April 16, 2014 -Historically one of the biggest challenges faced by both Soviet and U.S. space programs related to keeping the air inside spacecraft breathable. In the almost disastrous flight of Apollo 13 in 1970 the threat to the astronaut crew came from a buildup of CO2 and the inadequacy of the LEM’s filters to handle the crew load of three rather than the two for which it was designed. In the MIR space station fire of February 1997, a crack in the on board oxygen generator was a near disaster. The burning of lithium perchlorate candles on board MIR was necessary to generate supplemental oxygen anytime there was more than a crew complement of three. The fire was put out but extensive damage to equipment on board shortened the remaining life of Russia’s first space station. It could have also killed all on board. Both cases illustrate just how vulnerable atmospheric support can be in closed system environments.
The future of human activity in space requires a better solution, one that can recycle oxygen, that is light weight to minimize payload, and that is maintainable and reliable. In its latest initiative, NASA, the American space agency, hopes to achieve a better recovery system for recycling oxygen that exceeds 75% recovery. It hopes to do this by soliciting outside sources to design a better mousetrap than the one seen in the image below, the current state-of-the-art.
They call the technology the Advanced Oxygen Recovery for Spacecraft Life Support System (AORSLSS). And they are inviting contributors to develop a specification and manufacture a prototype. In return NASA is offering six $750,000 U.S. awards for what it calls Phase 1. In Phase 2, NASA intends to rigorously test the prototype and will then award a contract to the best designer.
Michael Gazarik, Associate Administrator for Space Technology at NASA states, “the spacecraft life support system technologies for this proposal must significantly improve the rate of oxygen recovery while achieving high degrees of reliability. NASA and its partners will need to develop new technologies to close the atmosphere revitalization loop.”
What NASA seeks is a smaller footprint plus higher recovery efficiency than the unit you see below. This is no small task but it hopes that the promised cash awards will spark the interest of NASA and other government researchers, universities, technical schools, non-profits and industry to develop the AORSLSS. It will be the next step in moving towards completely self-sufficient closed habitats for humans in space.