Space research and beyond

Space research and beyond

Since I was a child, I was fascinated by the stars and moon in the night sky. I dreamt of what it would be like out in the space, how the astronauts who stepped on the moon felt. But almost half a century has passed since man last went to the moon. Where are we going today? The next big and most obvious step is to go to Mars. This is what drives me in my research.

At Purdue University, in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, we work on solving some of the problems that are in the way of sending people to Mars. It is one of the major research areas that the Advanced Astrodynamics Concepts group is working on. I am working with Professor Sarag Saikia on one such problem.

The application process

While looking out for universities to apply to for doctoral degree, my primary focus was on the research going on at different universities in the area of astrodynamics. I chose to apply to universities in the United States as it has some of the best research going on in this area. I applied to about eight universities, including Purdue University. Purdue was my first choice as it is one of the best places right now to do research in aerospace.

I was already familiar with Professor Saikia's work and was interested in joining his group. Apart from the excellent astrodynamics research, Purdue has a very rich history and is the alma mater of 23 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong.

So it is no surprise that I was ecstatic when I got my offer letter from Purdue. But there was no financial support with the admission. So, I started looking for funding. Professor Saikia told me about the Amba-Rao fellowship. It was a great opportunity but very competitive as it was awarded to one student per year. After an interview and some nervous waiting, I got the offer.

Planning missions

My research involves studying the human missions to Mars, more importantly the surface mission. Human travel to Mars is a long-term mission and a complicated systems engineering problem. With the current rocket technology, it takes at least six months to travel to Mars. And the favourable conditions for launch are only once in about every two years. So even if we reach Mars after spending six months in deep space, we have to stay there for about 18 months to wait for the next launch opportunity and then return journey will take another six months. Sustaining astronauts for such a long period is one of the major challenges that we face. Because if something fails, the mission cannot be aborted immediately and help cannot be sent to Mars in a matter of hours or even days.

You are on your own when you are on another planet. Everything has to be planned, all the possible scenarios must be thought of and prepared for. One such challenge is providing the astronauts the means to survive like food, water, air and sanitation.

Water is required not just for drinking, but for hygiene maintenance, propellant production for returning from Mars surface to orbit, cooling systems and agriculture if we have to build a sustained base on Mars. Water is said to be the oil of space exploration. My work specifically deals with projecting these water needs for various cases.

How much water?

We know that there is water on Mars in various forms. It may not be liquid surface water as on Earth but as water ice beneath the surface. We need to dig on Mars to extract water and process it to make it suitable for our use. But this requires heavy machinery and the right landing site where we know that water is available in the amount we need.

This is another part of my research. Based on the water demand, we have to figure out where to land on Mars, how to extract water and how to use it. Choosing a particular landing site has tremendous implications on other sub-systems as well. It has to be a well-calculated decision. This whole mission requires the combined effort of all the space organisations across the globe.

Along with the Mars mission, I am also working on a project about exploring the Ocean worlds of our Solar System, namely Europa and Enceladus. It has been discovered that beneath the icy surface of these moons, there are liquid water oceans. These have favourable conditions for existence of life. This is what makes these icy moons
hotspots for search of life beyond Earth. Our research group is working on designing a mobility system of rovers that can travel on the surface of Europa and Enceladus. We are doing a detailed study of the surface of the moons as they are very hostile.

Apart from these projects, my group also works on interplanetary trajectories, mission design, entry descent landing on other solar system objects and more. We continuously learn from each other and thrive to do the best to take the human race closer to the next big leap into deep space. We are all driven by curiosity. As Buzz Aldrin said, "Exploration is wired into our brains. If we can see the horizon, we want to know what's beyond".

(The author is pursuing PhD in Aerospace engineering at Purdue University, USA)

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