What would it take to make a manned mission to Mars a reality? A team of
aerospace and textile engineering students from North Carolina State Univ.
believe part of the solution may lie in advanced textile materials. The
students joined forces to tackle life-support challenges that the aerospace
industry has been grappling with for decades.
“One of the big issues, in terms of a manned mission to Mars, is creating
living quarters that would protect astronauts from the elements—from radiation
to meteorites,” says textile engineering student Brent Carter. “Currently, NASA
uses solid materials like aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fibers, which while
effective, are large, bulky and difficult to pack within a spacecraft.”
Using advanced textile materials, which are flexible and can be treated with
various coatings, students designed a 1,900 ft2 inflatable living
space that could comfortably house four to six astronauts. This living space is
made by layering radiation-shielding materials like Demron with a gas-tight
material made from a polyurethane substrate to hold in air, as well as
gold-metalicized film that reflects UV rays—among others. The space is
dome-shaped, which will allow those pesky meteors, prone to showering down on
the red planet, to bounce off the astronauts’ home away from home without
causing significant damage.
“We’re using novel applications of high-tech textile technology and applying
them to aerospace problems,” explains Alex Ray, a textile engineering student
and team member. “Being able to work with classmates in aeronautical
engineering allowed us to combine our knowledge from both disciplines to really
think through some original solutions.”
Students also tackled another major issue preventing a manned mission to
Mars—water supply. Currently, astronauts utilize something called a Sabatier
reactor to produce water while in space. The Sabatier process involves the
reaction of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, with the presence of nickel, at
extremely high temperatures and pressure to produce water and methane.
“We wanted to find a way to improve the current Sabatier reactor so we could
still take advantage of the large quantities of carbon dioxide available on
Mars, and the fact that it is relatively easy to bring large quantities of
hydrogen on the spacecraft, since it is such a lightweight element,” says
recent aerospace engineering graduate Mark Kaufman, who was also on the design
Current Sabatier reactors, Kaufman explains, are long, heavy tubes filled
with nickel pellets—not ideal for bringing on a spacecraft. The student groups
worked to develop a fiber material to which they applied nickel nanoparticles
to create the same reaction without all the weight and volume. They believe
their redesigned Sabatier reactor would be more feasible to carry along on a
future space shuttle.