Thursday, March 31, 2005

Shellfish in Space

The linked article is an interesting story on a researcher here in San Diego who has developed a lightweight and strong material made by layering and firing thin sheets of aluminum and titanium. The resulting material could be ideal for spaceship construction because of its light weight, high strength, resistance to shattering, and heat conductivity. The aerospace engineer who developed the material at UCSD, Kenneth Vecchio, is a devotee of biomimetics. Biomimetics, meaning imitation of life, takes its inspiration from nature. In Vecchio's case, the natural inspiration for his material is the abalone shell, which is composed of 95 percent chalk but because of the way it is layered at the microscopic level it is incredibly strong.

Biomimetics seems like a promising field for space engineering. For example, we here on Earth are protected from radiation by our planet's magnetic field in a way that astronauts in deep space would not be. This recent story describes NASA-funded research into artificially generating electrostatic fields to envelop a lunar base for radiation protection. An even more ambitious idea for protecting humans on Luna is to artificially generate a magnetic field around the entire moon by girding the satellite with cable and running power through it.

Mars has no planet-wide magnetic field but it does have 1,000 kilometer long bands of local magnetic fields. This story suggests that the localized magnetic fields are as strong at Mars's surface as the global magnetic field is on Earth. If they provide the same kind of protection locally that Earth's magnetic field provides globally and if they are strong enough to provide some radiation protection for humans, will the first humans on Mars place their base in one of the spots protected by a local magnetic field? If so, do these maps (here, here, here, here and here) show the locations for the first human settlements on Mars?

-tdr

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