Thursday, October 09, 2014

NASA - Mars Journey and SETI

"How NASA crews could sleep for 6 months on the journey to Mars" by James Rogers, Fox News 10/8/2014

Existing medical techniques are laying the foundations for an ambitious research project to send astronauts into a deep sleep on a six-month journey to Mars, according to the engineer leading the study.

"There's technology being used in the medical community that could support this - there's a wealth of data out there to support it," John Bradford, president of Atlanta-based SpaceWorks, told  "It's a big step, but it could be adopted for space flight."

The NASA-funded study began 12 months ago, and conjures up images of science fiction - putting astronauts into a deep sleep, or torpor, during the long six-month journey to Mars.

“I don’t think that we could go to Mars without something like this technology,” Bradford said.  Putting the crew into a deep sleep, he explained, would significantly reduce the amount of supplies and infrastructure needed to support the long space journey, from food to onboard living space.

The study predicts that putting a spacecraft’s crew into torpor, or stasis state, would cut the mission requirements from 400 tons to 220 tons of equipment and supplies.

Bradford told that the torpor could be achieved by a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which is already used in hospitals, albeit for a much shorter time period.

Therapeutic, or protective, hypothermia lowers a patient’s body temperature to reduce the risk of tissue injury following, say, a cardiac arrest when blood flow is limited.

In the thermal management system envisaged by SpaceWorks, a tube inserted into an astronaut’s nasal cavity will emit a cooled gas, lowering their temperature by about 10 degrees.  Low-dose drugs will also be administered to suppress their shiver reflex and ease their passage into a deep sleep.

"Other than the duration, the procedural aspects of this are pretty benign," said Bradford.

Technologies are already commercially available in this area, such as the RhinoChill IntraNasal cooling system, which is used to induce therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest.

However, SpaceWorks acknowledges that there's a lot more research needed before someone is placed in a six-month sleep.  Up to now, the longest torpor induced by therapeutic hypothermia is 14 days, according to Bradford.

The engineer told that, while the research aims to wake astronauts just once, at the end of their journey, other sleep durations may be used.  The crew, he explained, could sleep in shifts, with each astronaut in torpor for about two weeks and then conscious for two days, ensuring that one crew member is always awake during the mission.

While in stasis state, astronauts would be fed intravenously with an aqueous solution of carbohydrates, amino acids, dextrose, and lipids, according to Bradford.  "They would not have any solid waste - it would be strictly urine," he said, noting that a catheter would be used to dispose of the liquid.

The medical industry is also developing technologies such as infection-resistant IV lines that could prove useful during the flight to Mars, Bradford said.

The crew could be brought out of their torpor by turning off the cooling gas and shivering suppressant.  "Nominally, it would take about two hours to wake somebody," said the SpaceWorks president.  "It would probably take a couple of days [for the astronauts] to get [fully] acclimated - our testing will include cognitive tests to examine their mental faculties when they wake up."

Bradford estimates that a typical Mars mission will involve a six month journey, followed by a year and a half on the red planet, and a six month journey back to earth.

While NASA has successfully completed unmanned missions to Mars, such as the Curiosity rover, putting humans on the planet is a much more challenging endeavor.  NASA, for example, has a 2035 target for landing humans on Mars, although SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has predicted that people could be on Mars within 10 to 12 years.

SpaceWorks’ Bradford expects to see human Mars missions in 20 years, noting that the deep sleep research project is still in its infancy.

“There’s a ways to go,” he told  “We have concluded the phase one effort, which is developing the initial design, the engineering details, and medical plausibility - we’re now looking at the next steps, which will be continued studies of the engineering challenges.”

"Here's How NASA Is Expanding Its Search For Alien Life" by Eric Mack, Forbes 10/8/2014

Over the next five years, NASA and seven partner institutions will be taking on new projects to help paint a more complete picture about how life comes to be in the universe.   The projects include preparing to bring back samples of the Martian terrain to Earth, investigating the role of comets and asteroids in delivering water and organic compounds around the solar system and researching how our own planet has managed to sustain life for so much of its history.

This week, NASA announced the winners of its seventh Cooperative Agreement Notice grant competition (CAN7), who will receive $50 million between them to conduct their research.

There are no plans to build a Starship Enterprise to hop from galaxy to galaxy in search of aliens among the projects, rather they will all take place here on Earth.

A team at the SETI Institute will be looking into the best ways to ensure that a planned 2020 NASA mission to bring back samples from Mars selects the ideal scoops of Maritan soil or rock and takes the best care of that precious cargo.  Another project based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. will use natural hydrothermal chimney systems on our own planet as models to investigate how conditions on icy worlds such as Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus might be able to support life.

A team from the University of Colorado at Boulder will examine the potential of how rocks might power life on planets such as Mars when their chemical energy is released through interaction with water.  Others will look at how Earth’s history might hold key secrets to the search for E.T., like a University of California at Riverside project to examine the history of oxygen in our own atmosphere and oceans.

“The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life,” said Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology program.

Each project team will receive about $8 million and join five continuing astrobiology project teams already participating in the program at the University of Washington in Seattle; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

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