Space Settlement Challenge research

The two projects funded by the Mohammed bin Rashid (MBR) Space Settlement Challenge of the Dubai Future Foundation have been initiated with two field-site campaigns on two completely different Earth environments that are considered as analogue for Mars and that can give some information about the future of space settlement in this planet.

During the month of September, we have participated simultaneously in two field-campaigns in very distant regions of the Earth, one in Atacama Desert, in Chile, and the other one in the salt mine of Boulby at 1.1 km depth in UK. Each one of these campaigns was part of one of the GAS projects funded by the Dubai Future Foundation and the researchers had to face different technical difficulties to comply with the scientific requirements. Both projects were funded by the Dubai Future Foundation after their selection in the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Settlement Challenge, namely, Water farming on Mars: In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) for future Mars exploration and Earth arid regions (led by Professor Javier Martín-Torres), and Investigation of transport of biomass and aerosols through the atmosphere in Mars analogues: implication for planetary protection during colonization and exploration (led by Professor María Paz Zorzano).

Control experiments for natural atmospheric moisture capture
by deliquescent salts, on the left the pure deliquescent salt is
able to melt into a transparent liquid brine after a few days and
on the right the mixture of soil with salt forms a mud.
Credit: GAS

The first one was carried out during the MINAR 6 campaign, organized by the UK Centre for Astrobiology, which took place at Boulby mine, UK. Boulby is one of the largest working potash, polyhalite and rock-salt mine in the world, where GAS’ team had to work at depths of 1.1 km below the ground. Besides the testing of the KORE rover (the main target of the scheduled operations), a preliminary methodology for capturing atmospheric water has been tested. This concept is at the core of the Water Farms concept, that may be installed on Mars as ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) to supply with water a future mission to Mars. Furthermore, this concept can also be applicable on arid regions on Earth where water shortage means a severe constraint for the socioeconomic progress of their inhabitants.

The idea stems directly from the functioning of HABIT, which will reproduce the water absorption by hygroscopic salts present on the Martian regolith. Water absorption takes place every day when the appropriate environmental conditions are reached.

The goal of this research was to quantify the amount of water that would be captured by salts within a subsurface environment, keeping in mind, in addition, that Martian caves have been proposed as interesting environments to sustain exploration since they have controlled temperatures and provide shielding from radiation. The average temperatures at the mine were 33°C and a very low Relative Humidity of about 29%. This is representative also of the day time humidity of some desert areas on Earth such as the Mojave or the Sahara deserts, where the average daytime relative humidity ranges from 10 percent to 30 percent.

Armando Azua-Bustos and Carlos González Silva during the field-campaign wearing
their totally protective sterile garments for sampling.
Credit: GAS

The second campaign took place on the Atacama Desert, Chile with the goal of investigating the transport of biomass through the air in the most arid region of Earth, that is in addition a renowned Mars analogue environment. The surprising results of this work, which are now being summarized in an article, have been compared with a high-resolution Weather Research and Forecasting model simulation of atmospheric circulation on the area and with satellite observations conducted by GAS. The goal of this research is to investigate the plausible transport of microorganisms through the air on Mars, from the site of the settlement to other sites, and also to assess how life can be naturally transported through the air from one adapted niche to another.

Aerobiological samples are prone to contamination problems because they generally contain a low abundance of microorganisms compared to the scientists and the equipment that we carry along during a field campaign. This also applies to microbiological samples from the regolith in extreme arid environment soils such as the one in Atacama, so it was crucial for these campaigns to maintain certain protocols to avoid cross-contamination which may result in false positives, what can be as well an interesting reference when considering the Planetary Protection procedures to be applied on Mars during a surface mission.