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Daedalus spaceship on Mars
The look of the Daedalus spaceship in National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries is based on what experts think would work best for a Mars landing. (Credit: NGC / Framestore)

The Red Planet mission that’s depicted in National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries may be purely fictional, but it draws upon decades’ worth of technological development for real-life interplanetary odysseys.

One of the technologies was proposed by researchers at the University of Washington way back in the 1990s. It’s a device known as a Water Vapor Adsorption Reactor, or WAVAR, which could theoretically extract humidity from the thin Martian atmosphere.

“They actually built a device, they tested it, they showed it would work,” said Robert Braun, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado who was once NASA’s chief technologist and is now a technical adviser for the “Mars” TV show.

Braun worked with the show’s scriptwriters to put an array of WAVAR devices around the Mars crew’s living quarters. Such a setup could keep the astronauts hydrated until they can get a steady supply of water from melted-down Martian ice.

Another technology, known as MOXIE, is aimed at extracting oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere. (MOXIE is a tortuous acronym that stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.)

The idea is to suck in carbon dioxide (CO2), and then electrochemically split it into carbon monoxide (CO) plus oxygen (O2). A small-scale MOXIE device is due to fly to Mars aboard NASA’s next rover in 2020, to provide a real-world test for the technology.

For the “Mars” show, Braun suggested scaling up the MOXIE system to provide oxygen for the crew.

“Those are just a few examples of things that are going on today that really inform the way the future mission, the 2033 mission in the series, unfolds,” he told GeekWire.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Spaceship design: The sleek-looking landing craft for the fictional 2033 mission, dubbed Daedalus, looks a lot like the Mars spaceship proposed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. That’s not surprising, Braun said. “I would say that the EDL [entry, descent and landing] community has largely converged on the use of a slender-body aeroshell for the humans,” he said.
  • Power on Mars: Future Red Planet missions would probably make use of the same power-generating technologies currently used for robotic probes, including solar arrays and radioisotope thermoelectric generators. But to produce enough energy for long-term operations, nuclear reactors may eventually be required – placed at a distance from the habitats with a radiation shield to ensure safety.
  • Methane fuel production: That power would be put to use to produce drinkable water, breathable air – and the rocket fuel for return trips. The most likely propellant production process would start with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from Martian ice as raw materials. The CO2 and H2O would be converted into methane (CH4) and oxygen (O2), which would serve as fuel and oxidizer.
  • Planting and 3-D printing: Rather than shipping all the necessities from Earth to Mars, some foods are likely to be grown in greenhouses. NASA has already been testing plant growth on the International Space Station, most famously with tasty lettuce and cabbage. The space station’s crew is also trying out 3-D printers that could eventually be used to manufacture spare parts on Mars.

Justin Wilkes, executive producer for the “Mars” series, said that the show’s writers drew heavily on the scenarios for real-life Mars missions when they worked on their scripts.

“What we found was that the science did a good job informing the drama,” he told GeekWire. “The two sides started to merge into one.”

Previously: What SpaceX, NASA and Donald Trump need to do to get us to Mars

Looking at it from the other side, Braun said the fictional saga should give viewers a good idea of how a real-life trip to Mars would be done.

“Could it happen by 2033? That is easy to answer,” Braun said. “I think it definitely could. There’s no question in my mind about it. There are no technologies that need to be invented for humans to live, work and play on the Mars surface. There are technologies that need to be developed, but none that need to be invented.

“The bigger issue is, who will do it? How long will it really take? It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of will, and stability of purpose.”

The six-episode “Mars” miniseries makes its TV debut tonight on the National Geographic Channel, but you can also watch the first episode on National Geographic’s website. More than a dozen featurettes, including a half-hour prequel titled “Before Mars,” are available for viewing via the website and National Geographic’s YouTube channel. The website also offers virtual reality games and other extras.

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