The Eventual Challenge, of Designing a Closed, Life-Support System

In Science Fiction, a concept which occurs often, is ‘A Closed Life-Support System’. But just like eventual ‘travel at half the speed of light’, a real, closed life-support system has largely remained elusive.

Back in WW2, German Submariners knew a trick to extending the life of the air in their submarines during adverse moments, of sprinkling lime powder – i.e., CaO. But the only real effect this had, was to absorb carbon dioxide out of the air mixture in the submarine, and to hold it in some form of CaCO3 . The lime powder itself did not generate any oxygen, O2, in return for scrubbing the CO2 out of the air mixture. This actually served WW2 submariners well, because until that time, the dangers of CO2 toxicity were usually greater, than the real-life dangers of hypoxia. The era only came later really, that the USA launched various high-altitude platforms, and that hypoxia started to become a common problem, to be dealt with.

CaO reacts vigorously with H2O to form Ca(OH)2 , and nothing else.

This simple fact should not be taken to mean, that WW2 submarines had no way of generating oxygen. It only means, that lime powder as such, or other strong bases, do not generate oxygen by themselves. ( :1 )

What the current International Space Station does, is to collect various forms of moisture from the habitat, and to use ample electricity from its solar collectors, to electrolyze that water into O2 and H2. At the same time, the ISS collects CO2 from the interior air, using ethanolamine, which is a liquid, weak base. And after CO2 has been absorbed by a weak base, this gives the advantage, that the salt which results only needs to be heated to modest temperatures, to re-release the CO2. But a weakness which the ISS exhibits is then to release two waste-gasses back into space: H2 and CO2. If I’m not mistaken in this statement, the ISS falls short of achieving a real, closed life-support system. The CO2 may be released into space, but doing so ‘is made up for’ with fresh carbon introduced into the cycle, in the form of food, which is transported to the ISS.

Well when I was young, I read books, according to which certain technical problems inherent in space travel would soon be solved, which were never solved. One of them was, to devise a catalyst, or some other type of reactor, to combine H2 with CO2, in a way that produces more H2O, which could then be available for electrolysis again, and which would reduce the amount of waste to some unspecified carbonaceous solid. This carbonaceous solid, could then be made up for, in food that Astronauts ate.

But the unfortunate reality which remains is, that reactions that reduce CO2 using H2 remain unharnessed today. The closest to that which we have, is the famous water-gas reactions from the 19th century, that involve some mixture of carbon monoxide ( CO ) and H2. Well unfortunately, CO has not been reduced all the way to Cs .

(Updated 10/27/2018, 15h30 … )

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Interstellar Spaceflight

Hypothetically, If we wanted to travel only to Proxima Centauri, then the only aspect of that aspiration which would truly be ‘possible’, would be the fact that sheer Faster-Than-Light travel would not be required. Being able to travel at some significant fraction of the speed of light, such as 1/4 or so, should make that possible.

We do not yet know what to use for propulsion, because even though fission / ion-drive technology is within reach, fission cannot propel us to 1/4 light-speed. The reason for that is somewhat straightforward. When a Uranium atom fissions, the energy it releases does not come close, to the energy / mass equivalent of this fuel. Therefore, fission will also fail to propel a spacecraft to a velocity, that will cause its mass to exceed its rest mass significantly. But let us say for the sheer game of it, that a propulsion system could be devised.

The next problem which experts already know about, is that interstellar dust would collide with a hypothetical spacecraft, and that like the spacecraft, it would have fractional-light-speed. When Physicists create new elements, they bombard heavy nuclei with other, neutron-enriched nuclei, using approximately the same magnitudes of velocity. Therefore, the dust particles in space would have enough kinetic energy, slowly to render their target radioactive. And so an idea which has been kicked around, is that some type of energy-beam could sweep ahead of such a spacecraft, and could deflect the space-dust, thus preventing it from colliding with the spaceship.

Actually, this idea is already quite old. The first Star Trek series had such a concept: Their “navigational deflector”.

The problem with an energy-based ‘navigational deflector’, is the fact that no form of energy-beam we know, would actually propel a particle sideways. A laser would fail to do this. A very powerful laser could cause one side of a carbon-based dust-particle to vaporize, and the ablative effect of that could make the particle accelerate down the path of the spacecraft, away from it. So wow, our spacecraft might get to collide with the same particle, a few microseconds later than it would otherwise have collided with it!

And I think that a phenomenon also exists, by which a pair of particles can be subject to a wavelike phenomenon, and by which they could be subject to an attraction towards each other. Neat! Instead of being hit by uncountable smaller particles, our spacecraft could now be hit by clumps of them!

I think that when Physicist try to design a navigational deflector based purely on energy, they may be going about it the wrong way.

A question I have asked myself, has been, why a spacecraft needs to consist of one connected object. A historical reason has simply been, that compact packages are easier to lift into orbit, than distributed packages. But ultimately, I think that a spacecraft could consist of numerous objects at significant distance to each other, held in place by more-conventional Electromagnetic effects, that would be similar to how the A/C fields work in present-day electrical motors. Each of these objects would consist of matter.

And so I have also come to ask myself, whether a copper shield could be used, roughly similar to round shields used in the Bronze Age for battle, but with a diameter that gently exceeds that of our spacecraft. And I’ve wondered whether low-frequency magnetic effects could be shaped and modulated – from the real spacecraft – in such a way, as to prevent such a shield from drifting sideways out of the path of the spacecraft, and which could also push it gently forward, so that it stays approximately a kilometer ahead of the spacecraft – weightlessly in space.

We know that such an object would become radioactive. But if it was kept at a distance of a kilometer from the spacecraft, becoming radioactive would not prevent it from serving its purpose.

And while relativistic dust can pack a wallop, I don’t see it penetrating ?2 centimeters? of copper. And one reason I don’t has to do with the myth of ultra-fast collisions leading to clean, narrow holes, being a myth. After the speed with which objects collide has exceeded 5000 meters /second or so, their behavior starts to resemble either that of a fluid, or that of a powder. They form craters, not tunnels. This is because within such time-frames, tensile strength becomes negligible, and the only two forces which really govern a collision, are density, and resistance to compression. We are by then describing how a water-droplet interacts with a surface of water.

The only factor which makes the outcome different, is the fact that after a water-droplet has been deflected by the surface of a stationary pool of water, it still has the surface-tension to become a water-droplet again. Depending on how certain solids exit a collision, there may be nothing that causes the incident particle, to reform a particle. And so a fluid-motion of powder can be an outcome, if atoms once belonging to one projectile, simply continue going in different directions.

A bullet-hole forms, when a bullet has enough tensile strength to survive the collision.


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