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Automation needed to make missions to Mars safer, says NASA expert

Joseph Flaig, at Barcelona Industry Week

(Credit: MR1805/ iStock)
(Credit: MR1805/ iStock)

Manned missions to Mars will create “a whole new set of challenges” which only automation can solve, a NASA manager has said.

Speaking to a crowd of Internet of Things (IoT) experts and exponents at the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, mission and systems leader Carlos García-Galan set out plans to finally reach the Red Planet more than 60 years after humans first set foot on the Moon.

NASA is developing a powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new spacecraft, Orion. The vehicles will take crews of four to six astronauts beyond the Moon in the 2020s, and the US space agency hopes to reach Mars in the 2030s.  

At 384,000km, the distance of the Moon from Earth, communications and data transfers take only one or two seconds. However, the distance means it takes a minimum of four days to return home – and to safety, in the event of an emergency.

“When you get to Mars, there is a whole new set of challenges,” said García-Galan. At an average distance of about 225,000,000km, messages and information would take 12 minutes to travel between the craft and ground control after a journey of about a year.

The vast distance means Orion will need far more automation than previous vehicles like the Space Shuttle, said García-Galan, with the ability to deal with issues which previously would have required assistance from the ground.

On-board analytics will process vast amounts of data, and present condensed reports to the crew. On the Space Shuttle, the system might have bombarded astronauts with 30 separate messages and little pieces of advice in the event of a breakage – on Orion, NASA said the computer will provide the root cause and the next maintenance step to take.

More aspects of the spacecraft’s operation will be monitored, said García-Galan, such as system health. NASA hopes the advances will make missions safer and allow astronauts to manage time better.

Our reporter Joseph Flaig is at Barcelona Industry Week, including the IoT Solutions World Congress. To contact him about stories, email  


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