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MISSFIT program seeks to make manned space travel to Mars safer

The MISSFIT Program is developing safety measures for a manned trip to Mars. These students encouraged people to get involved in the project. Photo by Divyanshi Srivastava | staff writer

A research group on campus is helping develop ways to safely ensure interplanetary travel — specifically a manned trip to Mars in the 2030s. 

The MISSFIT program, a student-led interdisciplinary research program at Drake, brings together a community of undergraduate students, faculty, staff and high school students from different academic backgrounds, including physics, astronomy, computer science, mathematics, chemistry and biology. The program began in 2016 and is currently supported by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium under a NASA award.

The program consists of five subgroups — mechanical, biological, computational, artificial gravity and radiation — with each subgroup tackling a different aspect of the project. 

Most NASA missions don’t worry about ionizing radiation, which includes x-rays and gamma rays, because the Earth’s magnetic field diverts most of it. However, outside the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere, referred to as interplanetary space, ionizing radiation becomes a much bigger issue. This is where the program comes into play — MISSFIT stands for Magneto-Ionization Spacecraft Shield for Interplanetary Travel.

NASA predicts a manned trip to Mars within the next decade. Using current technology, the round trip to Mars would last two years. There are, however, two challenges: 1. the radiation exposure from the solar winds, galactic cosmic rays and high energy gamma rays and 2. the harmful effects of microgravity — known as “zero gravity” in popular culture — in outer space.

“We hope to address these issues by reducing the radiation exposure of astronauts to near zero and creating artificial gravity,” said Athanasios Petridis, professor of physics and astronomy and the project’s faculty mentor.

To reduce radiation exposure, the researchers are planning to imitate Earth’s magnetic field. Their design will consist of superconducting magnets, ionized gas and radiation-absorbing material. 

To reduce the consequences of microgravity, the astronauts’ chambers will rotate, producing artificial gravity. However, this current design, which uses the centrifugal method, poses negative effects to the health of the astronauts. 

“Think of a record spinning — it spins slower at the center than at the farthest points, and that means you experience a different amount of force towards the center than farther away, which is really bad for the human body. You don’t expect to have more gravity at your feet or the other way around,” said senior Sam Mortenson, an astronomy, physics and mathematics major and co-president of the program.

Besides posing negative effects to the health of the astronauts, a design using the centrifugal method is not feasible in a small aircraft. Therefore, the researchers in the artificial gravity subgroup are working on a design that uses an oscillatory model at high frequencies. This design is feasible in a smaller aircraft and is therefore more cost-efficient.

“Our model uses ultrasonic oscillations to produce gravity conditions, which is a novel approach, so we don’t understand the cardiovascular effects of that,” Mortenson said.

This is where the biological subgroup, which assesses the cardiovascular feasibility of long-term flight, comes in. 

“My research area is using the Navier-Stokes equations [of fluid motion] to model blood flow in artificial gravity to see if it is possible for a human body to be under those conditions under an extended period of time without experiencing a change in the way blood flows that could be potentially harmful,” said senior DJ Henson, a physics and mathematics major.

The computational subgroup is currently working to determine the configuration that the spacecraft shield will need to protect humans onboard. They’re using Monte Carlo particle production, which simulates the way particles move through matter in nature.

This subgroup utilizes a database compiled by the radiation subgroup, which is where many new students join the project.

“I started in [the] radiation [subgroup] collecting different sources of data for the other subgroups to use. That’s where all the beginners start,” Mortenson, who joined as a first-year, said. 

The mechanical subgroup is studying the effects of particles directly interacting with the spacecraft walls. The team’s goal is to reduce damage to the walls by minimizing the energy they absorb from the impact of microparticles.

The MISSFIT program goes beyond just required research for students — it is their stepping stone into the real world. Mortenson, who is currently waiting to hear back from astrophysics PhD programs, said the program ignited his love for research and made him realize his career path. 

“I plan to do a lot of research, and I don’t think I would’ve done this if I didn’t have the experience MISSFIT gave me,” he said.

For some, their research with MISSFIT does not end with their undergraduate programs. Henson is currently waiting to hear back from biomathematics PhD programs.

“I want to continue doing the kind of research I’m currently doing with MISSFIT, on hopefully a more permanent basis,” Henson said.

The program provides more than just research-oriented skills. 

“I’m seeking to be a software engineer, and the large project structure that MISSFIT provides is a great experience for working in the field,” said senior Jack Messerli-Wallace, a physics, computer science and mathematics major and co-president of the program. 

Messerli-Wallace said the program’s interdisciplinary nature allows students to learn about other fields.

“The idea is to have students learn [from other students of] various disciplines — not just physics but also biology and computer science, collaborate with each other and, above all, learn how to organize and run a professional collaboration,” Petridis said.  

According to Petridis, several alumni have written back to say how helpful the experience was, especially because of the program’s student-led focus and collaborative nature.

“This is not something you learn in class and therefore incredibly important for students to get this type of experience,” Petridis said.  

Petridis and the current members of MISSFIT encouraged students of all majors and experience levels to reach out if they are interested in the field.

“Research can be difficult, but it is incredibly rewarding and a great way to meet people. Getting involved in research early has been highly beneficial for me, and I highly recommend it,” Henson said.

Students can contact Petridis and Meredith Luttrell if they are interested in joining the program. Further information about the MISSFIT program is available on their website at missfit.wp.drake.edu.

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