Whether it's NASA’s "Journey to Mars" or Elon Musk’s plan to colonize the Solar System, one thing is certain: Once we leave the safe haven that is our planet, we need to be able to fend for ourselves using what we can find in space.
This is called, in technical terms, in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). It means that before we can plan our deep space escapades, we need to have the technologies to create whatever supplies we can’t take with us.
"It was an incredible accomplishment when we went to the moon," said Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle astronaut and current director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, in a NASA article. “We stayed for a couple of days and took some rocks home. We explored.”
Cabana added: “But, now we want to be pioneers. As pioneers, we will create a sustained human presence in an ever more extreme environment. We now want to go to Mars.”
The permanent mission on the International Space Station (ISS) has given us many insights into how humans adapt to microgravity environments, but the ISS is regularly re-supplied. A mission to Mars will take six to nine months, without considering time on the surface.
Once on the surface, the astronauts need to be able to extract resources to cultivate crops and make fuel. This requires not only top-notch technologies, which might not be quite ready for crops yet, but also an in-depth knowledge of the landing sites and terrains.
“We don’t want to land somewhere and assume there is water in the regolith and find there is no water,” Rob Mueller, a senior technologist in the Spaceport Systems Branch of Exploration Research and Technology Programs, added. “We need to prospect before we mine to see if there is anything valuable there. So, in order to do the prospecting, NASA is planning an orbital mission with instruments on board to look for water in the soil using remote sensing.”
NASA is also planning a resource prospector mission on the Moon, which could make it easier to go back there and even establish a permanent base.
The space agency is also testing a special trash reactor that can convert trash into rocket fuel. “It costs a great deal to launch a ton of payload beyond Earth orbit,” chemical engineer Annie Meier said, “so why not reuse it.”
There are many challenges ahead, but NASA is working hard to make sure the astronauts that will fly to Mars not only survive, but end up thriving away from home.