MIT Builds Egg-Shaped Inflatable Tent to Camp Out on the Moon

Thursday, 11 June 2015 - 3:55PM
Thursday, 11 June 2015 - 3:55PM
When the Apollo missions explored the moon four decades ago, the astronauts were severely hampered by their need to stay near their lunar lander for life support. As a result, their actual exploration of the moon was rather limited. Now, MIT engineers believe they can change that on the next manned lunar mission, as they have built extremely lightweight, compact, inflatable tents that could provide mobile shelter and life support for astronauts on the moon.

The high-tech tents consist of an inflatable pod that can fit two people for an overnight stay, a thermal shield that would protect astronauts from getting roasted by the sun's rays, and a rover that contains life support systems, which will provide oxygen, food, and water. The system also includes a roll-out solar array (which looks somewhat like a yoga mat), that would harness solar power to recharge the batteries of the rover and provide electrical power to the shelter.

But most importantly, the habitat is remarkably compact, to the point that astronauts would be able to travel far away from their lunar lander without too much fuss. Where the 1960s Lunar Stay Time Extension Module, which was meant to support two astronauts for eight days, weighed 1,276 pounds, this inflatable habitat weighs only 273 pounds.

"When packed, the entire system, would take up roughly half as much space as an average refrigerator," MIT engineer Samuel Schreiner told Popular Science.

MIT Builds Inflatable Egg-Shaped Tent to Camp Out on the MoonThe tent in its deployed state. 1) An overnight shelter 2) Rover that contains environmental control and life support systems 3) Thermal shield 4) Solar array
The technology is still new, so there are inevitably still some kinks to work out. Chief among them is the problem of lunar dust, which is attracted to objects as a result of its electrostatic charge and is as sharp as glass, making the environment extremely dangerous for astronauts who are relatively exposed to the elements overnight.

"On Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt reported feeling congested and complained of hay fever symptoms from inhaling lunar dust," said Schreiner. "Lunar dust can also cause skin and eye irritation and corrosion and, when inhaled, can possibly cause lower-airway issues."

There may be a way for astronauts to use magnetic wands to remove the shards and air filters to maintain a breathable environment, but this project does not account for that. According to Shreiner, it's "an area of open research that NASA is looking into."

There's no guarantee that this technology will be needed anytime soon, as NASA has no plans to return to the moon. In fact, NASA cancelled its deep-space mission, Constellation, which planned to put humans back on the moon, back in 2009. But Schreiner is confident that we will go back someday.

"Humanity will, at some point, return to the moon... The moon is by no means a closed case, and there remain many compelling reasons for humanity to return."

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