What would it be like to live on Mars? Much like Earth, maybe, in due course - but the pioneers who will one day head out there will face a deeply hostile environment upon arrival. EU-funded researchers have developed a habitat for simulated space missions in suitably challenging locations down here on Earth. It can also support research in extreme conditions.
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The habitat produced by the SHEE project is a first for our continent. Europe hasnt had one in the past, notes project coordinator Barnaby Osborne of the International Space University, in France. And, as a recent contribution to the field, it offers a number of advantages over existing designs, he adds it is modular, it is readily transportable, and it is very easy to set up.
In fact, the habitat unfolds under its own steam, using in-built robotic components that will also collapse into its transportable state when its users decide to move on. This combination of robotics and architectural know-how is one of the projects defining features.
SHEE was a demonstrator project, which combined existing technologies and insights in view of a new application. The project started out by researching the state of the art of deployable structures and ways to automate their deployment, Osborne explains. After a period of discovery, we identified semi-rigid and rigid deployable structures as being of most interest for us, he says.
The habitat is designed to support two people completely autonomously, with supplies calculated to last two weeks, in environments that have a number of similarities with those expected on alien ground also known as analogue sites. The aim is to help simulate conditions and operations that astronauts may experience on extraterrestrial terrain, Osborne notes.
The SHEE habitat has already been used for simulations of operations on Mars as part of the deceptively named project Moonwalk, which isnt focused on lunar exploration alone. Its primary function there was as a scientific operations centre, says Osborne. The participating astronauts used it as a base of operations to prepare extra-vehicular activities and interactions with their robot assistants, which is a key aspect of the project.
This trial lasted two weeks, and the habitat performed very well indeed, he reports. The habitat has also been assessed on various other occasions, he notes. The overwhelming feedback we get is that its incredibly spacious, and luxurious in comparison to what people expect. The shuttle astronauts, especially, are used to much more cramped conditions.
A pop-up lab
The SHEE habitat also offers possibilities completely unrelated to space, Osborne observes. It could, for example, be used for research in extreme environments such as the Arctic.
It could also be a great asset to disaster relief operations, even in very remote areas, he adds. You could start work as soon as you could fly the habitat out there; you could potentially airdrop it and have it set up within an hour of landing. So you could deploy a very sophisticated lab where you can set up communications and run analyses of water quality, for example very quickly.
Only one such habitat has been built so far, but in theory, several could be bolted together to increase the space, potentially with each serving a different purpose. The standard layout provides lab space, sleeping space, a kitchenette and a hygiene facility, says Osborne. But we designed other possible configurations, such as a greenhouse where the entire space is dedicated to growing food. It could also be set up entirely for energy generation, or for different types of research, with specific biology or astrobiology lab configurations, for example.
One of the projects design objectives was to ensure that the habitat is suitable for prolonged use, Osborne notes. For example, weve got configurable spaces, with wall coverings and other features that can changed and personalised, so that occupants who have to spend long periods of time in the habitat would hopefully feel a little less institutionalised, he explains.
That said, we dont yet know what its like to live in one of these. So far the habitat hasnt had a chance to have two people locked into it for two weeks continuously, Osborne says. When the opportunity arises, there should be no shortage of volunteers.