NASA announced its X-Hab challenges to attract university teams that can design solutions for the many issues that arise when planning future human space missions.
The contest is part of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, with the intention of developing “foundational technologies and high-priority capabilities that form the building blocks for future human space missions.”
The winners of X-Hab will receive $20,000 to $30,000 in prize money as they produce studies or products that will expand our space exploration capabilities.
For more information on X-Hab’s bases, participants can visit the main website here.
The many problems of going deep into space
The 2018 X-Hab Challenge takes into consideration 11 different topics that are of utmost importance for humans to expand their reach in space exploration.
First and foremost, NASA is looking towards developing a human habitat featuring shared functions on both surface and in-space applications. Having a Martian habitat that can work alongside a planetary probe residing in orbit will make get every process and task much easier their completion more efficient. The proposed habitat is expected to serve as a training facility on Earth to allow the crew to become familiar with it, increasing the chance of survivability during the real mission.
The habitat should be large enough for 4 to 6 astronauts and able to sustain from 0 up to 1/3g of artificial gravity
NASA is also looking for a way to recover carbon dioxide and water for use during space travel and the Martian environment as one of the greatest challenges for deep space exploration is storing oxygen and water for extended periods of time.
Without water, a person would die in approximately three days. The reason why this is a problem in Mars is that there are no plants in Mars, and we take for granted how flora helps produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. There are methods used in space exploration to obtain water and oxygen from carbon dioxide, but it requires combining or breaking down by-products of other processes. The process of recycling water and air is known among astronauts as “closing the loop,” but the extraction of carbon dioxide, which is lethal in high concentrations, is also a must for sealed environments.
For example, aboard the International Space Station astronauts are now using electrolysis to reclaim hydrogen and oxygen by electrifying water, but the problem is that hydrogen is highly flammable, which it is vented to the exterior. This process is expected to be improved by combining the hydrogen with the carbon dioxide exhaled by the crew to obtain water, a process known as Sabatier. Sabatier also produces methane, which would be expelled into space; but NASA would also like to use methane for propulsion fuel in the future. The water obtained from the process is filtered into drinking water or used to get more oxygen.
The current method aboard the ISS has been labeled as “sensitive to contaminants and mechanical failures” NASA intends for students to design a project that can characterize a water removal and re-humidification system to be based on cryocapture to recover CO2.
Challenges to expand our horizons
X-hab applicants must be U.S. citizens and must teach an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)-accredited engineering senior or graduate design-related curriculum course at a university associated with the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program or other organizations that encourage multi-institutional collaboration. NASA also encourages women and minorities to participate, alongside people with disabilities.
Participants cannot be citizens of controlled countries, which are labeled as so for national security purposes. The list includes Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cambodia, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, Georgia, Iraq, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macau, Moldova, Mongolia, North Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
The solicitation for entering the challenge is available here.
Teams can submit questions for technical interchange before April 3 to have them answered one week later. The team’s proposal must be submitted no later than April 28, and the awards will be announced a month after that.
Living on Mars will be harder than any previous achievement by humans in space. Humans will have to deal with solar radiation, subzero temperatures, and scarce resources in a remote location. There are uncountable problems to solve before putting a human on Mars; just recently, NASA enacted the Space Poop Challenge, showing that even astronauts must go to the bathroom thousands of miles away from a good old-fashioned toilet. In general, designers were invited to develop mechanisms to deal with feces, urine, and menstruation in space suits. Astronauts have made extensive use of diapers, but the prolonged use of these garments can become hazardous to the crew’s health. Besides, it’s not nice to sit in your own waste for hours while performing delicate and possibly dangerous maneuvers in space.
Perhaps having several university-level teams brainstorming for solutions will bring forward some new ideas to make the task of colonizing another planet a reality.