NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) is paving the way for future Mars exploration. The directorate is currently investing in and developing bold, disruptive technology required for future deep-space missions. This critical work leads a concerted effort throughout the agency, including at the program level and across multiple centers, as well as with partners in American industry.
"NASA remains committed to developing the critical technologies required to enable future exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit," said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for STMD. "Within STMD, we are focusing on creating advanced technologies that could lead to entirely new approaches for the needs of the agency's future space missions, especially on Mars."
Red planet touchdown
For the human exploration of Mars, new technologies will be required to safely land future robots and humans on the hostile planet. Groundbreaking work is already being demonstrated in the area of entry, descent and landing (EDL).
With a test flight scheduled for early June, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is designed to investigate breakthrough technologies that will benefit landing future human and robotic Mars missions, as well as aid in safely returning large payloads to Earth. The NASA LDSD test over the Pacific Ocean will simulate the entry, descent and landing speeds a spacecraft would be exposed to when flying through the Martian atmosphere.
During the test, a large saucer-shaped disk carrying an inflatable inner tube-shaped decelerator and parachute system will be carried to an altitude of 120,000 feet by a giant balloon. After release from the balloon, rockets will lift the disk to 180,000 feet while reaching supersonic speeds. Traveling at 3.5 times the speed of sound, the saucer's decelerator will inflate, slowing the vehicle down, and then a parachute will deploy to carry it to the ocean's surface.
"The roadmap to a future human Mars landing has many challenges; we must develop additional capability to land more mass on the surface accurately and precisely," said Gazarik. "The LDSD test flight is an important first step."
To date, the one-ton Mars Science Laboratory is the largest payload ever delivered to Mars, representing only a fraction of the total mass crewed missions will one day require. Advancements in EDL technology will lead to a dramatic increase in the amount of payload weight that can be safely delivered to planetary surfaces.
In addition to the LDSD vehicle test, another EDL technology currently under investigation is supersonic retro propulsion. That technology relies on retrorockets at supersonic speeds to decelerate the vehicle as it travels through an atmosphere. This type of "slow down" mechanism would provide the drag necessary to get larger payloads -- between 20 and 40 tons -- through thinner atmospheres such as Mars.
STMD has also invested in the maturation of Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) -- yet another ground-breaking development with EDL applications. Now led by NASA's Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, ALHAT was recently demonstrated during the successful testing of Project Morpheus. The technology's sensor suite will provide the ability for a landing vehicle to detect and avoid obstacles such as craters, rocks and slopes for safe and precise landings.
Seeking solutions to Mars challenges
STMD delivers innovative solutions that dramatically improve the agency's capabilities; creating a pipeline that matures early-stage innovation through flight. "NASA continues to solicit the help of the best and brightest minds in academia, industry, and government to drive innovation and enable solutions in a myriad of important technology areas that one day will land humans on Mars," said Gazarik.
The directorate is actively pursuing solutions to high-priority challenges facing deep space missions, such as improving current life support systems for long-duration space travel and advancing energy storage solutions for longer-term power.
Space explorers will need to recycle as much breathable oxygen in their spacecraft environments as possible during long-duration missions. To achieve this, STMD is seeking proposals for lightweight, safe, efficient and reliable advanced oxygen recovery technology. "Our goal is to award technology development efforts that will increase the oxygen recovery rate to at least 75 percent," said Gazarik.
NASA has relied on conventional battery power for decades, but new energy capabilities are needed for deep space travel. The Advanced Energy Storage Systems solicitation will tackle both low-level energy cell design, such as chemistry and packaging, as well as advanced devices that could outperform existing lithium cells. The goal of the call for proposals is to develop battery packs with a specific energy in excess of 350-watt hours per kilogram -- or more than double the current capacity while maintaining acceptable, safe operational levels.
In addition to these technologies, STMD is partnering with NASA's Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate to solicit Mars 2020 payloads responsive to NASA's Strategic Knowledge Gaps. The SKGs are the identified areas that pose significant risks or limit technology options available to future human explorers. An oxygen production demonstration is of particular interest to NASA's human exploration and science-led directorates. A successful In Situ Resource Utilization demonstration would collect samples from the Martian atmosphere and convert the carbon dioxide into usable oxygen. For future exploration missions, this oxygen could be used to support the crew's breathing needs. In addition, the oxygen could also be used as a propellant for the ascent from Mars.
NASA's Discovery 2014 Program announcement of opportunity seeks new technologies to further future science missions, with an anticipated launch date of December 2021. Along with Mars 2020, STMD is hard at work, advancing promising technology for potential infusion into these Mars missions including: Heat-shield for Extreme Entry Environment, a tailorable, woven thermal protection system that would reduce entry loads and greatly reduce heat-shield mass; Deep Space Optical Communications, which will improve the data-return capacity from space to Earth by more than 10 times the current state-of-the-art; and the Deep Space Atomic Clock project which will revolutionize deep space travel by improving the precision of space navigation and enabling more efficient use of tracking networks like GPS.
"New investments in space technology provide the transformative capabilities to enable new missions, stimulate the economy, contribute to the nation's global competitiveness, and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers," concluded Gazarik. "STMD's ongoing development of these technologies will help push humanity beyond the International Space Station and into deep space."
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