Nextgen Visions of Future Mars Habitats

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Originally posted on OeWF.org

We’ve been dreaming of building Mars habitats for centuries if not millennia. Often, the creative minds of science fiction writers, artists, poets and others have paved the way forward, allowing us to push our boundaries and reach for the stars. Their visions are made possible through the subsequent development of incredible technologies that underpin magnificent achievements like landing people on the Moon. The creative minds that fueled our dreams are a crucial part of the process of space exploration.

Last October, I had the privilege of giving a virtual talk to students at the Sigaram Academy of Excellence from Mulagumooodu, K.K. Dist, Tamil Nadu, India. At the end of the talk, I challenged them to create and share their visions of future Mars habitats. The response we received at OeWF was phenomenal. In all, we received 37 entries, each taking the viewer on a wondrous journey of exploration. In light of this, the OeWF has decided to award each student with a special OeWF goodie bag.

I invited a team of enthusiastic OeWF members and Analog Astronauts to help me review the submissions. Although all of the students are winners in our eyes, we have decided to pick a few standout entries: one for each age group, from which we picked the overall winner.

Now to the Space-tastic entries … drumroll please …

6th Standard (grade) Winner

By Rixshana Simson

Rixshana’s vision really captured the imagination of the OeWF judging panel. Somewhat abstract in nature, we felt that Rixshana wonderfully depicted the loneliness of space. The juxtaposition of two docked spacecraft against the grey backdrop of what is presumably the Moon is interesting because the Moon is often considered the gateway to Mars. The abstraction of the Earth near the right bottom of the drawing adds to its mistique. Overall, the judges felt that although Rixshana’s drawing wasn’t of a habitat on Mars, it generated a sense of the vastness of space and the role that the Moon has to play in our quest to land on the Red Planet.

7th Standard (grade) Winner

By Antric K Nayakam

The OeWF judges loved Antric’s entry. The simplicity of Antric’s vision of a human habitat on Mars is a reflection of the huge technological, physiological and psychological leap that we have to make before we are in a position to land there safely. The attention to detail in the form of food storage outside the central habitat and the communication dish on top of its roof is commendable. Although Mars does not currently have active volcanoes, they are an important ingredient in our current understanding of how various geological features came to be. For instance, Olympus Mons, belonging to the Tharsis Complex, is not just an inactive volcano, it is also the highest mountain in the Solar System, standing at over three times the height of Mount Everest! This reflection on the past, in contrast with the future vision of a habitat on Mars truly captivated the OeWF judges.

8th Standard (grade) Winner

By Vishnu Murugan

Vishnu managed to capture the essence of a host of ideas and concepts that are likely to play a crucial role in supporting human life on Mars. His depiction of a future, human habitat on Mars could have been taken out of the notebook of any NASA, ESA or ISRO engineer. The attention to key elements, such as the communications system to relay messages back to Earth, the various habitat modules and the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacesuit worn by the astronaut outside the habitat is marvelous. Moreover, not only did Vishnu manage to capture a scene that could have belonged to the storyboard of The Martian, the incredible contrast of colours and textures reflects a deep artistic sense. In short, the OeWF judges loved this entry, both for its depiction of the elements of a future Mars habitat and for its aesthetic beauty.

9th Standard (grade) Winner

By Anshio Sahaya Selva Raj

Anshio’s futuristic depiction of a Martian colony is riveting. There are so many elements within the drawing, each helping to tell the story of how future Mars pioneers will live on the Red Planet. The drawing captures the whole communications system, including the ground segment and potential communication with relay satellites around Mars. Anshio also includes a number of details, like the underground city, which astronauts would use to remain shielded from harmful high-energy particles and cosmic rays. The group of astronauts in EVA suits, presumably a family, throwing a ball around with the dog looking on brings a sense of warmth to this vision of life on Mars. Finally, the Earth clearly seems to be upset to be missing out on all the fun!

10th Standard (grade) Winner

By Aarcenis Negoe

Aarcenis manages to include a lot of different aspects of a future Mars habitat in this drawing. In contrast to a lot of other entries, Aarcenis positions the habitat as being underground, which is something that has been considered by engineers. The main reason for putting the habitat underground is to take advantage of the natural shielding from harmful radiation. The drawback comes from the difficulty in creating deep tunnels on Mars; however, it might turn out to be possible to make use of existing geological structures for this purpose. Aarcenis manages to pack a lot of detail into the drawing, including the communications antennae, the ascent rocket that would be use to lift astronauts off the surface, as they embark on their journey back to Planet Earth and a multi-functional water tank that would provide some level of radiation shielding, water for the astronauts to consume, and irrigation for plants grown within the greenhouse. The OeWF judges were impressed by this overall vision of how a Mars habitat would take shape.

Overall Winner

After careful consideration, the OeWF judges felt that one drawing really captured the vision of what life could look like for the first human inhabitants on the Red Planet.

The winner is … Vishnu Murugan, from the 8th grade! Congratulations!

May your creative imagination continue to spawn fantastical visions that guide us on our journey amongst the stars!

Thank you to all the students at Sigaram Academy of Excellence for their enthusiasm, motivation and incredibly creativity. We look forward to all of you joining our quest to step foot on the Red Planet!

Thank you to the teachers and staff members at Sigaram Academy of Excellence for supporting our outreach efforts. And thank you to my OeWF colleagues who helped me through the difficult task of judging these fantastic submissions.

You can browse through all of the entries by clicking here. Let us know what you think!

Ad astra!
Kartik Kumar

A tale of two friends

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Originally posted on OeWF.org

This tale is about two friends, X-ray and Sierra. X-ray, the dependable, reliable, ever-present workhorse and Sierra, the lean, excitable, new kid on the block. I had the privilege of meeting these two friends recently, and I can honestly say that I’m a better man for it.

Yes, I’m talking about the Austrian Space Forum’s (OeWF) Aouda spacesuit simulators. As part of the Analog Astronaut basic training program, I had the good fortune of experiencing what it’s like to engage with both X-ray and Sierra. Although they might seem the same to the casual onlooker, take a second to take a closer look. They both have unique characters and each convey their own special meaning to the lucky ones that get to don them.

We were put through our paces during the Analog Astronaut basic training program. The rigorous regimen was aimed at giving us a thorough grounding in all the basic skills required to successfully execute a Mars simulation mission. Specifically, the training program consisted of five blocks at OeWF Spacesuit Laboratory, spread over three months, in addition to plenty of homework. During the training program, we were exposed to a wide array of topics, including: geology, spaceflight mechanics, first aid, firefighting, team building, media training, physical exercise and so much more!

X-Ray: Joao Lousada (left), Sierra: Kartik Kumar (right) (c) OeWF (Paul Santek)

X-Ray: Joao Lousada (left), Sierra: Kartik Kumar (right) (c) OeWF (Paul Santek)

All of this was geared towards preparing us for the reality of a Mars simulation mission. Not only are they exciting, rewarding and an important stepping stone towards one day realizing the goal of successfully landing a person on Mars, they are also incredibly challenging. Although all team members, including Analog Astronauts, remain firmly rooted to the ground during simulation missions, the challenges share a great deal of similarity with real space missions.

The most significant similarity for an Analog Astronaut stems from the unique feeling you get when the helmet of the Aouda spacesuit simulator closes. The first time I had the privilege of experiencing this was when I got to don Sierra. Nothing can really prepare you for the rush you feel when the helmet closes. With the buzz of ventilation system in the background drowning out voices, an integral part of an Analog Astronaut Personal Life Support System, you are left to rely on your radio to communicate with the outside world. As I replay that moment in my mind, I can recall the sensation of my feet lifting off the ground; that you’re truly somewhere else. You feel the weight of the suit, every curve of the Hard Upper Torso pressed against you, the warmth generated by your body heat. Understanding the human-machine interface is a vital part of ensuring that future Mars astronauts are given the best chance of succeeding. X-ray and Sierra both impart an indescribable feeling of oneness with the wearer.

X-Ray: Joao Lousada (left), Sierra: Kartik Kumar (right) (c) OeWF (Paul Santek)

X-Ray: Joao Lousada (left), Sierra: Kartik Kumar (right) (c) OeWF (Paul Santek)

As we look forward to the AMADEE-15 mission this summer, I can appreciate the wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to participate in a program of research that has already reaped so many rewards for future manned Mars mission planners. Having attempted to give you a sense of what it’s like to don an OeWF suit simulator, I must leave you with ode to X-ray and Sierra:

Silver, slick, sensational
Source of life
Reliable, dependable, ever-present
Lean, excitable, wonderful
Friends for life
Making the impossible possible

My Stardust world

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Originally posted on the Stardust website

The Stardust network affords me the opportunity to pursue challenging, innovative, and meaningful research, whilst simultaneously providing me with the chance to build a professional network and develop a variety of skills that are essential to early-stage researchers. Working at Dinamica Srl, I have been involved in exciting, new research on space debris risk mitigation.

Figure 1: Distribution of the space debris population
Figure 1: Distribution of the space debris population

Space debris, commonly referred to as space junk, is a growing problem that requires in-depth research to develop means to mitigate risks posed to valuable space assets, and to safeguard life on Earth. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of space debris in space, in terms of the classical (Keplerian) orbital elements, highlighting the fact that the population is large, clustered and varied.

Across the world, efforts are underway to develop the necessary understanding and technologies to tackle this threat. These efforts include:

  1. improvement in our ability to track and detect the risk of collisions on-orbit and threat of uncontrolled, re-entering debris objects to populated areas on the ground;
  2. development of technologies to actively mitigate the risks posed by existing space debris objects (commonly termed Active Debris Removal (ADR));
  3. development of technologies to fly on future missions, to ensure minimal risk of adding to the existing space debris population, and mission planning to ensure that parking objects at End-of-Life in graveyard orbits or controlled re-entry is possible in a safe and reliable manner.

My research within the Stardust network focuses on the development of ADR mission concepts to tackle some of the greatest threats within the debris population. In summary, I am involved in two primary projects within Stardust, to address different aspects of ADR mission development:

  1. Development of a tool to assess the possibility of efficiently targeting multiple debris objects in a single ADR mission. Within the scope of this project, I am developing a new solution technique that incorporates perturbations that affect Earth-orbiting satellites (atmospheric drag, solar radiation pressure, irregular gravity field of the Earth, etc.). Specifically, I have developed a new solver called Atom that is a counterpart for the traditional Lambert solver, typically used to plan multi-target space missions, as illustrated schematically in Figure 2 (e.g., asteroid grand tours, Cassini-like tours of planetary systems, etc.).
  2. A schematic representation of a multi-target trajectory for an ADR mission concept
    Figure 2: A schematic representation of a multi-target trajectory for an ADR mission concept

  3. Development of a mission concept to remove hazardous, expended rocket bodies. One of the main classes of space debris objects is expended upper stages of launchers. I am currently leading the development of a mission concept called Agora (Active Grabbing and Orbital Removal of Ariane; see Figure 3 for mission patch) to target Ariane rocket bodies for removal. As part of this project, we are employing a novel technique to detumble an Ariane rocket body and to capture it with a robotic manipulator. My main technical contribution to the project is to develop the Guidance, Navigation & Control (GNC) architecture, to ensure that Agora can approach and engage a target rocket body in a safe and controlled manner.
  4. Agora, an ADR mission concept to remove hazardous Ariane rocket bodies
    Figure 3: Agora, an ADR mission concept to remove hazardous Ariane rocket bodies

I would like to see this research play a role in the formulation of a real ADR mission by the end of the decade. The European Space Agency (ESA) has shown the intent to tackle the threat posed by large space debris objects through the Clean Space initiative. I firmly believe that research on space debris risk mitigation must not remain an academic exercise, but rather should lay the foundation for mission development in the near future. As a personal goal, I would like to continue this line of research and look forward to future opportunities to help tackle the space debris problem.

Start of a new adventure

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Dinamica Srl
As of tomorrow, 1st of April 2014 (NO JOKE!), I will officially be embarking on a new chapter in my professional life. After some deliberation, I have decided to seize the opportunity to work at Dinamic Srl (www.dinamicatech.com) in Milan, Italy.

I have been recruited to work on the Stardust (stardust2013.eu) FP7 project as an Experienced Researcher (ER). I will be doing so in my capacity as Senior Engineer at Dinamica. In a nutshell, my job will involve defending planet Earth from the impending disasters posed by Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and space junk.

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SpaceUp NL 2014

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SpaceUp NL 2014
10th and 11th of May, 2014
Space Expo, Noordwijk
 

Register!

One of many discussion forms at SpaceUp CREDIT: Simon Bierwald

For the last six months or so, I’ve been working in a team to bring the SpaceUp concept to The Netherlands. SpaceUp is a movement that’s spreading around the world like wildfire (SpaceUp.org). The concept behind SpaceUp is to provide a platform for discussions about the past, present and future of the space industry.

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Progress in Bangalore

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Today I rode the Bangalore metro for the first time, and I must say, it was an absolute treat! Although India has its fair share of problems, including the fact that the income gap between the richest and poorest is only seemingly widening, it’s heartening to see that there are real efforts being made to update basic infrastructure to support the ambitions of a burgeoning economy.

A clean and spacious metro car in Bangalore

A clean and spacious metro car in Bangalore

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1-2-Launch

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The following is the story of how GoUrbanGrow was born.

Enjoy!

Yes!Delft

The weekend of 25th-27th of October, 2013, I participated in Yes!Delft’s 1-2-Launch startup program: a 60-hour marathon, with coaching from seasoned investors and entrepreneurs. Having been exposed to the startup world extensively over the previous 18 months, I was excited about the program. My aim in participating was to meet new people and learn a few new skills. In the end, it turned out to lead to so much more!

Friday evening we gathered at the Yes!Delft building on campus for the kick-off. We briefly introduced ourselves and pitched our ideas. I soon realised that this wasn’t a student event, as I had expected. My previous experiences at Yes!Delft were through student events, most notably the Ready to Startup! course that runs for about 5 months (a story for another time). So my expectation going into the 1-2-Launch weekend was that I’d be surrounded by other students. Turned out that this was an event for professionals. The vibe in the room was different than I had expected, maybe because everyone just seemed more serious about trying to get the most out of the next two days.

Yes!Delft building

Yes!Delft building

As I was preparing my elevator pitch in my mind, Michiel Huijse presented a concept that he’d been working on for a few months. He’d hacked an Arduino-based system to grow some of his plants more effectively.

Arduino-based plant-growing system

Michiel Huijse’s Arduino-based plant-growing system

The system he described was quite impressive and it was clear from that moment that we’d be working together. I pitched a business idea to support precision agriculture through data analytics. Although this is on a much grander scale, it also boils down to marrying tech and nature. I’ve been motivated to develop technology to help farmers control and predict their harvests. With prices for basic staple foods like onions sky-rocketing in India recently, affecting people at all income levels, especially the poorest, I believe that there are a lot of gains to be had through effective implementation of smart, data-driven systems for precision agriculture.

Taking notes durinng Friday talks @ 1-2-Launch

Taking notes durinng Friday talks @ 1-2-Launch

So, after the intros were done, Michiel and I teamed up and it was then that Emma van Helden decided to join us, after we’d pitched our joint idea to her of somehow building products that bring tech and nature closer together. Things clicked between the three of us pretty instantly.

1-2-Launch work area

1-2-Launch work area

The intros were followed by a few interesting talks, intended to inspire us to get the most out of the next two days, and to make use of the wealth of expertise on hand, offered by coaches who had “been there, done that”. After dinner, we were unleased on the Yes!Delft work area. Within no time, Yes!Delft was engulfed with 1-2-Launch participants (there were ten teams if I remember correctly). We chose a desk at the back of the work area, which would serve as the nerve center for our operations over the next 2 days.

GoUrbanGrow's nerve center @ 1-2-Launch

GoUrbanGrow’s nerve center @ 1-2-Launch

After fleshing out an initial concept on Friday night, we decided to head home at around 1am and attack our business model early the next day. Following a sumptuous breakfast on Saturday morning, we set about filling out the Business Model Canvas that we were introduced to during one of the talks on the previous day. Our instructions were to focus on our value proposition and the product/market fit. This involved trying to identify and understand the needs of our target customer segments. The rest of the weekend was essentially an exercise in iterating this process, thereby gaining a more in-depth understanding of what the crux of our business concept would be.

The key ingredient in iterativaly improving our understanding of the product/market fit was the notion of “getting out of the building”; an idea heralded by Steve Blank in his teachings on the lean startup. 1-2-Launch was dedicated to getting the message across that, for a startup, the most important thing is to “build something that people need”. As simple as this sounds, understanding what people really need is a fairly complex task, as we discovered during the weekend.

We were continuously coached by multiple entrepreneurs/enthusiasts over the course of the weekend, to help sharpen our focus on nailing the product/market fit. Essentially, the message we were given was “validate, validate, validate!”. To do so, the “get out of the building” concept forces you to directly contact people/organizations that you believe will be customers and to figure out if they really face the problem that you think they do. In essence, you want to know if they are eagerly “waiting” for you to solve their problem(s), and if they are willing to part with their hard-earned cash in return.

One of the most important lessons I learned during the weekend is that the only way to really do this is to assess past behaviour and NOT future actions. Future actions are intangible, and, as a result, people often say things that turn out to be completely false/inaccurate, for one reason or another. Not heeding this lesson has led to the downfall of many a startup.

The mantra we stuck to during the weekend was: “the past is the best predictor for the future”. This was a real eye-opener for us. Understanding this idea of validation forced us to establish a line of questions for our target customers that would help us determine if they absolutely need us to solve the problem that we believe they face. Unless you attack your market research in this way, you are essentially hedging your bets on the fact that you’ve figured out what people will buy based on your (likely) incomplete model of the world (a slim chance of success at best).

So, Saturday afternoon, we left Yes!Delft and headed into the wide, open world à la The Apprentice. Initially, I was absolutely terrified of walking up to strangers and striking up a conversation about our barely one-day old startup. After a few failed attempts, I finally got the hang of it, and in the end I absolutely loved the experience! We ended up running a number of different experiments that led us to a concrete idea of who our early adopters would be. This was a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, and one that we achieved in a very short space of time. More than anything, we benefitted from some great advice from the 1-2-Launch coaches, enabling us to steer clear of common pitfalls.

As we got more involved in the process of discovering our business, we also decided to make use of more tools to engage our audience. Saturday night we decided to spread the word about GoUrbanGrow through social channels, to see if we could further validate our assumptions. That led to our launch page: GoUrbanGrow.com, which turned out to be a great success!

Sunday was more of the same, with the added stress of having to work on our final pitch. Again, we received invaluable advice from various coaches that helped us streamline our thoughts, so that we could cover all bases within the 3-minute slot.

Pitching GoUrbanGrow @ 1-2-Launch

Pitching GoUrbanGrow @ 1-2-Launch

And then came the pitch. With butterflies in my stomach, I walked to the front of the auditorium, stared down by the panel of three investors/entrepreneurs. All I could think of was: don’t mess this up! And so, I started the pitch and before I knew it, we were done!

Emma, Michiel and myself were happy with the outcome and congratulated each other on a great weekend experience. Little did we know that that wasn’t to be the end. After all the pitches had been completed, we all gathered in the Yes!Delft work area for an announcement by the judging panel. After they gave glowing praise to all of the teams, they revealed that …

The 1-2-Launch winners are ...

The 1-2-Launch winners are …

1-2-Launch winners!

GoUrbanGrow!

This took us completely by surprise! We were absolutely chuffed naturally. I think all of the teams did a splendid job during the weekend, so overall the program was an absolute success!

I can honestly say that I learned a whole lot of new skills during the weekend, as I had hoped. I also met a lot of smart, industrious, and entrepreneurial people during 1-2-Launch. The unexpected outcome of the entire program was that with GoUrbanGrow we turned out to have created something with potential! Who’d have thunk it!

What’s next? Yes!Delft’s exciting Launchlab program in the new year! Can’t wait 🙂

GoUrbanGrow @ Yes!Delft

GoUrbanGrow @ Yes!Delft