Camping on Mars - Inflatable Pop Tents for Your Weekend Excursions

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Astronauts could use Overnight Pop Tents to go Camping on Mars

There's something missing...

The move The Martian has generated a lot of excitement and interest in Mars, but there was one thing in the book that was extremely important that wasn't mentioned in the movie.  What was it?

Pop tents.

In the book, pop tents​ were meant as emergency overnight shelters for rover excursions. Mark Watney used them for something quite different, but the intent of this technology was basically to allow astronauts a way to go camping on Mars.

The concept is a simple one. Take the Apollo Program for example...

​Mobile Overnight Habitats Extend Exploration Range

The Apollo program landed a dozen men on the moon from 1969 to 1972, but overall these men spent a total of only three days and six hours actually walking the surface.

That's a lot of effort for such little time.

The reason why is that they just didn't have a way to extend their mobility and range.  They couldn’t stray from their lunar lander and its life support. To help future missions to the moon, aerospace engineers at MIT have now designed lightweight, packable, inflatable habitats -- designs that could easily be extended to camping on Mars.

Related: 10 'Must-Have' Technologies for Settling Mars​

The mobile overnight habitat, designed to fit aboard a no-frills lunar rover, would be made up of the following:

  • an inflatable pod that sleeps two;
  • a reflective shield to prevent the sun’s rays from roasting explorers;
  • life support systems on the rover that will supply oxygen, water and food, maintain the habitat's temperature, scrub out carbon dioxide, and remove excess humidity, and
  • a flexible roll-out solar array to supply the shelter’s power and recharge the rover's batteries.
Inflatable pop tent for camping on Mars

A cutaway view of the operational system in its deployed state. The inflatable habitat (1) provides an overnight shelter in which two astronauts can sleep, while the Environmental Control and Life Support System on the rover (2) maintains the habitat internal environment. The thermal shield (3) mitigates solar radiation, and a solar array (4) supplies power. Credit: Schreiner, Setterfield et al.

​When packed, the entire, folded habitat would be no bigger than an average-sized refrigerator.

Easy Setup; Easy Take Down

Like camping on Earth, Astronauts camping on Mars or on the moon would need to set up and take down the shelter quickly and easily.  Using inflatable tubes made of the same silicone-coated fabric that the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rovers used in their landing bags, the astronauts could quickly inflate and pressurize the tubes, which would serve as support ribs, giving the habitat a pill-like shape.

Inflatable pop tent for camping on Mars

Credit: Schreiner, Setterfield et al.

Once inflated, the pop tent would provide roughly 425 cubic feet of habitable space and include an airlock. Once the astronauts enter the pod, and close the airlock, the life support systems on the rover will kick in and fill the habitat with oxygen via umbilical cables.

On the moon, the lunar dust, which collects on the astronaut’s suits, poses a problem. The dust is electrostatically charged and sticks to everything, the way a rubbed balloon attracts lint. It is also dangerous, each grain similar to a shard of glass.  Samuel Schreiner, one of the MIT engineers designing the pod, put it this way:

On Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt reported feeling congested and complained of hay fever symptoms from inhaling lunar dust.  Lunar dust can also cause skin and eye irritation and corrosion and, when inhaled, can possibly cause lower-airway issues. S

So Schreiner and company created a flexible divider inside the pod that can be moved to cordon off the area where astronauts remove their suits from where they sleep. He also believes astronauts could use magnetic wands to pull off dust and use air filters to keep the habitat breathable.  As Schreiner added:

This is still an area of open research that NASA is looking into.

Deflating the habitat to stow it back on the rover should be easy, too because “the lunar vacuum will make it relatively easy to evacuate all of the gas within,” says Schreiner.

The proposed habitat is more compact than anything engineers have previously dreamed up, making it an ideal candidate for future missions to the moon -- and even for camping on Mars. Consider the 1960s Lunar Stay Time Extension Module that Goodyear designed.

The module was meant to support two astronauts for eight days.  It weighed 1,276 pounds, nearly as much as a small car.

The MIT habitat, by contrast, supports two people for a single overnight mission and weighs in at 273 pounds.

Although much smaller than the Goodyear design, the MIT pop tent could double the distance explorers could travel from a base or lander.  On the moon, for example, this extended range could help explorers investigate a variety of sites at the 60-mile-wide Copernicus impact crater, one of the most prominent craters on the moon and could so the same when camping on Mars. 

The work is still in its early stages, though, and will undoubtedly change. As Schreiner warns,

The mass and volume of the system often increase by about 20 to 30 percent, but that still puts our design in a reasonable range.

The engineers imagine that their inflatable, packable habitat will first be used for overnight trips when the lunar lander is still what astronauts call home. But it could also be used after larger permanent moon bases are built. Or for camping on Mars.

Related: 3D Printed Igloo Wins Mars Habitat Design Contest

There is another, perhaps even more important,  use as well -- as a quick-deploy emergency shelter.

If an astronaut's spacesuit should fail, the pop tent can be quickly and easily deployed​, giving a safe, albeit temporary, place to try and fix any problems

And if the astronauts ever have trouble setting up the habitat and cannot enter it?

Easy.

They can hook their suits up to the habitat's life support systems on the rover and drive back to base.

NASA has no plans to return to the moon -- yet.  If they do, this may be a critical piece of equipment that can extend our exploration capabilities.

But NASA is talking about going to Mars. ​And who couldn't just see themselves driving off into the unknown and popping open a tent for a night or two. Talk about the ultimate camping on Mars!

Mark Watney would be jealous.​

Want to see more?  Schreiner and his team published their work online in the journal Acta Astronautica.

What do you think? Is this the ultimate camping survival gear? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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