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NASA Improves Life Support Systems for Future Flights to Mars and Beyond

Nov 07, 2016 04:46 AM EST

NASA engineers are now improving the lifespan of space station life support systems for long-duration flights.

For decades, NASA engineers had been designing, fabricating and testing equipment necessary for the astronauts' safety in space - on the Skylab, SpaceHab and on the International Space Station (ISS). The Environmental Control and Life Support System was created for the ISS to provide clean water and air - the basic elements needed for survival.

Now, NASA engineers sent the Long Duration Sorbent Testbed (LDST) to the space station to test materials that will extend the lifespan for life-support systems on long-duration flights to Mars and beyond. The instrument was carried by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket during its resupply mission to the ISS on July 18.

The LDST investigation studies substances that collect molecules, determining which types would be most effective on deep space explorations and long-term missions to Mars or other destinations.

"Exposure to the unique environment in the space station can change the way materials behave," David Howard, program manager of the investigation, said in a statement. "This includes what we use to filter air and water, so we need options for systems we create for the future."

Currently, the ISS crew uses a silica gel to remove humidity or water from the air, allowing another piece of hardware to more efficiently scrub carbon dioxide from the air, preventing it from becoming toxic, NASA said. But after a year, the gel loses 75 percent of its capacity to absorb water. Long-duration flights will not have the benefit of frequent resupply missions, so the life-support systems will not be replaced as often as necessary.

According to NASA engineers and chemists, the space station has over 200 contaminants and these have caused the silica gel to lose its efficiency. While these contaminants could be scrubbed by a specialized system, trace amounts remain in the cabin.

"There is a complex atmosphere on the space station," Jim Knox, an aerospace engineer at Marshall and principal investigator of the study, said in the same statement. "The mix of environmental contaminants alone on the station is new territory for us."

The device launched with 12 different materials to expose to the station environment, which were selected specifically to help in the removal of carbon dioxide. Once installed, the investigation will run for a year without the help of the astronauts. Ground crew will monitor the investigation and conduct a similar experiment on Earth for comparison.

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