3. Distance from Earth. Mars is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth. Rather than a three-day lunar trip, astronauts would be leaving Earth for roughly three years. While ISS expeditions serve as a rough foundation for the expected impact on planning logistics for such a trip, the data isn’t always comparable. If a medical event or emergency happens on the ISS, the crew can return home within hours. Additionally, cargo vehicles continually resupply the crews with fresh food, medical equipment, and other resources. Once you burn your engines for Mars, there is no turning back and no resupply. Facing a communication delay of up to 20 minutes one way and the possibility of equipment failures or a medical emergency, astronauts must be capable of confronting an array of situations without support from their team on Earth.

NASA is developing the technologies to build a spacesuit for use on Mars. Engineers consider everything from traversing the Martian landscape to picking up rock samples. The Z-2 suit will help solve unique problems faced by the first humans to set foot on Mars. One of the challenges is that the red soil on Mars could affect the astronauts and systems inside a spacecraft if tracked in after a spacewalk. To counter this, new spacesuit designs feature a suitport on the back, so astronauts can quickly hop in from inside a spacecraft while the suit stays outside, keeping it clean indoors. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

4. Gravity (or lack of it). There are three gravity fields astronauts will experience on a Mars mission: weightlessness be-ween planets, 1/3 of Earth’s gravity on Mars, and normal gravity upon returning to Earth. When astronauts finally return home, they will need to readapt many of the systems in their bodies to Earth’s gravity. Bones, muscles, and cardiovascular system will all be impacted by years without standard gravity. Hazards of gravity changes include changes to spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion. Fluids shifts could put pressure on the eyes, causing vision problems.

5. Hostile/Closed Environments. A spacecraft is not only a home, it’s a machine. The ecosystem inside the spacecraft plays a big role in everyday astronaut life. Important factors include temperature, pressure, lighting, noise, and amount of space. Everything is monitored, from air quality to possible microbial inhabitants. Microorganisms that naturally live on the body are transferred more easily from one person to another in a closed environment. Extensive recycling of resources —oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, and human waste — is also imperative.

The Latest Robotic Explorer

When the Mars 2020 rover launches next year, its science goal is to look for signs of ancient life. It will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission. The vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

Landing a rover like this one gives NASA more experience putting a heavy spacecraft on the surface of Mars; the challenge of landing in the thin Martian atmosphere scales with mass. The first crewed spacecraft will be titanic by comparison, carrying with it life support systems, supplies, and shielding.

Mars 2020 has a guidance system that will take a step toward safer landings. Called Terrain Relative Navigation, the system figures out where the spacecraft is headed by taking camera images during descent and matching landmarks in them to a preloaded map. If the spacecraft drifts toward dangerous terrain, it will divert to a safer landing target.

ASA’s Mars 2020 rover will demonstrate technologies for future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying resources, improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other environmental conditions. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars 2020 will carry a ground-penetrating radar called the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIM-FAX) that will be the first operated at the Martian surface. Mars 2020 scientists will use its high-resolution images to look at buried geology, like ancient lake beds. The radar could one day be used to find stores of underground ice that astronauts could access to provide drinking water.

To help engineers design spacesuits to shield astronauts from the elements, NASA is sending five samples of spacesuit material along with one of Mars 2020’s science instruments, called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC). A piece of an astronaut’s helmet and four kinds of fabric are mounted on the calibration target for this instrument. Scientists will use SHERLOC, as well as a camera that photographs visible light, to study how the materials degrade in ultraviolet radiation. It will mark the first time spacesuit material has been sent to Mars for testing and will provide a vital comparison for ongoing testing at Johnson Space Center.

Humans exploring Mars will need more than good spacesuits — they’ll need a place to live. Mars 2020 will collect science that may help engineers design better shelters for future astronauts. Like the Curiosity rover and InSight lander, 2020 has weather instruments to study how dust and radiation behave in all seasons. This suite of sensors, called the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), is the next step in the kind of weather science Curiosity collects.

As crews head to Mars, there may be items that are unanticipated or that break during the mission. Having the ability to manufacture new objects on-demand while in space will be imperative. The Refabricator is the first integrated 3D printer and recycler that recycles waste plastic materials into high-quality 3D-printer filament, providing the potential for sustainable fabrication, repair, and recycling capabilities on long-duration space missions.

The Mars Toolbox

When astronauts land on Mars, limited resources will allow for a short window of time each day to explore new surroundings. Instruments that quickly reveal the terrain’s chemistry and form will help them understand the environments around them and how they change over time.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is testing and refining chemical-analyzing and land-surveying tools that will assist human explorers of Mars. Many of the technologies build upon ones that have already equipped robotic orbiters and rovers that sniff out the cosmos. NASA’s Curiosity rover, for instance, is studying the composition of soil with the help of spectrometers to identify what rocks are made of by measuring how their chemical elements interact with electromagnetic radiation.

Though the technologies powering these tools already exist, NASA’s objective is to make the instruments small and efficient enough to help robots, and one day astronauts, analyze on the spot the composition of the surface of planets, moons, and asteroids. This will allow for well-informed decisions about which few samples explorers can return to Earth on a spacecraft of limited size.

What the team has learned from doing experiments, particularly with astronauts on the space station, is that speed and ease-of-use are essential for space tools. Astronauts doing extravehicular activities (EVAs) have limited oxygen and other resources, so device features such as instrument size, number of buttons, and the data display are crucial. Time spent scrolling through volumes of information means less opportunity to walk farther away from the lander to make new discoveries.

NASA’s sustainable exploration approach is reusable and repeatable, building an open exploration architecture in lunar orbit with as many capabilities as possible that can be replicated for missions to the Red Planet.




Exploration: It’s What We Do 

“Practicing” Science on Mars 

Preparing for our Journey to Mars 

Mars Exploration Zones 

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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