Break the Ties: Why Ending Reliance on Earth is Vital to the Mars Mission

Ending the reliance on Earth for resources during space missions is essential for the success of the manned Mars mission, according to Sam Scimemi, NASA’s director of the International Space Station.

Introduced as “Mr ISS” this morning at the final day of the Humans 2 Mars conference in Washington DC, Scimemi explained how several logistical and technological issues needed to be tackled and tested before such a mission could take place.

“There are no flowers on the road to Mars,” said Scimemi, adding that parties with a vested interest in the Mars mission needed to be careful about what they wanted from it.

“If the goal is getting to Mars, and eventually getting to the surface… how we actually do that is a matter of how much money we have and what are our technical and human health risks,” he added.

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At present we are “earth reliant”, meaning that all space missions are tied to the earth for communications, crew supplies, hardware, emergency return on crew and, of course, rubbish disposal.

“The simulations that we do on station are all reliant on these things,” explained Scimemi. “And we’re trying to learn how to break these connections to the earth in our simulations, in our research, in our technology development.

The aim is to go from a situation where we are “car camping in space” to a scenario where the only connection the spacecraft has to earth is a communications link with a delay of up to 42 minutes.

The key to breaking this reliance is the research and development being undertaken at the International Space Station.

“The two major things we have going on is our life support system, and the upgrades to that to be able to build the next Mars life support system, and our crew health research and our crew performance systems development,” said Scimemi, adding that crew support activities and vehicle activities such as rendez-vous and docking were also being researched, alongside Mars simulations.

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From here, NASA is looking to break the chain of logistics and, as a result, reduce the day-to-day reliance on Earth. This should mean that the time spent out of communication with Earth should grow, which in turn should enable further distances to be travelled.

The challenge of maintaining crew health and performance is essential to this. In particular, issues such as food supplies and health assistance need to be addressed carefully, and NASA needs to develop an effective system to provide emergency care if it is required.

Other factors include the development of reliable and low-maintenance life support systems and ensuring adequate performance from the crew throughout the mission time.

For Scimemi, all of these factors must be resolved before a Mars mission can be tackled.

He believes the best way to ensure that the space agency is ready for such missions beyond low-earth orbit is to combine the technologies and solutions developed to break ties with Earth in a shakedown cruise: a  test run in cis-lunar space (the area the moon’s orbit covers) where any issues can be safely resolved.


Featured image courtesy of NASA.
Body images screenshots from Humans 2 Mars Webcast.


Tee-mobile: the nanolaser technology set to print tiny phones into clothing

Mobile phones shrank in size for more than 20 years until we started to need bigger screens, but now a group of scientists are working on technology that could make phones so small they would be able to be printed onto clothing.

Researchers from Monash University, Australia, are investigating ‘spaser’ technology that will allow the tiny printing to take place.

The technology means that mobile phones could become so small, efficient and flexible they could be printed.

This doesn’t take into account the user experience, or what would happen when clothes are needed to be washed, but the shows how minute the technology could be in the future.

A spaser is a nanoscale laser, or nanolaser, that emits light through the vibrations of free electrons, rather than the space-consuming processes in traditional lasers.

The research used grapheme and carbon nanotubes, which are stronger than steel and can conduct heat and electricity better than copper.

Their research showed for the first time that graphene and carbon nanotubes can interact and transfer energy to each other through light – this makes them idea for applications such as computer chips.


“There is the possibility that in the future an extremely thin mobile phone could be printed on clothing.”


Chanaka Rupasinghe, a PhD student and the lead researcher of the project, said the new spaser would offer new possibilities compared to those that have previously been invented.

“Other spasers designed to date are made of gold or silver nanoparticles and semiconductor quantum dots while our device would be comprised of a graphene resonator and a carbon nanotube gain element,” Chanaka said.

“The use of carbon means our spaser would be more robust and flexible, would operate at high temperatures, and be eco-friendly. Because of these properties, there is the possibility that in the future an extremely thin mobile phone could be printed on clothing.”

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The researchers say spaser-based devices can be used as an alternative to current transistor-based devices such as microprocessors, memory and displays to overcoming the problems with miniaturising and bandwidth limitations.

The term spaser, which stands for ‘surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’ was first used by David Bergman and Mark Stockman in 2003.

Chanaka said a spaser generated high-intensity electric fields concentrated into a nanoscale space.

The researcher added: “Graphene and carbon nanotubes can be used in applications where you need strong, lightweight, conducting, and thermally stable materials due to their outstanding mechanical, electrical and optical properties.

They have been tested as nanoscale antennas, electric conductors and waveguides.”


Featured image courtesy of Adam Russel via Flickr/creative commons 

Image 2 courtesy of Monash University