Every day, NASA astronauts conduct vital research in Earth orbit. But the space agency has one eye looking further into the cosmos. Manned deep space travel. A mission to Mars. Pretty much everything NASA is doing right now is to turn these goals into reality.

Engineers are developing the most powerful rocket in the world to send astronauts into deep space, the Space Launch System (SLS). But NASA needs more than just a bigger rocket. How humans live in space changes the further we get from Earth. Safety is the number one priority for the folks at NASA.

This week, NASA announced six U.S. companies that will strive to push the technology of habitats and the systems supporting them to new heights.

But what will a deep space habitat look like?

First, it needs to be pressurized. Then a complex series of systems needs to be integrated with one another. Think everything from life support and docking to radiation protection and EVA.

Where deep space habitats differ from say something like the ISS is resupplying. SpaceX can’t send a resupply to a spacecraft halfway between Earth and Mars. These habitats need to be good at recycling water and oxygen. Extremely good. NASA wants these systems to recycle at least 98% of water consumed and 75% of oxygen from the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts.

When packing items into a deep space habitat, recycling and repurposing will be at the top of the list. Astronauts on a manned mission to Mars will have a limited amount of space to work with. None of it can be wasted.

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The six companies designing deep space habitats

You’ve probably heard of most of these companies. Each one will develop a ground-based prototype to test configurations and to see how well the systems interact with one another.

Bigelow Aerospace – Anyone who follows what’s going on aboard the International Space Station knows about Bigelow. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was attached to the ISS earlier this year. The company is taking what they learned from BEAM and super-sizing it.

Bigelow habitat

XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) is a 330 cubic meter expandable habitat. BEAM was just 16 cubic meters.

Boeing – They are no stranger to the ISS. For more than 15 years, the company has been involved with the ISS. Their module will demonstrate how humans can safely live and work in deep space for long periods of time. Here’s a concept of what Boeing’s prototype will look like.

Boeing habitat

Lockheed Martin – The company is going the refurbished route with their prototype. They are taking a multi-purpose logistics module (the ones used to carry equipment and supplies to the ISS aboard the space shuttle) and converting it into a full-scale habitat prototype.

Lockheed Martin habitat

Orbital ATK – Their prototype will build on the design of their initial cislunar habitat concept. It’s based on the Cygnus spacecraft they use to send supplies to the ISS.

Orbital ATK habitat

Sierra Nevada – Their solution for a deep space habitat is based on its Dream Chaser cargo module.

Sierra Nevada habitat

Ixion Team – NanoRacks, Space Systems Loral and the United Launch Alliance are teaming up to conduct an intriguing study. Can you convert an existing launch vehicle’s upper stage into a pressurized habitable volume in space? It’s an interesting, and more importantly, low-cost approach to a deep space habitat that could be used on any rocket system.

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Ixion habitat

We are still a ways off from humans spending lengthy periods of time in deep space. But the work done by these six companies and NASA will help pave the way for humanity’s expansion deeper into our solar system.

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