From cosmic living-rooms to communications, NASA craving deep space public brainstorms

NASA prepping for future trip to Mars

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Bigelow Aerospace

NASA this week said it was calling for public input on living quarters for astronauts to live in deep space as well as systems and technologies for a new Mars Orbiter.

As far as the living spaces go, Congress earlier this year urged the space agency to move along its ideas for how humans would live on planets or other places far from Earth. With that pressure as a backdrop NASA said it wants US companies, universities, and non-profit organizations to offer up their best ideas for space living systems would include reliable life support systems, fire safety, atmosphere revitalization and monitoring, water processing, lighting, and fire detection and radiation protection.

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The public solicitation for input is actually phase 2 of a NASA program called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), which is developing all manner of deep space systems from advanced propulsion to satellites. Announced in 2014, NextSTEP programs for habitat development are already underway at a number of space industry companies such as Bigelow, Boeing and Orbital.

Bigelow in fact has one of its inflatable space rooms -- Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – currently undergoing tests on the International Space Station.

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NASA said that with its Orion crew spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket are progressing toward their maiden flight in 2018, the space agency is looking toward investments in deep space habitation -- the next major component of human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

“NextSTEP is a public-private partnership model that seeks commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions in the proving ground of space around the moon, known as cislunar space, and to enable transit to Mars. This partnership model enables NASA to obtain innovative concepts and support private industry commercialization plans for low-Earth orbit,” NASA said.

In that same spirit, NASA also said it was asking for ideas from U.S. industry for designs of a Mars orbiter for potential launch in the 2020s. The satellite would provide advanced communications and imaging, as well as robotic science exploration, for a future journey to the red planet.

“The orbiter would substantially increase bandwidth communications and maintain high-resolution imaging capability. It also may use experimental cutting-edge technologies, such as high-power solar electric propulsion or an optical communications package, which could greatly improve transmission speed and capacity over radio frequency systems,” NASA stated.

"Our success in exploring Mars, to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet, depends on having high bandwidth communication with Earth and overhead imaging," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Currently, we depend on our orbiting science missions to perform dual service in making measurements and acting as communication relays, but we can't depend on them to last forever. This new orbiter will use cutting-edge technology to revitalize our ability to continue to explore Mars and support transformative science, including a potential sample return mission in the future."

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