3 Scientific Breakthroughs That Will Get Us to Mars

November 23, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

Artist's Concept of Space Launch
Photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A trip to the Red Planet gets more likely every day

“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last month. Researchers are working hard to make the voyage safer and less costly.


While on route to Mars, space crews will need to be much more independent and self-sufficient than they currently are on the International Space Station (ISS). Any supplies they need for their trip to the Red Planet will need to be packed along with them.

Medical supplies aboard the ISS are replenished as necessary, especially when medications passed their expiry date. However, there was concern that medication might degrade more quickly in space than on earth due to radiation and microgravity, which would be problematic for a Mars mission. A small-scale pilot study was recently completed, led by Virginia Wotring by the Center for Space Medicine and the Department of Pharmacology at Baylor College of Medicine, where nine medications including sleeping aids, pain relievers, antihistamines, antidiarrheals, and alertness drugs were tested after 550 days in space. Preliminary results were good: medication in space does not appear to degrade more rapidly than it does on Earth.

Expandable Activity Module

Before humans arrive on Mars, NASA plans to send several unmanned spacecraft with supplies to await them.  The cost of these missions will be high so NASA is looking for any way possible to reduce them. For example, they plan to send expandable modules instead of metal habitats, but these will need to be tested first.

A module of this type, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), will be tested on the ISS in early 2016 when it is brought aboard by a SpaceX Commercial Resupply Service mission. The plan is to fill it with air for two years in order to perform a series of tests to confirm its reliability and validate its performance. It will be about 8 feet in diameter and weigh about 3,000 pounds.

In a series of FAQs provided by NASA, they report that they are planning to use expandable units on the moon, during in-flight transportation and on Mars: “A successful BEAM demonstration on ISS will certainly be a giant stepping stone to understanding the role expandable structures could have for future space habitats.”

LED Lighting

You may have seen Mark Watney growing potatoes in The Martian, and that really isn’t such a far-fetched idea. NASA is currently looking into growing plants in space and proper lighting is key.

Kennedy engineer Daniel Shultz says, “In studying plants and growth chambers at Kennedy, we looked at high-intensity halogen lights, special UV bulbs, and then LEDs. As we were doing our research, LEDs were getting more and more robust.”

In fact, NASA is interested in using more and more LEDs for other purposes as well because of their lifespan, ability to function in extreme temperature, weight, and minimal power needs, as well as the fact that they don’t give off heat.

Furthermore, a particular wavelength of blue light is known to reduce the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps keep our body’s natural clock on time. On Earth our bodies naturally adjust to the different wavelengths of light that we get at different times of day. However, because this is not the case in space, using blue LEDs could reduce astronauts’ melatonin levels and help them sleep better. An LED system was installed in the ISS in 2008 and has functioned well since then.

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