of this torpor is still under research, and doctors are learning if it’s helpful for people with heart attacks, strokes or even the progression of diseases like cancer. They’re also trying to figure out if there are any downsides, but so far, there don’t seem to be any long-term problems with putting someone in this torpor state.

A few years ago, SpaceWorks Enterprises delivered a report to NASA on how they could use this therapeutic hypothermia for long duration spaceflight within the Solar System.

Currently, a trip to Mars takes about 6-9 months. And during that time, the human passengers are going to be using up precious air, water and food. But in this torpor state, SpaceWorks estimates that the crew will a reduction in their metabolic rate of 50 to 70%. Less metabolism, less resources needed. Less cargo that needs to be sent to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

The astronauts wouldn’t need to move around, so you could keep them nice and snug in little pods for the journey. And they wouldn’t get into fights with each other, after 6-9 months of nothing but day after day of spaceflight.

We know that weightlessness has a negative effect on the body, like loss of bone mass and atrophy of muscles. Normally astronauts exercise for hours every day to counteract the negative effects of the reduced gravity. But SpaceWorks thinks it would be more effective to just put the astronauts into a rotating module and let artificial gravity do the work of maintaining their conditioning.

They envision a module that’s 4 metres high and 8 metres wide. If you spin the habitat at 20 revolutions per minute, you give the crew the equivalent of Earth gravity. Go at only 11.8 RPM and it’ll feel like Mars gravity. Down to 7.8 and it’s lunar gravity.

Normally spinning that fast in a habitat that small would be extremely uncomfortable as the crew would experience different forces at different parts of their body. But remember, they’ll be in a state of torpor, so they really won’t care.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

Current plans for sending colonists to Mars would require 40 ton habitats to support 6 people on the trip. But according to SpaceWorks, you could reduce the weight down to 15 tons if you just let them sleep their way through the journey. And the savings get even better with more astronauts.

The crew probably wouldn’t all sleep for the entire journey. Instead, they’d sleep in shifts for a few weeks. Taking turns to wake up, check on the status of the spacecraft and crew before returning to their cryosleep caskets.

What’s the status of this now? NASA funded stage 1 of the SpaceWorks proposal, and in July, 2016 NASA moved forward with Phase 2 of the project, which will further investigate this technique for Mars missions, and how it could be used even farther out in the Solar System.

Elon Musk should be interested in seeing their designs for a 100-person module for sending colonists to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

In addition, the European Space Agency has also been investigating human hibernation, and a possible way to enable long-duration spaceflight. They have plans to test out the technology on various non-hibernating mammals, like pigs. If their results are positive, we might see the Europeans pushing this technology forward.

Can we go further, putting people to sleep for decades and maybe even the centuries it would take to travel between the stars?

Right now, the answer is no. We don’t have any technology at our disposal that could do this. We know that microbial life can be frozen for hundreds of years. Right now there are parts of Siberia unfreezing after centuries of permafrost, awakening ancient microbes, viruses, plants and even animals. But nothing on the scale of human beings.

When humans freeze, ice crystals form in our cells, rupturing them permanently. There is one line of research that offers some hope: cryogenics. This process replaces the fluids of the human body with an antifreeze agent which doesn’t form the same destructive crystals.

Scientists have successfully frozen and then unfrozen 50-milliliters (almost a quarter cup) of tissue without any damage.

In the next few years, we’ll probably see this technology expanded to preserving organs for transplant, and eventually entire bodies, and maybe even humans. Then this science fiction idea might actually turn into reality. We’ll finally be able to sleep our way between the stars.

Construction Tips from a Type 2 Engineer: Collaboration with Isaac Arthur

Type 2 Civ Tips!

By popular request, Isaac Arthur and I have teamed up again to bring you a vision of the future of human space exploration. This time, we bring you practical construction tips from a pair of Type 2 Civilization engineers.

To make this collaboration even better, we’ve teamed up with two artists, Kevin Gill and Sergio Botero. They’re going to help create some special art, just for this episode, to help show what some of these megaprojects might look like.

Continue reading “Construction Tips from a Type 2 Engineer: Collaboration with Isaac Arthur”