Integrated Life Support System for Travel to Mars

I know this sounds a little ambitious for a school project, but the research on this topic was readily available. Many really smart folks (primarily B.C. Wolverton) have performed a lot of research and experimentation towards this end, and in the process have designed some amazing earth-based applications for their technology. This project is an extension of that work.

NASA Kitchen Illustration: Illustration of Spacecraft kitchen living machine.

The basic idea is that a trip to Mars is going to take anywhere from 6 to 9 months. This is a long time for astronauts to be in space, and also would require a lot of infrastructure and resources, not only to refuel, but also to provide for water and food for the astronauts. In addition, creating an ambient life support system in space, on in which astronauts can survive, also uses a great deal of technology and resources.

The concept I was exploring was to create waste feedback loops within the space craft in a way that would fuel various complimentary systems. The design diverted the waste water from the spacecraft to be recycled to produce living green food for the astronauts, as well as oxygen and moisture for ambient life supporting conditions for the astronauts.

NASA Archimedes Screw: Archimedes Screw illustration for spacecraft living machine.

There were many aspects of this project that created interesting problems. The first is that there is a mechanism in most plants called gravitropism that tells a plant to grow upwards. Without gravity, plants have a difficult time knowing which way is up.

This was handled by making the main cabin spin around an axis in a way that would not be noticeable to humans, but would create enough centripetal force to keep the water down.

The second issue is that without gravity, water can become difficult to manage, as it tends to break into droplets and travel around the compartment until absorbed. This challenge was resolved by sourcing a substrate that would deliver water and nutrients to the plant, hold on to the water in the process.

Plant Growth Progression

I found such a substrate working with a local researcher that was exploring waste water cleaning for the industrial processes for Coca Cola. He designed this sub-straight for cleaning the highly toxic sludge byproduct from the making coke. This loosely woven material was made from a fiber that carried a slight charge, which creates an ideal environment for housing bacteria which convert the particulate waste in the water into nutrients that the plant can uptake. In addition, the weave of this fiber, although loose, was incredibly dense and would enable fostering a dense micro-biotic community.

The pumping of water throughout the system, in addition to being fueled by the centripetal movement of the craft, would be handled by freshwater sponges that would exist at the beginning of each modular unit. These sponges would both be used to pump water, and also would engage in the breakdown of particulate nutrients so that they cold become available to the plants growing there. NASA Sponge Pump: Illustrated living sponge pump for Spacecraft Living Machine. This system has a lot more to it, but here, it is my goal to simply illustrate the idea. If you would like more information, please contact me here.