Exploring deep space: How can we get there safely and sustainably?

Reflection by Thomas Andreano, a graduate student as he looks at his 2 kW Kr hall thruster. Its light is transmitted through a window port in a large vacuum chamber at CSU. Credit: Professor John WilliamsMajor advances in science, medicine and physics have brought the topic of deep space exploration and interplanetary settlement closer to reality than it was once.The International Space Station has been home to astronauts for extended missions that have provided valuable information on how to keep humans alive in space. Engineers and scientists back on Earth try to recreate off-world conditions in order to determine the limits of more ambitious missions.To find or transport life?CSU scientists are working with NASA on how to travel further distances safely and sustainably to deep space.Chris McKay is a senior planetary scientist at NASA who is also a renowned astrobiologist. He believes that the search for evidence of past or present life beyond Earth may be a distinct origin of life. This would be a significant leap in satisfying human curiosity for centuries, and could lead to medical advances.McKay stated, "If we could find another example life that was not dependent on life on Earth, then we would know that there are at least two life forms in the universe." McKay said, "And if there are two, it would be billions and trillions." Anything that is alive would be amazing, anywhere, any living thing, even if it's deceased, it's still extraordinary!"John Williams, CSU Mechanical Engineering Professor, believes that the topic of life elsewhere on Earth is less about finding it than about delivering it.Williams stated, "I didn’t know that believing that the Earth is living, breathing and multi-celled organism required a hypothesis. But of course it does." Williams added. We must give Earth the ability to establish colonies on its own to allow humans to move it into the "disrupt and reproduce" realm.Distance is a problemTechnology is available to allow us to travel deep into space. It has been used in other missions, including to reach the moon. It is now up to us to increase its power levels by order of magnitude, and understand how larger, more powerful systems in outer space will perform.Technologyelectric propulsionis a fuel-efficient and continuous low thrust invention that is well suited to deep space missions. It uses very little propellant in order to move objects from one place to the next, compared to traditional rocket propulsion.JANUS, NASA's newest initiative, is now availableWilliams and Azer Yalin, a fellow Mechanical Engineering professor, will play an important role in the creation of a NASA space research institutethe Joint Advanced Propulsion Initiative(JANUS). This new NASA space research institution is designed to advance electric propulsion ground testing while they aim deep space human exploration.Yalin will be one of the co-principal investigators for the project, while Williams will be the overall CSU principal researcher and a member the JANUS Leadership Committee. The Georgia Tech-led university institute will be joined by four other NASA institutes and receive up to $15 million over five year. This team includes 12 universities and three private companies.Performance and power testingIt is essential to create a space-like environment for the evaluation and prediction of high-power propulsion system behavior. This will ensure mission success. They will devise strategies and methods to overcome ground testing limitations of high-power electric propulsion system and improve the characterization of wear and performance. They will employ physics-based modeling, high power thruster testing, new diagnostic development, fundamental experiments, and other methods.CSU has set a goal to develop lasers that can measure thruster erosion at atomic level. This is an important process that limits distant missions. The CSU team will develop portable diagnostic systems that can be used in conjunction with high-fidelity laser measurements. This will make it easier to transport and implement at partner facilities.Future deep-space explorationIs life possible on Mars? It could be possible in the future. What would it look like if we ventured further into space?There are many opportunities for electric propulsion that is safe and scaleable.Electric propulsion's low-thrust, continuous technology allows for the establishment of interplanetary cargo ships to transport large payloads. It also makes it possible to place modules on the moon and in orbit where people could live. If the modules could support life, they can be used as bases to allow astronauts to travel further into space.Fleets could be used on a larger scale to establish preliminary colonies on other planets. This could be an initial step to determine if interplanetary colonization is feasible for humans to survive or, as Williams says, to reproduce and divide.Continue exploring Lunar Gateway with its 6 kW ion engine