10 Technology Innovations Needed for Deep Space Exploration
By Patrick J. Kiger
10: Spacecraft Equipped With Giant Solar Sails
Conventional rockets can put astronauts into orbit, but try using one to travel the enormous distances between planets and stars and you’re likely to run out of fuel. That’s why scientists have been working to develop alternative methods of propulsion and energy sources for rockets.
9: Super-high-speed Optical Communication
We all chuckled at the notion that E.T. was having trouble phoning home, but for interplanetary explorers, maintaining communication with Earth could be a major challenge. “If you can’t communicate with the ship, then you don’t know what the results are of your mission,” Andreas Tziolas, a former research fellow at NASA who now heads Project Icarus, a private-sector effort to develop interstellar technology, told the Atlantic.
8: Atomic-powered Clocks for Navigation in Deep Space
If you’re going to travel in deep space, the last thing you want is to get lost along the way, crash on some strange planet, and have your robotic assistant running around wearing out its voice synthesizer, continually shouting “Danger, Will Robinson!” To avoid such a scenario, you need a really good a navigation system with a super-precise clock; this clock will be used to calculate distances.
7: Robotic Advance Teams
Founding a colony on a distant planet might be a daunting task for astronauts. They’d have to land in unfamiliar, possibly rough terrain, and then immediately set about erecting dwellings and a landing/launching pad to facilitate follow-up missions — all while searching for water, air and building materials. That’s why NASA engineers, in league with Canadian and European colleagues, are at work developing robotic advance teams that would land in advance of human explorers to scope out the available resources and lay the groundwork for a settlement. On Mars or another planet, for example, rovers equipped with bulldozer blades or plows could go to work clearing and smoothing a landing spot, while others might amass rocks and other materials and process them to make a concrete runway. (Remember that the Space Shuttle’s landing facility required 250,000 cubic yards of concrete, far too much to ever be transported from Earth.) Other robots might roam the surface, drilling and testing soil samples to look for usable oxygen and/or water, according to NASA.
6: Substitutes for Gravity
Watching Apollo astronauts hit golf balls fantastic distances might make microgravity look like great fun, but the truth is that it’s extremely hard on your body. In fact, scientists say that some of the biggest potential problems facing astronauts in deep space are the physiological changes caused by weightlessness. Astronauts’ muscles have a tendency to atrophy from lack of resistance, and they lose bone as well; in addition, weightlessness causes a loss of blood volume, so they feel lightheaded when they stand up. Additionally, it alters the human sense of balance, so that when space travelers return, they’ll feel as if Earth is spinning out of control beneath their feet.
5: Suspended Animation for Long Trips
One of the major problems with traveling vast distances in space is that trips could take a long, long time. In a lot of science fiction movies, such as “Alien” and “Planet of the Apes,” scriptwriters get around this problem by depicting astronauts slumbering for long stretches in suspended animation, like hibernating animals. Unfortunately, slowing the human metabolism and keeping a person alive for lengthy periods in that state is easier imagined than done. Surface-induced deep hypothermia — in layman’s terms, freezing — probably isn’t a good option, for example, since ice crystals begin to form inside the cells, and then destroy them as they grow, according to Michio Kaku, author of “Physics of the Impossible.”
4: Force Fields to Block Hazardous Radiation
Force fields are a staple of science fiction, in which they’re usually used to protect a spaceship or space station from attackers. In “Star Wars,” for example, the Death Star on which Darth Vader did his heavy breathing was protected by such a shield. But in actual deep space travel, scientists are looking to force fields to solve another problem — how to protect astronauts’ bodily cells from the continual radiation bombardment in space that might cause them to develop cancers and other health problems.
3: Warp Drives
In “Star Trek,” the Starship Enterprise travels enormous distances in weeks and months, even visiting other galaxies — a feat that would be impossible at the speeds that spacecraft currently travel. The Enterprise does this by using warp drive, in which the spacecraft basically takes shortcuts through holes caused by distortions of space-time. (This is a tricky concept to grasp; imagine space and time as a giant tablecloth, one that you can stretch, twist and poke pathways through.)
2: Growing Food on Spaceships
Like everybody else, astronauts in deep space would need to eat, and finding room inside a spacecraft to bring along the vast quantities of supplies needed to sustain them on trips lasting multiple years would be a major headache. That’s why NASA scientists are looking for ways for astronauts to grow their own food while en route to other planets, without using soil or large amounts of water.
1: Recycling Air and Water in Deep Space
Another thing that astronauts will need in space is supplies of both breathable air and drinkable water, and obviously they can’t haul Earth behind them to provide a continuously refreshed supply. That’s why NASA scientists are working to develop air recovery systems that will filter, extract and restore to a ship’s internal atmosphere as much oxygen as possible. By 2014, researchers expect to have the ability to recover as much as 75 percent of the oxygen from the carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out, and by 2019, they hope to achieve 100 percent recovery, according to Space.com.