Research into the future of space travel

Elsevier, the publisher of many premium peer-reviewed scientific journals, posted a special web edition about the future of space travel that brings a dozen papers from behind Elsevier’s paywall (through December 2014). Some of the papers provide broad overviews of issues facing human missions into deep space that space enthusiasts can follow. Others are more specialized reports of scientific research that still give a good idea of the kind of research needed before humans can leave low-Earth orbit.

You can read my brief summaries - without spoilers - below, but to get the full details follow the link to Elsevier’s Virtual Special Issue: From one giant leap to the next.

The special edition is bracketed by challengers to the traditional approach to space exploration. It kicks off with an interview Elsevier conducted with Mars One Chief Technology Officer Arno Wielders. He talks about recent scientific developments his organization believes will make Martian settlements possible. It concludes with a paper Chad Anderson of the Space Angels Network wrote for the journal Space Policy. Anderson explains how public-private arrangements like the Space Act Agreement between Nasa and SpaceX are changing the future of government space programs. His paper is one-sided, but provides a good overview of New Space advocates’ positions.

There’s a lot we must learn about the conditions in space before we can conduct deep space missions. Three papers look at radiation and gravity.

  • Ann Kennedy with the University of Pennsylvania reviews the biological effects of space radiation and ways that diet and medicine can mitigate the effects.
  • A team of Turkish and Brazilian researchers led by Murat Kurudirek of Ataturk University evaluated samples of materials from Earth, Mars, and the Moon to see the extent of penetration and absorption of gamma rays.
  • A team of British and Brazilian researchers led by Rebecca G. Krygiel of Kings College London placed volunteers in body suspension devices that simulate Martian gravity and then measured muscle performance while performing CPR.

Spacecraft like the International Space Station or the Orion capsule cannot conduct long-duration missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Four papers look at new technologies.

  • A multinational team led by X.P. Deng of China’s National Space Science Center looked at ways future spacecraft can use millisecond pulsars to navigate the Solar System.
  • Researchers from Sapienza University of Rome, led by C. Burattini, wrote about a new design concept for space modules. Rather than the functional approach traditionally followed by the world’s space agencies, the researchers believe that long-duration missions require a focus on comfort and ergonomics.
  • A team of Nasa and university researchers led by A.M. Brandis of University of California Santa Cruz looked at the thermal radiation that large vehicles will experience while entering the Martian atmosphere.
  • A Chinese research team led by Rongjie Liu of Southeast University studied the powered descent phase of Martian landers.

The ISS gets resupplied on a regular basis, but that won’t be possible for deep space missions. Four articles look at new approaches that will keep astronauts alive for years at a time.

  • The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Sachiko Yano and fellow Japanese researchers published a paper evaluating the Plant Experiment Unit on Japan’s ISS Module, Kibo.
  • Mark Nelson and researchers with Global Ecotechnics and the Institue of Ecotechnics summarize the challenges and tradeoffs of closed environmental systems where everything gets recycled and resupply isn’t needed.
  • Japanese researchers led by H. Uemoto of the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry explain how their biological filter maintained the balance of nitrogen in fish tanks on the ISS.
  • Chinese researchers led by Yuming Fu of Beihang University developed a prototype vegetable cultivation system that could grow food, remove carbon dioxide, and process waste water.