thoughts on Manned Space #2: Find the Water

Curiosity is on its way, with the mission of analyzing rocks along the Gale crater for signs of organic (carbon-based) compounds. It’s unique in that it’s a change from NASA’s usual Mars missions, which usually sought water or evidence of water.

We’re starting to find lots of evidence of water on other celestial bodies, from Mars to the moons of Jupiter to far-off planets. This is promising if we ever want to reach beyond our own planet, much less the solar system. But just what’s the big deal about water?

Most obviously, we need water in order to survive—to drink, to cook, to wash. It’s both a universal solvent and a catalyst for a lot of chemical reactions, so it’s important for experiments as well as daily living. Water is also useful as rocket fuel—seriously!

Driven by a need to use a fuel that can be produced on water-bearing planets and pressured by environmentalists, researchers are working to develop a new type of rocket fuel, made of a frozen mixture of water and “nanoscale aluminum” powder with the thickness of 80 nanometers, that could be easily manufactured on the moon, Mars or any other planet having water on it.

The aluminum powder, aka ALICE, can be used to launch the rockets into their orbit, fuel long-distance space missions and generate hydrogen for the fuel cells, says Steven Son, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, who is working with NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and Pennsylvania State University to develop ALICE, used earlier this year to launch a 9-foot-tall rocket.

“ALICE might one day replace some liquid or solid propellants, and, when perfected, might have a higher performance than conventional propellants,” said Timothee Pourpoint, a research assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It’s also extremely safe while frozen because it is difficult to accidentally ignite,” he added.

Unfortunately, it’s also bulky and heavy—important factors when thinking about launching things into space. Right now, we do everything we can to reduce the amount of water we carry off the Earth into space—from the space shuttle’s creation of water as a byproduct of making electricity to recycling all water on the International Space Station—right down to the urine and sweat in the air. Even the moisture in your fellow astronaut’s bad breath gets captured, collected and cleansed for you to drink later. (All good arguments for finding other sources, if you ask me.)

If you've not seen Rocket City Rednecks, they're worth a watch!

A much longer term concern is removing water from this planet to service life on other planets.I think Douglas Adams summed up the problem best in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

After a while, the style settles down a bit, and it starts telling you things you actually need to know, like the fact that the fabulously beautiful planet of Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion caused by over 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave. So every time you go to the lavatory there, it's vitally important to get a receipt.

The Earth's atmosphere keeps water locked into a continuous system—remember fourth grade science? Other planets with less atmosphere don’t have that. In fact, there’s a theory that part of the reason Mars no longer has surface water is that it all sublimated into space. So we have to be careful, even with the water we find, to make sure we don’t lose it. (Which goes back to the recycling. Don’t think about where the water’s been.)

Naturally, water is also one of the primary indicators of biological life, and while we might not find little green men, we are more likely to find little green microbes and other small life that can live in extreme conditions. (Called Extremophile life, and you can find it on earth, too—even in nuclear waste!) This could be a boon, if we can find and cultivate native food sources, or a bomb, if we come across something dangerous to humans. (Remember the Andromeda Strain? The trailer is hokey, but I saw it again last week while doing research. Still a freaky movie worth watching, even fourty years later!)

So finding indigenous sources of water is another vital step toward establishing a manned presence off the earth.  That we have found it is a promising sign.  Now, we need to figure out how to best to harvest, protect and use it.

In the meantime, I'm thirsty.  Time to get a drink.

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Walt said...

Just watched my first four "Rocket City Rednecks" episodes back-to-back. Lordy, them's my people (though with deeper accents). Meanwhile, my city-born Northerner better-half is aghast at Southerners' propensity for things that make loud bangs (and the fact that they still seem to have the original number of limbs).

Dr. Travis Taylor, billed as "the ringleader," has several pretty good nonfiction books out dealing with planetary defense, the ideas of which appear in his novel, "Von Neumann's War" (now, if he ever gets around to pulling up his socks and writing the second half of the story...). The eBook versions are available from Baen Books.

Karina Fabian said...

They're a riot, aren't they? Incidentally, I've been told the hero in that book is a major Mary Sue.

Walt said...

Hmm, I'll have to take a look again. I do remember a Hooters waitress who joins the design team in "Von Neumann's War" is channeling Phil and Kaja Foglio's "Girl Genius." I had the bad taste, today, to point out to someone that any number have used the job to pay their way through engineering school.

"Just because a dress is red satin doesn't mean it comes off easily." -- an alleged Polish proverb.

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