Could Future Homes on the Moon and Mars Be Made of Fungi?

The myco-architecture project out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life – specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia.

“Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle — carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan, but with huge energy costs,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project. “Instead, we can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there.”

Ultimately, the project envisions a future where human explorers can bring a compact habitat built out of a lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars. Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat – all while being safely contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.

This research is supported through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, known as NIAC, and is part of a field known as synthetic biology – the study of how we can use life itself as technology, in this case fungi. We’re a very long way from being able to grow useable habitats for Mars, but the early-stage research is well under way to prove the potential of these creative solutions.

Nasa

The myco-architecture project out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life – specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia.

“Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle — carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan, but with huge energy costs,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project. “Instead, we can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there.”

Ultimately, the project envisions a future where human explorers can bring a compact habitat built out of a lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars. Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat – all while being safely contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.

This research is supported through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, known as NIAC, and is part of a field known as synthetic biology – the study of how we can use life itself as technology, in this case fungi. We’re a very long way from being able to grow useable habitats for Mars, but the early-stage research is well under way to prove the potential of these creative solutions. That work all starts with experimenting with fungi.

A stool-like structure, covered in fungi.

A stool constructed out of mycelia after two weeks of growth. The next step is a baking process process that leads to a clean and functional piece of furniture. The myco-architecture project seeks to design not only for habitats, but for the furniture that could be grown inside them as well.Credits: 2018 Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team

The Fungus Among Us

A fungus is a group of organisms that produces spores and eats up organic material, like the yeasts in bread or beer, the mushrooms in your salad, the mold that may grow if you let that salad sit in the refrigerator for too long or even the organisms that produce antibiotics like penicillin.

But the part of a fungus you probably haven’t seen is mycelia. These tiny threads build complex structures with extreme precision, networking out into larger structures like mushrooms. With the right conditions, they can be coaxed into making new structures – ranging from a material similar to leather to the building blocks for a Mars habitat.

Living on the Moon and Mars

Creating a livable home for future astronauts means doing more than growing a roof to go over their heads. Astronauts will need to have all their basic needs met, just like on Earth, and face the additional challenges of living in a harsh environment on a distant world.

The myco-architecture project can’t just design a shell – it’s designing a home. That home is more than a set of walls – it has its own ecosystem of sorts, with multiple kinds of organisms alongside the humans it’s designed to protect.

Just like the astronauts, fungal mycelia is a lifeform that has to eat and breathe. That’s where something called cyanobacteria comes in – a kind of bacterium that can use energy from the Sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fungus food.

A pile of white bricks in a pile.

Bricks produced using mycelium, yard waste and wood chips as a part of the myco-architecture project. Similar materials could be used to build habitats on the Moon or Mars.Credits: 2018 Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team

These pieces come together in an elegant habitat concept with a three-layered dome. The outer-most layer is made up of frozen water ice, perhaps tapped from the resources on the Moon or Mars. That water serves as a protection from radiation and trickles down to the second layer – the cyanobacteria. This layer can take that water and photosynthesize using the outside light that shines through the icy layer to produce oxygen for astronauts and nutrients for the final layer of mycelia.

That last layer of mycelia is what organically grows into a sturdy home, first activated to grow in a contained environment and then baked to kill the lifeforms – providing structural integrity and ensuring no life contaminates Mars and any microbial life that’s already there. Even if some mycelia somehow escaped, they will be genetically altered to be incapable of surviving outside the habitat.

Mars Helicopter Flight Delayed to No Earlier than April 14

During a high-speed spin test of the rotors on Friday, the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a “watchdog” timer expiration. This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode. The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicated its full telemetry set to Earth.

The watchdog timer oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed and worked as planned.

The helicopter team is reviewing telemetry to diagnose and understand the issue. Following that, they will reschedule the full-speed test.

NASA Awards Mars Ascent Propulsion System Contract for Sample Return

NASA has awarded the Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS) contract to Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Elkton, Maryland, to provide propulsion support and products for spaceflight missions at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Coupled with the successful touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, this award moves NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) one step closer to realizing Mars Sample Return (MSR), a highly ambitious planetary exploration program that will build upon decades of science, knowledge, and experience of Mars exploration.  

The cost-plus, fixed-fee contract has a potential mission services value of $60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $84.5 million. Work on MAPS begins immediately with a 14-month base period, followed by two option periods that may be exercised at NASA’s discretion.

In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission. The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to the surface of Mars. Marshall is responsible for the MSR Program’s MAV element, which is a two-stage vehicle that will be a critical element in supporting MSR to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth. The Martian environment will be a significant factor in the design, development, manufacturing, testing, and qualification of two different solid rocket motors with multiple deliveries of each. Through the MAPS contract, Northrop Grumman will provide the propulsion systems for the MAV, as well as other supporting equipment and logistics services.

Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades

NASA to Provide Update on Perseverance ‘Firsts’ Since Mars Landing

Since NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover touched down at Jezero Crater Feb. 18, mission controllers have made substantial progress as they prepare the rover for the unpaved road ahead. Mission team members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California will discuss mission “firsts” achieved so far and those to come in a media teleconference at 3:30 p.m. EST (12:30 p.m. PST) Friday, March 5.

Since landing, NASA’s largest, most sophisticated Mars rover yet has gone through checks on every system and subsystem and sent back thousands of images from Jezero Crater. These checks will continue in the coming days, and the rover will make its first drives. Each system checkout and milestone completed marks a significant step forward as the rover prepares for surface operations. The primary mission is slated for one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

Perseverance’s First Full-Color Look at Mars

This is the first high-resolution, color image to be sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18, 2021.

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent missions by NASA in cooperation with ESA (the European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Astronauts Launch from America in Historic Test Flight of SpaceX Crew Dragon

For the first time in history, NASA astronauts have launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Demo-2 mission is the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The test flight serves as an end-to-end demonstration of SpaceX’s crew transportation system. Behnken and Hurley launched at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to low-Earth orbit for the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.
Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX and NASA teams for this significant achievement for the United States. The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, which will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said Elon Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

The program demonstrates NASA’s commitment to investing in commercial companies through public-private partnerships and builds on the success of American companies, including SpaceX, already delivering cargo to the space station.

“It’s difficult to put into words how proud I am of the people who got us here today,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “When I think about all of the challenges overcome – from design and testing, to paper reviews, to working from home during a pandemic and balancing family demands with this critical mission – I am simply amazed at what the NASA and SpaceX teams have accomplished together. This is just the beginning; I will be watching with great anticipation as Bob and Doug get ready to dock to the space station tomorrow, and through every phase of this historic mission.”

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control center. As Crew Dragon ascended into space, SpaceX commanded the spacecraft from its mission control center in Hawthorne, California. NASA teams are monitoring space station operations throughout the flight from Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to dock to the space station at 10:29 a.m. Sunday, May 31. NASA Television and the agency’s website are providing ongoing live coverage of the Crew Dragon’s trip to the orbiting laboratory. Behnken and Hurley will work with SpaceX mission control to verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, the displays and control system, and by maneuvering the thrusters, among other things. The first docking maneuver began Saturday, May 30, at 4:09 p.m., and the spacecraft will begin its close approach to the station at about 8:27 a.m. Sunday, May 31. Crew Dragon is designed to dock autonomously, but the crews onboard the spacecraft and the space station will diligently monitor the performance of the spacecraft as it approaches and docks to the forward port of the station’s Harmony module.

After successfully docking, the crew will be welcomed aboard the International Space Station, where they will become members of the Expedition 63 crew, which currently includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. NASA will continue live coverage through hatch opening and the crew welcoming ceremony. The crew will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew.