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Engineering humankind's most ambitious mission ever

Contributed by Geoff Hunt - Vice President, Engineering & Technology

Exploration of Mars is about to get busier ...

In May, NASA launched a Mars lander  to see how many earthquakes future residents should expect. The ExoMars rover is headed to Europe on its way to making it to Mars in the next few years. Elon Musk has predicted that his Mars spacecraft will take short trips next year. And it now seems likely that less than two decades after these initial forays, a person will set foot on the surface of our neighboring world.

What makes a future Mars planetary suit different from the current space suits? Three things:

1. It's a heavy deal. Gravity on Mars is only 1/3rd of Earth's but it is TWICE that of the moon. Today's space suit weighs 320 pounds on Earth. While it would be just 53 pounds on the moon, it would weight 121 pounds on Mars, which is too heavy for an 8-hour trip out of the habitat where the crew will be living. The new suit will need to weigh significantly less than today's suit, with present development efforts aiming to shed almost 50 pounds.

2. Weather gets in the way. Moon suits were designed for quick trips in a perfect vacuum environment. On Mars, astronauts will face stiff winds, frequent dust storms, and perhaps most challenging - widely differentiating seasonal temperatures due to the Martian atmosphere. Their suits will need to be rugged, durable, adaptable and maintainable. The atmosphere on Mars also drives changes to the suit's insulation. Every space suit up until now has used the vacuum of space to insulate the astronauts, using multiple layers of thin aluminized Mylar, much like a Thermos ®. Without that perfect vacuum, a new suit will need a new lightweight and flexible insulation that can be adjusted depending on the season.

3. It's a long, long, way away. Mars is more than 140 times farther from the earth than the moon. The vast distance from Earth to Mars creates communication delays from 4-24 minutes, which means there can be no real-time mission support from Earth. To make up for that gap, the suit's information systems and displays will include sophisticated aids for mission planning, navigation and suit health monitoring. The distance also eliminates any possibility of quickly aborting a mission. As a result, the crew will need to handle emergencies and maintenance operations that were not part of Apollo, and greatly expand upon what we do today on the International Space Station (ISS). To address this, we'll be exploring how to increase the duration of the emergency backup systems, and trying to design components for easy maintenance and replacement at the habitat.

So this is what NASA is facing with the dream to put mankind on Mars, and we are up for the challenge!

We have provided life support and thermal control systems for the nation's space program for more than 50 years, allowing astronauts to walk on the moon, and build and maintain the ISS. Our engineers and technicians have also provided equipment like the cooling system for the Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft to fly to the sun, and the life support system for the Orion Spacecraft, which will be the first crewed spacecraft to fly beyond low-Earth orbit since the Apollo missions.

The safety and reliability of this technology must be flawless, while meeting exceptionally strict limits on mass, power and volume. As we've done with aircraft, we're approaching the development of advanced EVA (extravehicular activity) suits as one subsystem within our deep space life support architecture. The suit, spacecraft and habitat all need to work seamlessly together and provide pressurized breathing gas, temperature control and information to the crew members.

So what are we doing to support the NASA-led development of an advanced EVA suit? In the words of Matt Damon in the movie "The Martian," "We're going to science the 'heck' out of this." (Well, it's close to what he said!)

First, we're lending some big brains to the program. As NASA builds up advanced EVA suit prototypes, we're providing industry-leading engineering and operational support from our decades of experience with life support systems and EMU - extravehicular mobility unit - operation. Did you know we've supported more than 200 successful EVA missions?

Second, we're using the most technologically advanced methods, applying the latest systems engineering tools and modelling software. These tools are accelerating our understanding of the new system dynamics and their interactions with the crew and environment. We're also applying emerging engineering and manufacturing tools to the effort. One example is UTC's custom-built topology optimization software that can improve fluid flow, heat transfer and structural mass. This software can take existing components such as heat exchangers, fluid ducts or structural plates, and automatically optimize them for performance using small, iterative changes to the design. Another emerging capability is additive manufacturing, or "3-D printing," which is allowing us to design and make lighter, stronger, smaller and more efficient parts than ever before.

And finally, we're innovating. We're investigating how the latest in information systems and augmented reality capabilities can be applied to improve mission planning, navigation, maintenance operations and suit health monitoring. Our engineers are developing new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes to make critical parts such as fans, pumps, heat exchangers, electrical controllers and breathing gas scrubbers as light, small and energy-efficient as possible, while remaining robust enough to operate in the brutal Martian environment

These tools, together with the innovation and expertise of our people, are ensuring that we make progress every day in meeting our targets for compact, lightweight and efficient components for the advanced EVA suit development.

During the next couple of decades, our engineers will be solving these complex challenges with groundbreaking innovations to help NASA achieve this incredible goal. If you're interested in being a part of some pretty exciting engineers "space science," you should check us out. There's nothing like being a part of an ambitious and unprecedented endeavor - getting to the red planet, the mission to Mars.