Episode II: Inhabiting Mars

space, space exploration, deep-space habitat, Mars, plants on Mars, Mike Dixon, Anton de Ruiter, aerospace engineering, space and technology, Star WarsIt is a bright time for Ontario’s space researchers. Although a human mission to Mars remains a dream, two university professors have driven their research from their hidden labs and are pursuing this dream to nation-wide recognition.

At Ryerson University, Anton de Ruiter examines the possibilities for asteroid exploration and the remote construction of a space station that would orbit the moon. His research, bolstered by a Canada Research Chair position and an NSERC Discovery Grant, is conducted in one of the only Aerospace Engineering departments in a Canadian university.

If assembled using precise navigation and controls, and without human assistance in orbit, de Ruiter’s lunar deep-space station could be the next step in sending a human mission to Mars.

“Near Earth, we have GPS, which allows us to navigate very precisely,” de Ruiter told Ryerson University. “But if we want to navigate in the lunar vicinity, GPS is not available. Using a deep-space habitat could provide a reference point for space exploration further afield.”

While the International Space Station was assembled by astronauts in orbit, a lunar space station would require an unmanned mission and robotic self-assembly due to the extra distance to the moon.

“Without the atmospheric pressures and winds from Earth causing interference, it is easier for engineers to predict how their models will perform in space,” says de Ruiter. “Mathematically, you can do a lot more. When it comes down to it, everything obeys Newton’s laws.”

Growing food for space

But once humans get to Mars, how will they be able to survive?

University of Guelph professor Mike Dixon is exploring ways to grow food in harsh environments. Although his research is important for supplying remote communities with fresh produce, it has key applications to space exploration as well.

Dixon has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency and Com Dev Ltd. to create unique technologies, including LED lighting for growing food in modular controlled environments. They have proposed a pilot scale installation in the barren, rocky landscape of Canada’s North—the closest approximation to the climate and geography on Mars.

Using this space technology, Dixon is helping provide Northerners with year-round fresh produce, cutting back on the need for expensive imports.

“The moon or Mars is as equally harsh an environment as the Northwest Territories, where you don’t routinely grow food outdoors,” Dixon told The Toronto Star earlier this year. “It is damn hard to eat something fresh in the Canadian North. Employing this technology is sensible.”

See the first part of our Star Wars-themed series on space exploration: “Episode I: The Big Data Project.”

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