The Bioengineering Branch in the Life Sciences Division at NASA Ames is developing advanced life support (ALS) technologies for use in the regenerative life support systems required for future human missions.
In order to enable human space missions beyond low Earth orbit as encompassed in the President’s new Space Exploration Vision, it becomes increasingly imperative to maximize self-sufficiency and minimize the resupply of vital consumables. The current approach of regularly resupplying life support consumables (air, water, and food) and returning wastes to Earth will not be possible for many future space missions. For considerations of crew safety, health, and mission cost, life support technologies must be developed to recycle air, water, and waste in a closed loop fashion and to utilize in situ resources wherever possible.
The knowledge gained and the technologies developed to accomplish these objectives have a direct application to addressing environmental issues on Earth. Improved water reclamation techniques, new solid waste management technologies, advanced environmental sensors, better contamination control methods, and increased crop productivity are a few potential con-sequential benefits on Earth.
What technology must we create to enable the next explorers to go beyond where we have been?
Right: Surface habitat— artist’s concept.
Advanced life support (ALS) technologies required for future human missions include improved physico-chemical technologies for atmosphere revitalization, water recovery, and waste processing/resource recovery; biological processors for food production; and systems modeling, analysis, and controls associated with integrated subsystems operations.
Advanced Life Support Objectives
Role of Ames in Advanced Life Support
NASA Ames is providing ALS research and development of innovative technologies for use on the International Space Station, crewed transit vehicles, and surface habitats. The primary research and technology development emphasis is on air regeneration, water recovery, solid waste processing, and system integration, modeling and analysis tools.
Right: Mars transit vehicle— artist’s concept.
Recent ALS Technologies Developed at ARC
Water Recovery – Vapor Phase Catalytic Ammonia Removal (VPCAR)
VPCAR is a single-step water recovery system that requires no consumables or maintenance for three years. The Equivalent Systems Mass metric of VPCAR (the combination of total system mass, power, volume, etc.) is five times better than the current state-of-the-art ISS (International Space Station) water recovery system. At TRL 5-6, VPCAR is a key candidate life support subsystem technology baselined for missions beyond low Earth orbit.
Air Revitalization – Temperature Swing Adsorption CO2 Compressor (TSAC)
A solid-state technology for CO2 adsorption, separation, and compression currently being developed will help solve the main technical challenge in closing the air loop in spacecraft. Closing the air loop can save ~2000 lbs/yr. in resupply consumables over the existing ISS air revitalization system, and a Temperature Swing Adsorp-tion Compressor (TSAC) offers significant advantages over a mechanical compressor alternative. At a TRL 4 level, TSAC is a candidate technology for inclusion in near-term integrated life support system tests.
Waste Processing/Resource Recovery
ARC is the Agency Lead in the development of advanced solid waste processing and resource recovery technologies. The waste oxidation/ incineration system developed by Ames was successfully used in the ALS Phase III, 91-day, integrated system test at Johnson Space Center. The resulting incinerator gas composition for all trace contaminants proved to be significantly less than the Spacecraft Maximum Allowable Concentration (SMAC) values. This was the first demonstration of an advanced waste processing technology utilized during human-in-the-loop closed system tests.
Current research using carbon nanotubes for capturing trace contaminates and converting them into usable products (e.g., conversion of NOx into N2 and O2) may result in superior Trace Contaminant Control capabilities for Mars transit vehicles and planetary habitats.