Interview of Dr.-Ing. Gisela Detrell, Research Team Leader at the Institute of Space Systems of the University of Stuttgart

Interview of Dr.-Ing. Gisela Detrell, Research Team Leader at the Institute of Space Systems of the University of Stuttgart

October 7th, 2022

EASN Association is pleased to host an interview of Dr.-Ing. Gisela Detrell, Research Team Leader at the Institute of Space Systems of the University of Stuttgart and keynote speaker of the forthcoming 12th EASN International Conference.
Dr.-Ing. Gisela Detrell kindly accepted to share with the readers of the EASN Newsletter her viewpoint regarding research perform so as to survive on Mars

The title of your talk is "Surviving on Mars", so what would we require to live on Mars?
The day humans live on Mars will surely require many things, but I particularly would like to focus on what is essentially required to be able to survive. For that, we need a habitat, able to provide the right environment for humans and protection from the harsh environment of Mars. Radiation protection is one of the big topics, another one is the Life Support System (LSS). We consume daily a certain amount of oxygen, water and food, while producing carbon dioxide, heat and liquid and solid waste. On Earth we don't have to think too much how those things are taken care of, the Earth itself is our Life Support System, providing us a breathable atmosphere, water and food. But we won't find all those things on Mars, and future Martian inhabitants cannot expect to get all those resources from the Earth either. That means, the Martian habitat will require a Life Support System able to provide those consumables, recycling as much as possible from the produced waste.

Do we already have those technologies required for a Life Support System?
We have a running space station, the ISS, with a partially closed Life Support System, that is able to recycle about 90% of the water and recover about 42% of the oxygen from the carbon dioxide that the astronauts exhale. There is still water and oxygen resupply from Earth to provide the remining required amount, but recycling is quite good already on those consumables. But the most critical part is food, which is currently fully produced on Earth, and brought up to the station. This is not a big problem, considering that the station is "only" 400 km away, but going to Mars this will no longer be an option. Beyond that, going to Mars adds an extra challenge. From the ISS, astronauts can easily get resupplies if required, or even quickly return to Earth in case of emergency. A settlement on Mars will need to be independent from Earth, since coming back is not possible at any time, and it takes several months of space travel. So we already have technologies that allow us to survive in space, but we will require more than that to survive on Mars.

What research is then being done, looking at future Life Support Systems for Mars?
There is plenty of research being done worldwide in this sector, and for many years already. We could divide it in two areas. From one side there is research on the technologies based on physical or chemical principles, like those being used currently. This will allow to improve the recycling rate, but also to improve their reliability. However, those technologies can only recycle water and oxygen, but not produce food. For food production we require "biology". And that is the other important research focus currently. There are experiments taking place on Earth, focusing in different aspects, for example to better understand how to cultivated plants efficiently and autonomously or to understand how different parameters, for example light spectrum or CO2 concentration affect the plant's growth. There have also been several experiments in space. Among others, lettuce and pepper have bene grown on the ISS. Other organisms such as microalgae or cyanobacteria are also being research. So, there is a lot going on, but there is still plenty of research to be done in this sector.

We still have plenty of problems we haven't solved here on Earth, is it worthy putting so much energy on researching for survival on Mars?
The research required to one day be able to live on Mars is something that every single person on Earth, right now, can benefit from. When we try to make life in Mars possible, we are dealing with a very extreme environment. And since we can't expect future Martians to depend on Earth resources, they will need to be able to live in a sustainable way, with the scarce available resources, with highly reliably systems. That means we need to come up with ideas or develop technologies that more efficient and sustainable, than what we know today. And those ideas and technologies could also be used here, today, to solve problems on Earth too. Food production with reduced resources or efficient water usage and recycling are two good examples of that, needed both to live in Mars but also currently on our planet.