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27 February 2018 - Anne-Katrin Wehrmann

Moon living

Scientists from Bremen are developing a facility where people could live and work far away from Earth

If the European Space Agency’s (ESA) planned ‘Moon Village’ is to become reality, the humans sent to colonise the moon will need places to live. The key foundations for these could come from Bremen. A team from the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) have begun to design a habitat.

Dr Christiane Heinicke – a geophysicist from Bremen
Dr Christiane Heinicke, a geophysicist from Bremen, spent a year living with five colleagues from different countries in a housing unit measuring around 100 square metres in order to gain experience for future Mars missions. © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Mars mission – cut off from the outside world

From the bed to the kitchen. From the bathroom to the lab. From the treadmill to the dining table. It was never more than a couple of steps. Dr Christiane Heinicke from the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at the University of Bremen knows what it’s like to live in the smallest of spaces in an inhospitable environment. The geophysicist, together with five colleagues from around the world, lived for a whole year on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The aim of their stay there was to gain important experience for potential Mars missions. In this rocky desert, the team shared a housing unit measuring around 100 m² from August 2015 to August 2016, carrying out scientific experiments while under constant observation.

Coming home – first, a swim

The focus of the simulated long-term Mars mission was to investigate the dynamics and problems created when a group spends a long time living together in such cramped conditions, cut off from the outside world. “We didn’t have cabin fever,” says the 32-year-old, “but of course, there were a couple of conflicts which came up again and again. People are naturally different and have different opinions – and sometimes it’s just not possible to reconcile them.” When the year was over and the group re-entered normal life, the first thing Christiane did was to treat herself to a swim in the pool –and some fresh raspberries.

Christiane Heinicke and her MaMBA (Moon and Mars Base Analog) project
Christiane Heinicke works at the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) on the MaMBA (Moon and Mars Base Analog) project, which focuses on the technical aspects of the housing unit © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Alongside interpersonal factors, the architecture also had an influence on the scientists’ mental well-being. Heinicke is now incorporating her findings into a new project. At ZARM in Bremen, she and her team are developing a housing facility which could be used on the moon or on Mars in the future.

Shielded against cosmic radiation

“Bremen is a major hub for the space industry, and therefore the obvious place to develop this kind of habitat,” says Heinicke, who has now moved to the city on the Weser after studying and working in Ilmenau in eastern Germany, in Sweden, Finland and, recently, in Hawaii. Previous facilities used to conduct experiments on living together in an extraterrestrial environment were primarily designed for psychological studies and training purposes. In contrast, the current MaMBA (Moon and Mars Base Analog) project now aims to put the technical considerations at the forefront for the first time. “In the past, similar habitats were fundamentally technically flawed. We want to eliminate these flaws,” explains the scientist. Housing and working spaces designed in the past were usually made up of a connected complex, which could have fatal consequences in the event of a fire, as the inhabitants would have nowhere to escape to. Another significant consideration is the development of shielding against cosmic radiation, as this would otherwise lead to severe health problems.

The lab module as a starting point

What would be the ideal shape for the facility? Which material is most suitable? What equipment is needed in each room to ensure that the inhabitants can work optimally and be comfortable at the same time? These questions, and others like them, are exactly what Heinicke and her team hope to answer over the course of the two-and-a-half-year project. They plan to design independent modules which will be connected using a system of locks. “We’re starting with a lab module, where biological, geological and potentially also chemical experiments can be conducted,” explains the 32-year-old. “To do this, we’re working closely with various scientists to learn what they need and what experiments could be interesting to carry out on the moon or on Mars.” Currently, architects and engineers are busy working on the design. The project leader hopes that the first module will be completely constructed and fully furnished by the time the MaMBA project, funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation, comes to an end. “I don’t expect everything to go perfectly on our first try. For the following modules, we will then be able to learn from our experiences to improve the facility even more.”

Same shape, different equipment

If Christiane and her team have their way, they will then work on the other modules in the facility. As all the modules will look the same, they will be able to recreate the external hulls relatively quickly. Only the airlocks will differ significantly from the other modules in terms of their design. For the four additional units which have initially been planned, the scientists will then ‘only’ have to design the interior – a not insignificant task. These units will form the kitchen, the bedrooms, a storage room which will include a workshop, and a multifunctional module intended to accommodate a greenhouse and sports equipment.

Christiane Heinicke is working closely with various scientists
Shape, material, specific safety requirements and a certain ‘comfort factor’ – Christiane Heinicke is working closely with various scientists to design the optimal housing unit as part of the MaMBA project © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Another request: space to relax

Heinicke’s wish list also includes a sixth module – a recreation room with a large window. “This isn’t absolutely necessary for survival, of course,” she says, “but if someone plans to stay there for longer than three or four months, they’ll need a place to relax. On Earth, we’d put a sofa in this area, for example.” Her experiences living in the Hawaiian wilderness mean that she knows that the ceilings of the rooms should be as high as possible. “It’s very helpful not to feel like the roof is about to fall on your head.” Suspended ceilings are only going to be constructed in the working modules, as a second floor in these areas will double the usable floorspace (around 20 m²) in each module.

A contribution to colonising the stars

Even if the habitat developed in Bremen is unlikely to ever leave Earth, Christiane Heinicke is happy that her work will contribute to making our dream of colonising faraway celestial bodies a little more realistic. “I don’t expect our facility to be adopted exactly, right down to the last detail,” she explains, “but if parts of our work are really used on the moon or on Mars one day, that itself would be an incredible success.”

Press contact:

Birgit Kinkeldey, ZARM, University of Bremen, tel. +49 421 21857755, birgit.kinkeldey@zarm.uni-bremen.de

Annika Czurgel, ZARM, University of Bremen, tel. +49 421 21857825, annika.czurgel@zarm.uni-bremen.de

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