Jul 25 2013

Mission to Mars

In the decades prior to December 17, 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk, the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine was highly anticipated. There was a buzz. Many teams were working on the invention, and there were many false premature reports of sightings.

Today I get the same feeling about a mission to Mars. It seems that we’re just ready for such a mission, and multiple teams are proposing concepts for how to get there.

The latest proposal comes from scientists at the Imperial College London. They do not suggest any new technology or techniques, but simply put together a plan for addressing all the technical hurdles to such a mission. Their proposal is for a three person crew to travel to Mars and be safely returned home.

Here are the issues that need to be addressed on such a mission.

For most of the mission the astronauts will be in microgravity (whenever the ship is coasting and not accelerating). It will take months to get to Mars, during which time the microgravity will cause muscle and bone loss. By the time the astronauts get to Mars they will be in no condition to walk, let alone carry out any mission, even in the lower Mars gravity (which is 40% that of Earth).

The mission will require enough fuel to get to Mars, land on the surface, get back into Mars orbit, and then return to Earth. The so-called rocket equation makes this challenging – essentially, you have to carry the fuel you need in order to propel the fuel, so fuel needs increase dramatically for longer trips.

That is a long time to spend in a small space. The living quarters will have to be larger than an Apollo capsule, but probably won’t be as large as the International Space Station.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is solar and cosmic radiation. In space the astronauts will not have the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. Unshielded they will likely not survive, or will at least be at increased risk of cancer when the mission is complete. Further, if a solar flare or coronal mass ejection happens to be aimed in their direction, they could be killed outright.

The Imperial College London scientists address these issues. The microgravity problem is solved by using spin to generate artificial gravity. The ship will have two components, a main section and a crew compartment and lander. After the ship gets up to cruising speed the two sections can be separated by a long tether and made to rotate. The rotation will generate artificial gravity for the majority of the trip.

The fuel need is still a problem, but they address one major fuel use – getting back off the surface of Mars. They propose sending an earlier mission to Mars to land a launcher on the surface of Mars that can take the astronauts back up to the orbiter. The launcher will refuel by digging below the Mars surface for ice.

The radiation problem is addressed by adding shielding to the crew compartment. This can take the form of water stored in the outer hull. Further, they propose superconducting magnets to create a magnetic field to divert ionized particles around the ship.

If a CME or solar flare is headed their way, then then will pull in the tether and position the main section of the ship (the orbiter) so that it is between the lander and the incoming radiation. The hope is that this will provide enough additional shielding to protect the crew.

The proposal sounds conceptually solid, but I do not know if all the technical details add up. Broad concepts are one thing, technical specs are another. It sounds plausible, however. My biggest concern is for the radiation exposure. This could be a limiting factor, requiring heavy shielding that will be expensive to put into orbit and get to Mars and back.

Other Mars mission proposals are on the table as well. Inspiration Mars is a non-profit US company that wants to send a 2-person team to Mars in 2018. They write:

In 2018, the planets will literally align, offering a unique orbit opportunity to travel to Mars and back to Earth in only 501 days. Inspiration Mars is committed to sending a two-person American crew – a man and a woman – on an historic journey to fly within 100 miles around the Red Planet and return to Earth safely.

Elon Musk of SpaceX thinks a mission to Mars can be feasible within 12-15 years.

Perhaps the boldest plan is Mars One. They propose putting a permanent human settlement on Mars. They would solve the fuel problem by simply making the trip one-way. They plan to fund the entire project by making it a reality TV show, a kind of Survivor Mars.

Meanwhile, NASA remains all about sending robots to Mars and the rest of the solar system. There are those who maintain that humans are not built for space, but robots literally are.  It is orders of magnitude easier to send robots to space than people, so why bother.

This is a valid position. I personally think we need to do both, but keep a proper balance, with perhaps the bulk of resources going to robotic missions. Robots, in my opinion, can pave the way for humans.

I do question the utility of a one-off mission of people to Mars. Perhaps we should concentrate on using robots to build an infrastructure on Mars first – pre-fueled ships, living quarters, supplies (food, water, oxygen, energy), and then send people for a permanent settlement.

Isaac Asimov argued that we should concentrate on the Moon first. Let’s build the Earth-Moon infrastructure, including bases and manufacturing facilities on the Moon. Once we have done that, Mars will be easy. The Moon, in essence, is our stepping stone to the rest of the solar system.

Think of it as a Sim game, the goal is to colonize the solar system. Which player is going to win – the one who builds a Moon infrastructure first, a Mars infrastructure first, the one who spends their resources on robots, or the one who puts a tremendous amount of resources into an early one-off personed mission to Mars?

I personally would like to see us (meaning humanity) progress towards colonization. It seems like a better idea to plan a long-term path to this goal, rather than focusing on individual missions that may not progress our long term goals beyond the experience of doing the mission.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “Mission to Mars”

  1. Michael Finfer, MD says:

    There is another challenge here. There is some evidence from Phoenix and Curiosity that suggests that perchlorates are widespread in the Martian soil. Those compounds are highly toxic, and it may be very very difficult to avoid exposing crews to it on surface missions if it is indeed a component of the soil. In fact, perchlorates may be responsible for the life-like signal that was seen in the Viking data.

    I am concerned that we may be putting the cart before the horse. It may be important to do a sample return mission to get some of the soil and the global dust into a laboratory so we can see what’s really there. We do not want to be recovering dead or dying astronauts at the end of the mission.

  2. ccbowers says:

    “There is some evidence from Phoenix and Curiosity that suggests that perchlorates are widespread in the Martian soil”

    It looks like perchlorates are 0.5-1% w/w of the martian soil, which is really problematic. One solution to this, and has the added benefit of being nonspecific in its protection of toxic compounds, is to have suits that are kept outside at all times once on mars. The suits could attach so that the astronauts could climb into them, and reattach to get back inside. I’m not sure how easy such a design would be to impliment, but it seems like a safer way than to use some type of spray to convert perchlorates in a given area, especially given other unknowns in the Martian soil.

  3. Garrett says:

    A quick nitpick. The Imperial College of London study is almost identical to Robert Zubrin’s well-known (in spaceflight circles) “Mars Semi-Direct” proposal from back in 1993. Probably the only major difference is that the ICL study, going on more recent scientific knowledge of the Martian surface, proposes to excavate water for making rocket fuel. In Zubrin’s original proposal, hydrogen (H2) was to be brought from Earth and reacted with Martian CO2 to make fuel (methane and oxygen) and water.

  4. Cow_Cookie says:

    I was watching a multi-episode history of the space program, and I was struck by how specific the space program missions were prior to the actual moon landing. Early missions focused on the stresses of space on the human body. Later missions were proofs of concept for procedures that would be critical in a moon landing, such as the ability to rendezvous and dock. Apollo 10 was essentially a dress rehearsal for the moon landing. These allowed astronauts and engineers to perfect the component parts of the moon landing in space before they actually had to do the whole thing for real. A lot of learning happened during that time.

    That was an expensive prospect even with an object as close as the moon, and I can’t see us doing anything close to that extent with Mars. If that’s the case, that adds a whole new level of challenge. We’d have to get the entire process right on the first try instead of learning step by step as we did when we first went into space.

  5. Steven, curious to know why you would like to see humanity progress towards colonization.

  6. I used to be a strong proponent of a manned mission to Mars but my opinions are changing as fast as the technology. After seeing humanoid robots and full immersion VR systems, I’m now increasingly a supporter of unmanned missions that can provide nearly all the sensory experiences of being on the Martian surface. (One would hope that the fear experience would be missing!)

    So now I am focused on the essential question: why go? “Because we can/should” is one reasonable answer, except that the risks and costs get very high, very quickly. And would it be a stepping-stone to somewhere else? If there was another earth-like body nearby, or if there was something of net benefit to mankind to be obtained by setting human foot on the Martian surface then I would be more keen. But the more I think about the risks/benefits and the better the robot/VR tech becomes, the more I want to send virtual explorers. It’s not nearly as sexy – possibly because it’s not nearly as risky, and we like heroes – but I would love the opportunity to “strap on” a VR system and “walk” around the Martian surface for myself. That’s never going to happen for me in the flesh! A robot might offer that opportunity in my lifetime.

    Again, then: why go?

  7. That is a good question. I have two answers
    – I thinks it would be good for humanity. First, we should not have all our eggs in one basket. We’re one asteroid away from extinction. We don’t know how rare intelligent life is in the universe, but it might be rare. And n any case I would like to see the human experiment continue. It would also provide new opportunities to expand the human condition.

    – The other reason is more romantic – I think that public support for space exploration would be greater if it included a human component. I may be wrong about this, and this may change in the future, but for now sending people into space seems to capture the public interest much more than robots.

    For pure exploration, robots are the way to go, hands down. But I think colonization is its own end. But I do think we should maximally use robots to pave the way for people.

  8. ca1879 says:

    Why go? Beats me. I think much of the positive feeling driving these ideas comes from the unrealistic way interplanetary travel has been presented in fiction and film, the lionization of the small successes of manned missions to date, and the marketing of the projects by interests that would benefit from the huge public expenditures that will be needed to attempt to enact them. That these trips will be psychological and physical nightmares for the participants is well understood. That we are decades away from resolving some of the most basic problems blocking even simple “there and back again” missions is clear, and in the end, if we do succeed, what will we have gained by human participation? Some nice vacation photos and a celebration just don’t justify this. In an age where we are moving away from manned participation in dangerous activities right here on Terra with the use of remote presence (UAVs, remote submersibles), to propose more of that danger off-planet seems to be a romantic and contrary notion.

    The science is important, but to do science we need tools, not heroes. Send the robots.

  9. ca1879 says:

    Steven – colonization of extra-terran enviroments is easy to desire, and next to impossible to achieve for the foreseeable future. Our best hope of every making it practical is to drive the science, not the fantasy.

  10. TheFlyingPig says:

    “The launcher will refuel by digging below the Mars surface for ice.”

    Can someone help me out with this? Where will the energy come from for the electrolysis? The only thing I can think of that might work is solar power… could that really provide enough energy for the trip home (and the ice mining operation) within a reasonable time-frame?

  11. Steven:

    “Good for humanity:” Solid argument. If earth destruction is the motivation then I would also argue that we should be trying to make other contingency plans before giving up and fleeing. Perhaps a proper asteroid tracking/destroying program, better preservation of our planet, etc. All of these are actually happening in some fashion, but as a species we don’t seem to be very good at preparing for rare events. Might make a Martian voyage, and beyond, a tough sell to a skeptical public.

    I’d also be intrigued to see what would happen to our species as it evolved in space, or elsewhere in the universe. Indeed, one would think that humans sent off to wherever would fairly quickly evolve to being a different but closely related species, especially if all the radiation in space were bombarding the voyagers’ DNA. But I have trouble enough getting ethical approval for far more basic experiments!

    “Public support:” This one is tricky. Spending a large proportion of NASA’s budget, say, for a very risky journey is going to split the public (not to mention NASA and space scientists). No doubt there would be considerable interest for an out and back type of venture, but I don’t think it’s the best, or only, way to rekindle interest in exploration. If you had a humanoid robot with a VR system, many more people on earth could experience the environment as closely as an astronaut – sans risk, as already noted. If we did that first then perhaps we might increase the public’s interest in a manned mission. Or we might eliminate any interest because we’ve already been virtually.

  12. BillyJoe7 says:

    ” Indeed, one would think that humans sent off to wherever would fairly quickly evolve to being a different but closely related species, especially if all the radiation in space were bombarding the voyagers’ DNA”

    If the mutation rate is too high, the likely result is “monsters” that are unlikely to survive.

  13. Kawarthajon says:

    Seems to me like there would have to be some kind of economic incentive to develop a colony on Mars. Many people compare Mars exploration to the early exploration of the Earth by ship and by land. The difference is that there were huge economic incentives to exploring the world at the time – discover a new exotic spice or economically viable plant and you would make a fortune back in the day. What economic incentive do we have to get to Mars? None. Mining can be done cheaper on Earth and I doubt that there are any minerals that can be mined cheaper on Mars (or an asteroid for that matter).

    Until it is economically viable to have colonies on Mars (i.e. to maintain and control the mining robots), any mission to Mars will be short lived and government supported.

    Of all the issues you mentioned regarding the first trip to Mars, funding is an even bigger issue. Until the money can be found, we’ll be staying on Earth, or low-Earth orbit, for our vacations.

  14. I think a mission to mars needs to be international. I would not want to see NASA or the US fund this on our own.

    An international mission could have other political benefits. Carl Sagan was a huge proponent of this, but at the time he was talking of the cold war between USSR and US. But – it couldn’t hurt to have an international colony on Mars.

  15. Survivalist13 says:

    Yes it would need to be international.

    I think there would be a tipping point with colonization, once we exceed a critical mass of people and equipment working on the Moon or Mars a colony should become self sustaining and grow on it’s own with much reduced input from mother earth. Now I think about it that is exactly what the term colony represents.

    I’m skeptical whether spacex, in my mind the only serious player in this (they have money, the will and the tech) are big enough or rich enough to pull off a Mars mission. Their largest rocket in development (yet to be launched) would need to be launched several times and an interplanetary ship built in orbit. The falcon heavy has an estimated lifting capacity about half of the Saturn 5, and your going to need more to get to Mars than the Moon. We are talking surviving for years opposed to days.

    A moon colony first seems like a no brainer. Some of the technology has been developed during the space station program, but building bases on another planet sounds like something we need practice at.

    A Mars rocket might also be a good candidate for exotic propulsion technology. Specifically nuclear engines (researched heavily during Apollo era) might become a good option, if the radiation problem isn’t too bad. If the reactor could also be used to power the ship some real advantages might be possible.

    I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than colonizing space, working towards a common goal such as this would be a great political tool for uniting the planet, well if done right.

    Either way some sort of grand plan is required. By which I don’t mean the sort of things I’m hearing from Mars one and the Imperial lot, I mean a detailed economic and technological plan. Exactly what technologies are we going to develop, how much will each part realistically cost, how are we going to pay for it, who’s going to do which part. The amount of engineering and testing required for such a mission is astronomical, entirely do able but not by a few people in a shed or at a university, by a continent possibly, by a planet… now that would be more like it.

  16. perscors says:

    Considering all of the potential threats to life on this planet–geological, biological, political–it seems far more imperative to devote ourselves to extending life beyond it than any other issue–whether it be saving the economy or fighting climate change. Of course the major challenge would be financing. This problem though could very well be its own solution. A mission to Mars would demand a global pooling of resources. But it would also have the imaginative force, once it gets off the ground, to galvanize people around a common purpose. I recently had the chance to read an essay titled “The First Woman on Mars.” The author, Ron Drummond, makes the important point that we need to seize this mission for all that it is worth. Undoubtedly it will have its own emotional appeal but it very well could, if we play our cards right, have the ability to draw nations and national resources together in a collaborative effort of the human will. I’ve attached a link to a reading of Ron’s essay below:


    A space mission would also, as they always do, gather a great deal of general interest and support for science across the board. I hate to say that what we need to do is market a mission to Mars but the word definitely needs to get out.

  17. petrucio says:

    A Sim-Space-Tycoon of sorts is on my list of games to develop, and will be pretty hardcode on the science and astronomy.

    But right now I gotta finish my current one, a Sim-Adventure of sorts:

  18. Bill Openthalt says:

    Though I am a great fan of Google Earth, on thing it shows clearly is the lack of white space on our maps. As a species, we’re not made to boringly manage our continued survival with ever-shrinking resources, we’re made to unlock unknown territories, discover new realms, or “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, with apologies for the split infinitive and the sixties sexism.

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