NASA continues to build toward a manned mission to Mars, and a new plan to put a space station in orbit above the red planet could help the agency put astronaut boots on the ground.
Lockheed Martin, one of NASA’s private partners on the “Journey to Mars,” recently suggested establishing a Martian basecamp that could provide housing and serve as a laboratory by 2028.
The Mars space station would allow NASA to collect vital information on the red planet before sending astronauts down to the surface, Steve Bailey, the president and chief engineer of Deep Space Systems, told Space.com.
“Before we send people to the surface of Mars, we owe it to that crew, to ourselves, to understand if there’s life on the planet and if there’s anything that’s toxic to humans. This mission will do those two very fundamental things.”
The Mars space station would consist of two Orion crew capsules, which NASA is currently testing, attached to two habitat and science modules capable of supporting six astronauts for a year.
It would weigh 132 tons, compared to the International Space Station, which weighs 440 tons.
Crew members at the Mars basecamp would spend their days studying the soil of the red planet for signs of life, controlling the rovers on the surface and finalizing their landing location.
They could even pop over to Phobos and Deimos, the two Martian moons, on two- or three-week trips to do some exploring of their own. Such exploration would probably be done using “spider walkers” that could provide stability in the low gravity, according to Space.com.
Controlling the Mars rovers, and maybe a few winged craft, would enable the astronauts in orbit above the red planet to make scientific discoveries that just aren’t possible when operating from Earth.
It takes about 20 minutes for signals from Mars to reach engineers here on Earth, so NASA researchers are driving rovers on the red planet blindly: they plot a course, type it in, and wait to see what happens. Without the delay it would be a lot easier to explore Mars.
The space agency is planning for a crew of six to operate the Mars space station and they’ll probably be career scientists with little astronaut training rather than test pilots who do little research, Tony Antonelli, Lockheed Martin’s chief technologist, told Popular Science.
“We think that putting scientists with laboratories right there in Mars orbit will allow them, in just a few months, to accomplish more science than we’ve been able to accomplish in the past 40 years.”
NASA’s “Journey to Mars” is behind schedule and over budget, according to a government audit, but if the space agency really intends to send humans to Mars, a space station above the red planet is an important first step.
Before mankind landed on the moon, they orbited it first and Lockheed Martin wants the same to happen as our species reaches for Mars, Antonelli told Popular Science.
“We think that orbiting Mars is a necessary precursor to landing humans on the surface. NASA has that in their plans, and we’re coloring in the details.”
The space agency plans to use the Space Launch System (SLS), currently under construction, to launch the Orion crew capsules and habitat modules into space. The components would be assembled in cis-lunar orbit and shipped to the red planet.
The technology to put a space station in orbit above the red planet already exists or is currently being engineered by NASA, so it’s not such a big leap, Antonelli told Popular Science.
“All of these pieces exist today, they’re not brand new. We’re taking advantage of what we’ve already got.”
Do you think a Mars basecamp would help NASA put boots on the soil of the red planet?
[Image via iStock]