New technologies to bolster the Mars mission with a specific focus on transport vehicles and habitats are in sight after NASA approved proposals of multi-disciplinary, university research institutes to create technologies for a sustained human presence on the Red Planet.

Carbon Nanotube Material

The new technologies aim to make stronger Mars habitats and lighter vehicles using carbon nanotube as the main material.

Accordingly, the Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs), which got NASA's nod, must harness the talent of researchers from various organizations in developing cutting-edge technologies in areas like bio-manufacturing and space infrastructure.

The priority will be the creation of self-sustaining exploration mission capabilities with Earth-independent features.

"NASA is establishing STRIs to research and exploit cutting-edge advances in technology with the potential for revolutionary impact on future aerospace capabilities," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's in Washington-based Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA Shifts Focus

The preference for STRI mission aligns well with NASA's strategic focus shifting to deep space missions by departing from the low-Earth orbit concentration.

The space agency wants technologies that sustain long-drawn missions of crews and help them manufacture products in situ than waiting for resupply missions from Earth.

The STRIs selected institutes include Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) and The Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP).

These multi-disciplinary research programs aim to augment synthesis of science and engineering to attain desired outcomes within five years.

Funded by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate these pioneering technologies will play a vital role in the success of different NASA missions.

These institutes will also broad base the U.S. talent base by taking the new applications beyond the realm of aerospace.

Each STRI will be granted $15 million for their technology missions.

The mandate of CUBES institute will be to expand research into integrated, multi-organism bio-manufacturing system for producing food, fuel, materials, and pharmaceuticals.

Research goals of the CUBES institute will have to support deep-space planetary explorations and also be useful in Earth-based applications.

The CUBES team led by Adam Arkin, principal investigator at the University of California has partners in Utah State University, Stanford University, and industrial partners like Autodesk.

Affordable technologies for deep space exploration with transformative materials will be the plank of US-COMP. It will help in developing next-generation transit vehicles, habitats, power systems, and exploration systems.

Carbon nanotube-based, lightweight yet high strength aerospace structural material will be a top priority for US-COMP. Its team will be led by Gregory Odegard as the main investigator at the Michigan Technological University with Florida State University, the University of Utah among others as partners.

Martian Soil For Making Habitats

Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida (UCF) is associating with NASA in extracting metals from the Martian soil.

Professor Sudipta Seal, the interim chair of UCF's Materials Science and Engineering program has proposed feeding these metals into a 3-D printer to make the components of a human habitat, electronics, and ship parts.

"It's essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it," said Seal.

Molten Regolith Electrolysis

According to the plan with NASA, more research will be conducted on molten regolith electrolysis to know the patterns by which metal ores are refined.

Martian soil called as regolith will be fed into a chamber. Heating the chamber to nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit will lead to an electrolysis that will yield oxygen and molten metals crucial for the human space exploration.

Seal's expertise will help to determine the form those metals assume in the commercial 3-D printers.

NASA intern Kevin Grossman is also participating in the project funded by NASA.

Organizations like NASA, SpaceX, Mars One, that are aiming human missions to Mars have a consensus that Mars exploration will need more resources within Mars compared to costly transportation from Earth. That perspective makes this research very important.

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