6 Incredible Technologies NASA is Advancing to Send Humans to Mars

6 Incredible Technologies NASA is Advancing to Send Humans to Mars

NASA astronauts on Mars. Photo credit: NASA

Mars is an obvious source of inspiration for science fiction stories. It is familiar and well studied, but different and far enough away to compel otherworldly adventures. NASA has its sights set on the Red Planet for many of the same reasons.

Robots, including the Perseverance rover that is about to take off for Mars, teach us what it’s like on the surface. This information will help inform future human missions on the Red Planet. We also need to equip spaceships and astronauts with technology to get them there, explore the surface, and get them back home safely. The round trip, including transit time – to and from Earth – and on the Martian surface, will take approximately two years.

Technological development began as early as the 2030s to make a crewed Mars mission possible. Many of the skills are first demonstrated during the Artemis missions on the moon, while other systems are more uniquely suited to deeper spaces. Here are six technologies NASA is working on to make Mars science fiction a reality.

NASA is advancing many technologies to send astronauts to Mars as early as the 2030s. Here are six things we are currently working on to make future human missions possible on the Red Planet. Photo credit: NASA

1. Powerful drive systems that get us there (and home!) Faster

Astronauts flying to Mars will travel approximately 140 million miles into space. Advances in propulsion skills are key to achieving our goal as quickly and safely as possible.

It’s too early to say which propulsion system will get astronauts to Mars, but we know it needs to be nuclear activated to cut travel time. NASA is pushing several options, including nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion. Both use nuclear fission, but are very different from each other. A nuclear electric missile is more efficient, but it doesn’t generate much thrust. The nuclear thermal drive, on the other hand, offers much more “momentum”.

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Whichever system is chosen, the fundamentals of nuclear propulsion will shorten the time the crew is away from Earth. The agency and its partners develop, test and mature critical components of various propulsion technologies to reduce the risk of the first human mission to Mars.

6 Incredible Technologies NASA is Advancing to Send Humans to Mars

Illustration of a spacecraft with a nuclear propulsion system. Photo credit: NASA

2. Inflatable heat shield to land astronauts on other planets

The largest rover we landed on Mars is about the size of a car, and it takes a much larger spacecraft to send people to Mars. New technologies allow heavier spacecraft to penetrate the Martian atmosphere, approach the surface, and land near the location astronauts want to explore.

NASA is working on an inflatable heat shield that will allow the large surface of a rocket to take up less space than a rigid one. The technology could land spaceships on any planet with an atmosphere. It would expand and inflate before entering the Martian atmosphere to safely land cargo and astronauts.

Flexible heat shield installation

The engineers prepare the installation of the flexible heat shield on the inflatable structure. The view is from below and the heat shield is above. Photo credit: NASA’s Langley Research Center

The technology isn’t ready for the red planet yet. An upcoming flight test of a prototype 6 meters (20 feet) in diameter will show how the Aeroshell will behave as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The test will prove that it can withstand the intense heat of entering Mars.

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3. High-tech Mars spacesuits

Space suits are essentially custom spaceships for astronauts. NASA’s latest spacesuit is so high-tech that its modular construction was designed for use anywhere in space.

The first woman and next man on the moon will wear NASA’s next generation spacesuits known as the Exploratory Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. The spacesuits place great emphasis on the safety of the crew and allow the moon walkers of the Artemis generation to perform more natural, earth-like movements and perform tasks that were not possible during the Apollo missions.

Future upgrades to address the differences on Mars could include technologies for life-sustaining functions in the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere and modified outerwear to keep astronauts warm during the Martian winter and prevent overheating in the summer season.

Next generation space suit from NASA

NASA’s next generation spacesuit was designed to enable astronauts to be more mobile on the moon and Mars. Photo credit: NASA

4. Marsheim and Laboratory on Wheels

To reduce the number of items required to land on the surface, NASA will combine the first Mars home and vehicle in a single rover with breathable air.

Rover under pressure on Mars

Illustration of a pressurized rover on Mars. Photo credit: NASA

NASA has conducted extensive rover tests on Earth to inform the development of a pressurized mobile home on the moon. Artemis astronauts who live and work in the future pressurized Moon Rover can provide feedback to help hone rover skills for astronauts on Mars. NASA’s robotic rovers will also help with Mars design – from finding the best wheels for Mars to navigating a larger vehicle through the difficult terrain.

Much like an RV, the pressurized rover has everything astronauts need to live and work for weeks. They can ride in comfortable clothes, tens of miles from the spaceship that is taking them back into space for the trip back to Earth. When they encounter places of interest, astronauts can put on their high-tech spacesuits to exit the rover, collect samples, and conduct scientific experiments.

NASA Mars Cehicle

NASA is currently working on a vehicle that can navigate difficult terrain on the Red Planet. Photo credit: NASA

5. Uninterruptible power supply

Just as we charge our devices with electricity on Earth, astronauts need a reliable power supply to explore Mars. The system needs to be lightweight and operational regardless of its location or the weather on the Red Planet.

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Mars has a day and night cycle like Earth and periodic dust storms that can last for months, making nuclear fission power a more reliable option than solar energy. NASA has already tested the technology on Earth and has shown that it is safe, efficient and abundant enough to enable long-term surface missions. NASA plans to demonstrate and use the fission force system first on the moon and then on Mars.

Mars fission system

Illustration of a nuclear fission system concept on Mars. Photo credit: NASA

6. Laser communication to send more information home

Human missions to Mars can use lasers to stay in contact with Earth. A laser communication system on Mars could send large amounts of real-time information and data, including high-resolution images and video feeds.

Sending a map of Mars to Earth can take nine years with current radio systems, but only nine weeks with laser communications. The technology would also enable us to communicate with astronauts, see and hear more of their adventures on the Red Planet.

Spacecraft with laser communication

Illustration of a spacecraft that uses laser communications to relay data from Mars to Earth. Photo credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA has proven that laser communication is possible with a demonstration from the moon in 2013. The agency’s next demo will work through various operating scenarios, perfect the pointing system and tackle technological challenges from low-earth orbit – such as clouds and other communication disruptions. NASA is building small systems to test human space travel, including on the International Space Station and the first crewed Artemis mission. Another laser communications payload will venture into space to inform what it takes to deploy the same technology millions and millions of miles from Earth.

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