NASA: 100-Year Starship Nautilus X MMSEV is still some way off
Scientists at the Johnson Spaceflight Center haven’t let a lack of money stop them from thinking big.
It was even given a name - the 100-Year Starship Study.
“Within a few years we will see the first true prototype of a spaceship that will take us between worlds,” NASA Ames director Simon Worden back October.
Sadly, it might have been a bit of a bluff.
Last week, NASA wrapped up the first of several meetings this year exploring the possibility of making the 100-Year Starship a reality.
And the reality is “we picked the 100-Year Starship name because it would require a long-range sustainable effort to get our species to other stars”, DARPA’s director of Tactical Technology Dave Neyland told the gathering.
Not only that, he neatly washed the Government’s hands of the project, pointing out the fact that “most significant exploration, like crossing oceans or continents for the first time, was sponsored by patrons or groups outside of government”.
In a nutshell: “It’s a great idea we’ve come up with, but someone else will have to pay for it.”
Fortunately, some other NASA engineers aren’t going to let the dream die so easily.
Engineers Mark Holderman and Edward Henderson have developed an outline for NASA’s first ever deep space exploration craft, which they hope will overcome the obstacles of a lack of gravity and punishing radiation.
The spacecraft is called the “Nautilus X MMSEV”, an acronym for Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States X-ploration Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle.
If it ever gets built, the designers say the Nautilus will be able to support a crew of six for missions of one month to two years and will hopefully overcome the major obstacles to long distance space flight, such as radiation and lack of gravity.
The Nautilus aims to get around these issues through its use of a built-in centrifuge which simulates partial gravity and specially designed radiation shields.
The centrifuge on the completed spacecraft is driven by external thrusters and will be capable of applying between 0.51 and 0.69 units of G-force on astronauts during their space travels.
The designers hope the craft’s innovative design, particularly the centrifuge, will prove effective in combating some of these problems and lead to possible future breakthroughs.
The craft’s designs state “partial gravity in space may be critical for enabling long term human exploration within the Solar System”.
Elizabeth Blaber – a Phd candidate from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology – said astronauts in space would face many serious and detrimental effects due to the lack of gravity.
“These effects are generally widespread, affecting almost every system of the human body,” she said.
“Some of the most well documented effects include muscle wasting of weight-bearing or anti-gravity muscles characterised by deterioration of fibres within the muscle due to lack of use and bone deterioration in weight bearing bones of astronauts.”
Ms Blaber said it has been estimated that 1 to 2 per cent of the skeleton is lost each month in space, mainly from weight bearing bones such as the hip and the femur.
The cardiovascular system undergoes changes such as a reduced heart rate and reduction in heart muscle, potentially leading to conditions such as post-flight hypotension.
But that’s not all. If you think you catch every cold that comes around now, try spending time in space.
“Astronauts have exhibited an inability to heal completely and efficiently from skin abrasions,” Ms Blaber said.
“The immune system is also altered … resulting in lowered numbers of immune cells and a decreased of these immune cells to respond to and eliminate foreign agents from the body.”
Unfortunately, being able to avoid these space perils doesn’t come cheaply. The centrifuge alone is estimated to cost anywhere from $84 to $143 million and the designers will need to raise $3.7 billion if they want to get the entire craft off the ground.
Even for NASA that is impressive and it probably means the craft will remain in the theoretical phase unless the aforementioned private backing is obtained.
A version of the craft’s centrifuge could be attached to the International Space Station for testing and use as a low gravity laboratory and a sleep module for the crew.
The design also includes facilities for a hydroponic farm for growing food on long journeys and solar dynamic arrays