Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.

Conclusion

Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.

References

Extraterrestrial Resources and Humans – Can Space Resources Save Our Civilization?

Abstract

Image of Biosphere

Current global resource utilization depends on a closely-knit economy, society and environment. However, effective limits exist on the biosphere’s capability to absorb pollutants while providing resources and services (Adams). This paper describes why in the light of issues in sustainability of Earth’s resources and growing human population it is imperative to expand utilization to extraterrestrial resources to save our civilization.

The Necessity

Image of Global Power Consumption

Challenges to resource sustainability arise from a combination of population increase in developing nations and unsustainable consumption in their developed counterparts (Cohen). Estimated global population might peak at 2070 with 9 to 10 billion people, and gradually decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100 (Lutz).

The average power consumption in developed nations is ~ 2 kW per person whereas in the rest of the world, it is ~0.3kW per person. The total production of power globally is ~1.9 billion kW. Based on (Lutz), if the population reaches 10 billion people by 2070, and if the living standards of the world approach current western standards, 20 billion kW would be required. This argument leads to the following possibilities:

  1. Much of the world might remain in lower living standards or
  2. New sources of energy could be discovered

Research in planetary and asteroid geology, spectral and photometric analysis have proposed many celestial bodies as objects harboring useful resources with nearly 50% of them containing volatile substances such as clays, hydrated salts and hydrocarbons (Sonter). The following are some examples of in-situ resources:

  1. Volatiles from comet core, C-type asteroids and Phobos or Deimos
  2. Metals from C-type and M-type asteroids, Moon and Mars
  3. Platinum group metals (PGMs) from C-type asteroids
  4. Energy through abundant sunlight
  5. LOX and LH2 from lunar polar ice, lunar regolith, and C-type asteroids
  6. CH4/O2 propellant and inert gases from Martian atmosphere
  7. 3He from the Moon and atmospheres of outer planets
  8. Water and oxygen from Lunar poles, Mars and C-type asteroids

For Apollo-like missions, a limited use of local planetary resources on Moon and asteroids for rocket propellant manufacture would suffice. However, for a permanent, expanding, and self-sustaining extra-terrestrial colony, clever usage of planetary resources is necessary.

The Benefits

The cost of space activities reduce dramatically with offsets in carrying propellants from Earth’s surface to LEO and beyond (Cutler). Thus, commercial mining opportunities in space could provide low cost alternatives as resources on Earth become depleted or unusable.

The following are some of the possible profitable uses of space resources:

  1. Earth orbital operations architectures
  2. Solar power satellites or lunar power systems to beam energy to Earth
  3. Space industrialization for products manufactured in space for people on Earth
  4. Human outposts using silicon solar cells and radiation shielding
  5. Water and precious metals like Pt, Pd and Ir metals for use on Earth, space, life support
  6. 4He from the lunar surface for fusion energy
  7. Propellant production for return trips to Earth

The Challenges

There are economic and technical requirements that a celestial body must satisfy to qualify as a potential ore-body in a mining engineering context (Sonter):

  1. Sufficient spectral data confirming presence of required resources
  2. Orbital parameters that give reasonable accessibility and mission duration
  3. Feasible mining, processing and retrieval concepts
  4. A positive economic Net Present Value

Scientists and mining experts are currently conducting research and analysis on planetary extraction methods based on the above-mentioned considerations. However, this type of resource utilization is still not operational because:

  1. The cost is exorbitant in transporting items into space (about $4400 to $6600 per kilogram). Hence, bases on Moon, Mars, asteroids etc. should procure their necessities like water, oxygen and fuel from in situ resources (Zaburunov).
  2. Even if mission crew finds these items in situ, extraction is still an issue.

Image of ISRU

Different processes involved in mining of extra terrestrial resources offer different levels of complexity:

  1. Martian propellant production requires pumping CO2, splitting it to retain the O2 and producing CH4 (Zubrin)
  2. Lunar polar water for return trips and space propellant depots require excavating cold trap regolith, extracting water thermally and electrolysis, and liquefaction to produce propellant (Alexander)
  3. Photovoltaic cells produced from lunar materials require Si extraction from lunar regolith, recovering reagents, and manufacture of arrays (Freundlich)

The need for a market in any type of development and management of resources is very important. The potential short term and mid term markets of space resources, include:

  1. Propellant for Mars sample return missions
  2. Propellant for LEO missions such as Orbital Express
  3. Energy and propellant for human lunar and Martian activities

The long-term markets of space resources include:

  • Energy for Earth through solar power and 3He fusion
  • Raw material to support lunar and Mars outposts
  • Support for space industrialization and space tourism
  • Counter Arguments

    Contrary to using space resources, recycle existing resources is easier to accomplish and comparatively cheap. However, considering issues like runaway greenhouse effect, population growth, self-sufficiency and long-term human presence (Stancati) in space, it is better to colonize space and utilize space resources. In addition, repeated missions to same ore-bodies (Sonter) predict requirements of higher internal rate of return with heavy discounts on sale receipts and “off-optimum” characteristics compared to the first mission or to a different target. Finally, mine operator’s interest in refurbishing or upgrading equipment and non-competitiveness of return missions from trajectory synodic considerations counteract the idea.

    Conclusion

    Earth’s resources being finite as a closed system, energy and materials from outer space being clean and available for millions of years, the solution to the growing human population and resource and energy crisis is utilizing space resources to meet the demands. Space resources have the potential to ensure survival and good living standards for human species and as these resources become more available with better technology, the value of space economy will improve (Komerath).

    Bibliography

    1. Adams, W.M. “The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century.” IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting. Zurich: IUCN, 2006. 2-5.
    2. Alexander, R., Bechtel, R., Chen, T., Cormier, T., Kalaver, S., Kirtas, M., Lewe, J., Marcus, L., Marshall, D., Medlin, M., McIntire, J., Nelson, D., Remolina, D., Scott, A., Weglian, J. “Moon-based Advanced Reusable Transportation Architecture.” 37th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference And Exhibit. Salt Lake City, Utah: Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001. 4-6.
    3. Cohen, J.E. Human Population: The Next Half Century. London: Island Press, 2006.
    4. Cutler, A.H. “Aluminum-Fueled Rockets for Space Transportation System.” McKay, M.F., McKay, D.S., Duke, M.B. Space Resources – Energy, Power and Transport. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Scientific and Technical Information Program, 1992. 110.
    5. Freundlich, A., Ignatiev, A., Horton, C., Duke, M., Curreri, P., Sibille, L. “Manufacture of Solar Cells on the Moon.” 31st IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. Orlando, Florida: Conference Record of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2005. 794-797.
    6. Komerath, N.M., Rangedera, T., and Nally, J. “Space-Based Economy Valuation, Analysis, and Refinement.” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. San Jose, 2006. 1-3.
    7. Lutz, W., Sanderson,W.C. and Scherbov, S. The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century: New Challenges for Human Capital Formation and Sustainable Development. London: Earthscan, 2004.
    8. Sonter, M.J. “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids.” Acta Astronautica (1997): 637-47.
    9. Stancati, M.L., Jacobs, M.K., Cole, K.J., Collins, J.T. In-situ Propellant Production : Alternatives for Mars Exploration. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Technical Information Center, 1991. 7.
    10. Zaburunov, S.A. “Mines in Space: What is NASA doing?” E&MJ – Engineering & Mining Journal (1990): 16K-16N.
    11. Zubrin, R., Baker, D.A., and Gwynne, O. “Mars Direct: A Simple, Robust, and Cost Effective Architecture for the Space Exploration Initiative.” 29th Aerospace Sciences Meeting. Reno, Nevada: AIAA 91-0326, 1991. 11-14.

    A note on the Fermi-Hart Paradox!

    The Habitable Zone

    The Habitable Zone around a star

    The future of humanity looks bleak and bright at the same time depending on how we perceive it. If we look around, we may feel that we are moving forward towards a brighter tomorrow. However, if you look up, the thoughts change. The sky on a clear night is one of the most beautiful sights you can get on Earth but this awe inspiring sight brings questions into our minds regarding the bleak future of human race. Whether we are alone in the universe is a question that might give us clues about our own fate in the distant future. We can hope to grow so advanced that we wouldn’t have to look back or we can expect ourselves to fall back and perish. SETI scientists spend their entire lives with radio telescopes pointed at the sky listening to the “cosmic buzz” hoping to find evidence that there is intelligent life outside Earth. The Drake Equation gives different estimates regarding the number of intelligent civilizations outside depending on whether it is an optimist or a pessimist who substitutes the values. However to this day, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence that there is life outside out planet.

    This paradox first postulated by Enrico Fermi and later examined by Michael H. Hart, analyzes various reasons why there haven’t been any intelligent exobiology detected so far.

    The Drake Equation – Predicts the number of civilizations in the galaxy

    The statement made by the Fermi-Hart Paradox is as follows:

    The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.

    So why is it that despite the size of the universe, we haven’t seen intelligent life outside earth yet? Two corollaries of the Fermi-Hart paradox may give us some clues. They are the Doomsday argument and Von Neumann Probe.

    According to the Doomsday Argument, we ask ourselves, Is it the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself?

    This theme has been extensively explored in science as well as science fiction alike and deals with an argument that precludes the possibility of a technological civilization with an invariable proclivity to destroy themselves shortly after developing radio or space technology. The various postulated means of annihilation include biological and nuclear warfare, nano-technological catastrophe, accidental contamination, a badly programmed super-intelligence, ill-advised physics experiments or a Malthusian Catastrophe that deteriorates the planet’s ecosphere.

    Probabilistic argumetns have bene put forward suggesting human extinction as an inevitable event happening sooner than later. Sagan and Shklovsky suggested in 1966 that either a technological civilization will destroy itself within a century after developing interstellar communicative capability or will master their self destructive tendencies and survive for billions of years.

    An inhabitable planet

    Gliese 581c – An exoplanet within the Goldilock zone of its star

    Thermodynamics and chaos theory may also suggest clues regarding the tendency to self annihilate. As far as life can evolve as an ordered system, it may not create a problem but when it starts with its interstellar communicative phase, the system would probably get unstable and eventually self destruct.

    Self destruction is a paradoxical outcome of evolutionary process in a Darwinian point of view. Evolutionary psychology suggests that at a time when humans competed for scarce resources, they were subjected to aggressive instinctual drives like tendency to consume resources, extend longevity and to reproduce which eventually led to a more technological society which may drive us to extinction. Self destruction of a technological civilization, according to Fermi, might be a universal occurrence. Self destruction may not be the only outcome though. There is a remote possibility of the civilization getting back to being non-technological as we saw happening to the Ba’ku people in the movie Star Trek: Insurrection.

    A Flying Saucer – An alien craft?

    A slightly different question is posed by the Von Neumann probe which asks, Is it the nature of intelligent life to destroy others?

    This postulate investigates the possibility of a technological civilization, once it reaches a certain level of technological capability, destroys other intelligence when they appear. This concept has also been explored in science fiction for decades. The causes of such extermination might be expansionism, paranoia or plain aggression. Cosmologist Robert Harrison added a corrolary to Sagan and Shklovsky’s suggestion in 1981 by arguing that given a technological species that has overcome its own tendency to self destruct, it will view other species in the universe as a virus and try to exterminate them. A direct consequence of this argument is the picture of an intelligent being as a super-predator, just as humans are today.

    Von Neumann Probe

    Extracting a star’s energy – An example of a Von Neumann Probe

    Just like exploration, extermination of other civilizations can be carried out using self-replicating artificial probes. It is a more dangerous case since even after the civilization that created such probes have died out, these probes will continue to do the job their creators assigned to them. If take this possibility into consideration, then that might answer the scarcity of observational evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, because either these probes will destroy them, force them to be quiet or force them to live in hiding to prevent detection.

    Leaving all these arguments aside, there is still a very high probability that we are indeed alone in this universe. To conclude, what is going to be our future? Are we heading towards self destruction? Is our life and society as ephemeral as that of a mayfly? Are the advancements we make every day in technology actually the nails we are driving into our own coffins? Or are we going to be like the Borgs? I leave this up to you to answer.

    Sources:

    Fermi Paradox
    Risks to civilization
    Article by Fraser Cain
    Living in a killing world
    Margaret Atwood
    Memory Alpha on Borg
    Wikipedia on Malthusian Catastrophe