The Oumuamua cigar-shaped interstellar asteroid may not have been a space ship disguised as an asteroid, but the root of that idea – using a hollowed-out space object to travel between stars – is getting serious scientific consideration … and the concept actually sounds feasible. Should Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos be spending their money on corralling a comet?
"In light of our insatiable appetite for exploration, it is inevitable that the human species will ultimately travel outside of the known solar system. It is the next step in human evolution. My research concerns solutions that unite the biological, technological and social dimensions. And it is about spaceships that evolve during their journey."
Well, it would be nice to get humans beyond the orbit of the Moon first, but it’s always good to think big and that’s what Angelo Vermeulen is doing. He’s the founder of the Delft University of Technology Starship Team (DSTART) and the Evolving Asteroid Starships project, which is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on designing a regenerative life-support system called MELISSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative).
“MELiSSA, short for Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative, is an artificial ecosystem to recover food, water and oxygen from waste (faeces and urine), carbon dioxide and minerals. The laboratory will help in the development of technology for a future regenerative life support system for long-duration human space exploration missions, for example to a lunar base or to Mars.”
To Mars … and beyond. In an announcement, ESA revealed the goal of DSTART is to “perform advanced concepts research for a resilient interstellar space vehicle, to be constructed from a hollowed-out asteroid.” While it sounds like the asteroid is just a big vehicle, it’s also a supplier of minerals and more to MELISSA, which is a giant self-sustaining, self-evolving, closed-loop life support system … and more. The details will be revealed at the first joint AgroSpace-MELiSSA workshop on May 16-18 in Rome. The topics will include:
Organic wastes processing and refinery
Edible biomass production
Food quality, processing and human nutrition
Physical, chemical and microbial contaminants
Flight experiments and space technology demonstrators
While they haven’t captured and hollowed out an asteroid yet, the MELISSA teams have successfully demonstrated sealed, closed loop, life-support systems for algae on the International Space Station and for rats at Spain's Autonomous University of Barcelona – that one has a bioreactor powered by light and oxygen-producing algae to keep rats alive and producing carbon dioxide and waste to keep the algae alive to produce … you get the idea.
What will it take to take these tiny ecosystems to the scale of an asteroid? The first simulation will be on display at the May AgroSpace-MELiSSA workshop. How close are we to capturing an asteroid to test it on? OSIRIS-REx is on its way to Bennu to pick up a 30 foot (9 meter) in diameter chunk and drag it to the Moon, where it will be placed in orbit for future missions with astronauts to analyze.
Thirty feet doesn’t sound like a big space ship, but Oumuamua was only 230 by 35 meters (800 ft × 100 ft) and it managed to travel between stars. Is the MELISSA idea crazy enough that it just might work? Or should space engineers stick with trying to build conventional space ships?
To put it another way … would you rather live for years inside a rock or the Enterprise?