A portable FTIR gas analyser from Gasmet has recently been used as part of a specialist space sector project to understand the potential issues facing any manned missions to Mars.

As part of a project to measure the effects of long-term isolation on astronauts, small groups of individuals have been selected to live in a tiny ‘Habitat’ perched on the upper slope of a volcano in Hawaii.

In doing so, the project team has contributed to the understanding of issues that would confront a manned mission to Mars.

As part of the project’s research, NASA’s Anne Caraccio studied off-gases from the crew’s trash with a portable Gasmet FTIR gas analyser.

The work was undertaken during the second of four HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation) missions which involved living with five other crew members for a period of 120 days, in a two-story solar-powered dome just 11m in diameter and with a small attached workshop the size of a shipping container.

In addition to the completion of a range of tasks that were set by the project, each crew member conducted their own research, which in Caraccio’s case was known as ‘Trash to Gas’ – a programme working on the development of a reactor to convert waste from long-duration missions into useful commodities such as water, life-support oxygen, and rocket propellant.

“Waste from the crew’s everyday activities are routinely sorted and stored, but we need to know the composition of the off-gases from these materials for health and safety reasons, and also to determine whether these gases could be utilised beneficially,” Caraccio reported.


‘Not rocket science’

Since the FTIR gas analyser is portable (14Kg), Caraccio was able to conduct additional monitoring both inside and outside the Habitat in order to compare data with the waste off-gas measurements.

“Size, weight and portability are obviously of major importance on a project such as this, but the main advantage of this technology was its ability to measure a large number of compounds simultaneously; I measured 24 VOCs such as acetaldehyde, methane and ethylene, but the instrument also stores spectra for the measurements so it is possible to retrospectively analyse data if it becomes necessary to look for a particular compound at a later stage.”

“We usually tell prospective customers that advanced FTIR technology is simple to use; ‘it’s not rocket science’ we tell them, so I guess we will have to rephrase that now…”

The FTIR gas analyser, a DX4040, was supplied by Gasmet Technologies and the company’s Jim Cornish added, “We were very pleased to be able to help with this project. The simultaneous monitoring of multiple compounds is a common application for our FTIR analysers, however, they are usually employed measuring gases in stack emissions, industrial processes, greenhouse gas research and in hazmat scenarios.”

“We usually tell prospective customers that advanced FTIR technology is simple to use; ‘it’s not rocket science’ we tell them, so I guess we will have to rephrase that now.”

The waste produced during the HI-SEAS mission was measured during the entire mission, although this was for a shorter period than would be expected of an actual long duration mission. The Trash-to-Gas reactor processed HI-SEAS waste simulant at the Kennedy Space Centre with results demonstrating that a future reactor would be most efficient with specific material processing cycles to maximise the desired output. Automation will also be needed in the future Trash-to-Gas reactor, as the current technology would require too much of a crew member’s logistical time.

The Trash-to-Gas reactor first converts waste into carbon dioxide, which is then mixed with hydrogen in a Sabatier reaction to produce methane and water. The Kennedy Space Centre Trash-to-Gas reactor processed three waste types and produced 9% of the power that would have been needed during the HI-SEAS mission.

The third Hi-SEAS mission began on 15th October 2014, with a six-member crew conducting a similar mission – with the exception that it will last for eight months.