When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon, the trip took only about three days. A trip to Mars, on the other hand, would take many months—and space travel isn’t known for its luxuries. In this Science Update, you’ll hear about an ambitious project that might make that long journey more pleasant.
Resting up for the Red Planet. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
Astronauts are used to having relatively few creature comforts during their missions in space. But one group envisions that people traveling to Mars will have a hotel to stay in during their nine-month journey.
The space hotel is part of a mars transportation system being designed by the share space foundation -- a research team led by Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Team Member James Longuski of Purdue University says the hotel would orbit the sun and periodically fly by Earth and Mars. Astronauts would take smaller rockets to get to the hotel and back.
Because the space hotel never stops, and so we need these taxis to get onto the hotel and when we leave it to land on Mars.
Longuski says artificial gravity would be created by spinning part of the hotel. That way, passengers wouldn’t have to float around weightless.
The benefit of this is that weightlessness is fairly destructive to the human body. You begin to lose calcium, and there are various physical problems, which weaken the system.
So by staying in the hotel, astronauts could keep their strength -- which would certainly be needed to explore and work on the Red Planet.
For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.
Making Sense of the Research
Let’s be clear: A space hotel probably won’t include a swimming pool, hot tub, fitness room, and a gourmet restaurant. But in space, you take whatever luxuries you can get. In this case, there are two big luxuries: space (as in breathing room, not outer space) and gravity.
The gravity part is key. Although weightlessness looks like one of the most exciting things about being in space—and some astronauts might agree that it is—it gets old after several months. There are a lot of inconveniences to being weightless: it takes practice to move from one place to another, it’s tricky to use the bathroom, and forget about opening a bag of potato chips. Plus, it’s unhealthy. Your body wasn’t designed for a weightless world, and as Longuski points out, too much time without gravity can produce dangerous physical side effects.
That’s why the space hotel would rely on artificial gravity to create an environment more like home. By constantly spinning a piece of the hotel, the engineers plan to create a centrifugal force (an apparent force that pushes outward when an object rotates—like the “force” that keeps you pinned to your seat when a rollercoaster turns upside down). That force will substitute for the force of gravity, and keep the astronauts’ feet on the ground.
Although the astronauts’ comfort and safety is most important, there’s another good reason to build a space hotel: the cost. Any long trip like the one to Mars will require lots of food, supplies, and storage space. And all that stuff is expensive to launch. That’s why Longuski’s team wants to shuttle the astronauts to and from the hotel on smaller rockets (or “space taxis”): because they’re relatively cheap to send into orbit. That way, NASA doesn’t have to launch a huge floating apartment building for every future Mars mission.
Another bonus of the space hotel is that it won’t need fuel to propel itself. Once it’s launched, it will get pulled back and forth by the competing gravitational fields of the Earth and Mars. It’s tricky to figure out what path the hotels will follow, because Mars’ orbit isn’t as neatly circular as the Earth’s—so the distance between Earth and Mars changes constantly. That’s one of the many problems Longuski’s team is trying to solve before the hotels open for business.
Now try and answer these questions:
- Why build a “space hotel” instead of sending rockets all the way to and from Mars?
- Why create artificial gravity?
- What are some potential challenges in building a spacecraft of this size?
- Why send humans to Mars? What are the advantages, compared to sending robots and unmanned spacecraft? Do you think it’s worth the trouble and expense?
- Some scientists have discussed the idea of “terraforming” Mars: creating an artificial atmosphere that makes it possible for humans to live there permanently. What would be the purpose of this project? Do you think it would be useful?
Mars Exploration Program has news and information about NASA’s Mars exploration projects.
The Red Album by National Geographic suggests ways to help NASA plan its next mission to Mars.
Eye in the Sky: Mars, also by National Geographic, tells the history of Mars exploration.
NASA’s Annual Space Settlement Contest is a competition for students in grades 6-12 to design an orbiting colony for people in outer space. Individuals or groups may submit entries. Winners are invited to NASA’s Ames Research Center.