The nature of these updates was confirmed in a media question session at the Kennedy Space Center in March, during which Musk said he would“provide an update on the design of the Interplanetary Transport System, and by Interplanetary Transport System, that includes the propellant depot on Mars,” He also stated that the tension in the project is to “not just get it done technically, but figure out how to get this done without going bankrupt.” He is, however, hopeful about this new approach.
Despite multiple assertions that the updates will be arriving imminently — including an announcement at an Everyday Astronaut event two and a half months ago that he was coming up “with a number of design refinements and probably ready to put on the website within a month or so” — there has been frustratingly little follow-up.
So, while we wait on tenterhooks for more information — stewing in the meta position of waiting for update news about an update — we were also given, fortunately, a transcript from the talk in which he details his non-updated plan, and gives an exciting look behind the scenes of SpaceX.
Colonizing Mars (thanks Prof Hubbard for creating this from my talk). Major changes to the plan coming soon. https://t.co/s59qMHUj5O
When starting SpaceX I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that actually, probably, I would just lose everything but that I would maybe make some progress. If we could just move the ball forward, even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving forward, so we’d still do some good.
In 2017, he has exceeded just moving the ball forward in nearly every way possible — on top of becoming an industry leader in space flight, he has made major advances for humanity. Most of these concern space technology that can be used multiple times, reflecting his aim to address the conundrum of rockets being “the only form of transportation on Earth where the vehicle is built anew for each journey. What if you had to build a new plane for every flight?”
SpaceX’s first major landmark this year was to launch a satellite into space on a booster that had already been used before. In March, the company successfully propelled the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit by reusing the Falcon 9 rocket that had previously launched the CRS-8 satellite.
Next came flying the same Dragon rocket to the International Space Station for the second time; the company’s 11th supply mission in total. While the rocket had to undergo significant refurbishment, the mission on the 3rd of June was a seminal accomplishment that convinced NASA of the potential of reusable rockets — Kirk Shireman, Manager of the International Space Station Program, told CBS that “we expect to increase the amount of reflight as (NASA’s contracts with SpaceX) proceed.”
What the Future Has in Store
The next milestone SpaceX is set to cross is to launch the Falcon Heavy — the rocket that “was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
If Musk’s tweet that “All Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that” is true, we could see this goal realized as early as September. While the test flight will not carry a human passenger due to safety concerns, it will instead transport the “Silliest thing we can imagine!” into space: after the Dragon carried an enormous wheel of cheese on its first flight, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the Heavy’s cargo could be.
SpaceX is also remarkable for the number of flights it is undertaking, not only their groundbreaking nature. So far this year, it has averaged a flight every three weeks; but the tempo of flights will increase even more. The launch calendar has flights planned on June 17th (BulgariaSat-1), June 25th (Iridium Next Flight-2), and July 1st (Intelsat 35E) — if all these go to plan, this would amount to three flights in two weeks.
SpaceX, then, is marching proudly into the future in terms of both the type and number of flights they are undertaking. While they had a challenging 2015 and 2016, their efforts and achievements in 2017 put them on the right path to achieving their most ambitious goal: putting humans on Mars by 2025.
They say everything’s sweeter the second time around, and that seems to be the case for SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars. Last year, Musk unveiled his plans to colonize the Red Planet and make it fit for human habitation. Now, that version of the plan has been published and made available for free—with a few notable updates.
In the paper, the focus is on affordability, as that is the primary factor in making life on Mars a reality. As Musk notes, “You cannot create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person.” In order for it to be viable, Musk asserts that the cost should be about $200,000—equivalent to the median price of a house in the United States. In the paper, Musk outlines the steps he considers essential to ensuring this relative affordability.
But this is just the beginning. Musk posted a tweet today hinting that this version one is already being reviewed…and version 2 is on its way.
Mars V2 plan coming soon, which I think addresses the most fundamental flaw in V1: how to pay for development & operation of giant rockets https://t.co/yaITdVdpEc
According to Musk, the version one has one fundamental flaw, which is the cost of developing and operating giant rockets. While SpaceX has been specializing on reusable rockets, getting to Mars would still be costly due to the size of the rockets needed. According to V1 of the plan, getting to Mars depends on a reusable rocket-and-spaceship tandem, which Musk has called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Reducing the costs to developing the ITS is crucial, especially since Musk himself has already put a cap on how much a trip to Mars should be.
Musk asserts that he envisions 1,000 or so ITS spaceships, each of which are carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during “Mars windows,” the point in time when Earth and Mars align favorably, which happens once every 26 months.
Outlining the importance of making this information freely available, New Space editor-in-chief Scott Hubbard asserts that “publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning.”
“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” Musk wrote. “There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.” By giving everyone access to this information, our chances of success are greatly improved.
The chunky concept rover is 3.3 meters (11 feet) tall, 8.5 meters (28 feet) long, and 4.3 meters (14 feet) wide. On its six equally chunky wheels, the rover weighs 2.7 tons. It is certainly not a flimsy vehicle, but despite its heft, it can reach speeds up to 110 km/h (68 mph) — though it probably wouldn’t travel faster than 24 km/h (15 mph) on Mars.
According to NASA, the rover “features life-support systems, navigation and communication systems, and design and materials that relate to conditions and resources on Mars.” It is designed to transport up to four astronauts at a given time, and it even comes equipped with a detachable laboratory. The vehicle runs off of solar power, carrying with it a 700-volt battery.
While this exact model might not be going into production anytime soon, parts of the concept may be used for future robotic rovers that are sent to the Red Planet.
One thing is certain, though. The fact that this concept exists shows that NASA scientists are carefully considering how humans might best move around Mars. It puts us one step closer to actually reaching the Red Planet, and though it might still seem like a far-off fantasy, as more details are considered and even small-seeming advancements are made, the closer we will get to becoming a multi-planetary species.
New research from scientists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) shows that the cancer risk for astronauts undertaking long-term missions to Mars or any other destination beyond Earth’s magnetic field is actually twice what we previously thought.
In the past, researchers determined that exposure to the very high rates of ionization in the atoms that comprise cosmic rays damaged the cells in astronauts’ bodies, making them vulnerable to a range of health problems, including acute radiation syndromes, cancer, cataracts, central nervous system issues, and circulatory diseases.
The actual amount of risk has typically been assessed using conventional risk models that attributed the radiation cancer to DNA mutation and damage, and these previous studies involved much briefer periods of time than those that occur during long-term space missions.
The researchers in the UNLV study used a non-targeted effect model instead. This model, which shows higher cancer risk in bystander cells in close proximity to heavily damaged cells, reveals a cancer risk at least twice that of the conventional risk model.
“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” UNLV researcher and space and radiation physics scholar Francis Cucinotta explained in a press release. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”
Combatting Cosmic Radiation
Any extensive time outside the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere will produce this much higher level of risk, and Cucinotta asserts an urgent need for additional research on human cancer risks and cosmic ray exposures prior to any long-term space missions. The results of this study will clearly affect the predicted efficacy of any already planned responses, such as radiation shields, so those must be reassessed, as well.
“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable,” Cucinotta stated in the release.“Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”
Cucinotta also addressed the moral dilemma we now face as we strive to colonize Mars and travel in space: “Waiving or increasing acceptable risk levels raises serious ethical flags, if the true nature of the risks are not sufficiently understood.” Indeed, we owe it to the astronauts willing to risk their lives to explore space to do everything we can to make sure they return home as healthy as when they left.
Tomorrow (June 1, 2017) will be a landmark date for commercial space travel. SpaceX is set to become the first privately owned company to perform multiple orbital flights to space using the same aircraft. On 21st September 2014, using the Falcon 9 rocket, this same Dragon CRS-4 delivered 2.5 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
Since, this time, it has been refurbished and the launch window for its second cargo flight opens at 5:55pm ET.
It is one of only a handful of previous multi-orbit space flights — and all of the others were undertaken by governments. They include: the NASA orbiters Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, which made dozens of missions but were hideously expensive to repair. There was also the X-37B, which Boeing built under commission by the U.S Air Force, and the Soviet VA spacecraft, which only orbited the Earth once on its second voyage.
While it is unclear how much the Dragon CRS-4 has had to be repaired, and exactly how much it cost, the savings are expected to be considerable. Moreover, this is nonetheless a landmark in breaching the final frontier, as private individuals are truly entering the space race, and this will play a major role in making space both commercially available and also affordable.
What Are SPACEX’S Other Plans?
However, ultimately, SpaceX is about far more than just making spaceflight affordable. SpaceX started with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets” — the first planet Musk’s space company aims to colonize is Mars. In order to do so, Musk plans to build the BFR . This stands for, in his own words, the Big F*cking Rocket, which will ferry the reusable Mars Colonial Transporter to the Red Planet.
Musk argues that humanity reaching Mars and other planets is pivotal. As He stated in an interview with aeon: “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary”, and that this has to start with Mars because, “if we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel.”
The process, though, has to move in gradations — and this relaunch of the Dragon is a major milestone in Musk’s plan.
In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies hope to mount some exciting missions to the Moon and to Mars. Between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), there is simply no shortage of proposals for Lunar bases, crewed missions to Mars, and robotic explorers to both.
However, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a different mission in mind when it comes to the coming decades. Instead of exploring the Moon or Mars, they propose exploring the moons of Mars! Known as the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, the plan is to have a robotic spacecraft fly to Phobos and Deimos to explore their surfaces and return samples to Earth for analysis.
The spacecraft would be deployed sometime in the 2020s, and would be tasked with two main objectives. The first would be to help scientists determine the origins of Phobos and Deimos, which has been a subject of debate for some time. Whereas some believe that these moons are capture asteroids, others have argued that they were created when fragments ejected from Mars (due to giant impacts on the surface) came together.
MMX will land on Phobos and acquire samples of at least 10 grams from more than 2cm below the surface. Analysis of samples returned to Earth will clarify the nature of the asteroid that led to the formation of the moon. Deimos observations will be limited to flyby imaging, but combined with ground data to be obtained for Phobos, we should be able to constrain its origin in a substantial manner.
The second objective focuses on the characterization of conditions both on and around the moons of Mars. This includes surface processes on Phobos and Deimos, the nature of the environment in which they orbit, and the global and temporal dynamics of Mars atmosphere — i.e. dust, clouds and water vapor.
“Airless bodies such as asteroids are exposed to space weathering processes,” said Dr. Fujimoto. “In the case of Phobos, an impact event on the surface releases many dust particles. Unlike an asteroid in the interplanetary space, dust particles will not be simply lost but will orbit around Mars and return and hit the Phobos surface. This is regarded as the reason that Phobos has a very thick regolith layer. Knowing this process is to know the attributes of returned samples better.”
Another major objective of this mission is to learn more about small bodies coming from the outer Solar System. As the outermost rocky planet, Mars’ orbit marks the boundary between the terrestrial planets — which have solid surfaces and variable atmospheres (ranging from super-thing to dense) — and the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System that have highly dense atmospheres.
Because of this, studying Mars’ moons, determining their origin, and learning more about the Martian orbital environment could teach us a lot about the evolution of the Solar System. Not only does such a mission present opportunities to study how planets like Mars formed, but also the process of by which primordial materials were transported between the inner and outer Solar Systems during its early history. As Dr. Fujimoto explained:
These small bodies were the delivery capsules for water from outside the Frost Line to the Habitable Zone of the solar system, where our planet is situated. Earth was born dry and needed delivery of water for its habitability to be switched on at all. It is likely that one of the (failed) deliveries led to the formation of Phobos, and, sample analysis will tell us about the failed capsule.
This is obviously the case when the capture idea turns out to be correct. Even for the case of giant impact, the scale of the impact is considered to be not too gigantic to alter fully the materials, implying that sample analysis would tell us something about the impactor asteroid.
As it stands, the probe is scheduled to launch in September 2024, taking advantage of the fact that Earth and Mars will be at the nearest point to each other in their orbits at this time. It will arrive around Mars by 2025, conduct its studies for a three-year period, and then return to Earth by July of 2029. Once there, it will rely on a suite of scientific instruments to conduct surveys and obtain samples.
These instruments include a Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS), a Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRS), a Wide Angle Multiband Camera (WAM), a Telescopic Camera (TL), a Circum-Martian Dust Monitor (CMDM), a Mass Spectrum Analyzer (MSA), and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument.
The mission will also leverage some key partnerships that JAXA is currently engaged in. These include an agreement reached with NASA back in late March to include the Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS) in the MMX’s instrument suite. And in April, JAXA and the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) signed an Implementation Agreement (IA) that would allow the French national space agency to participate in the mission as well.
If all goes as planned, JAXA will be spending the next decade gathering information that could bridge findings made by Lunar and Martian missions. Whereas lunar research will reveal things about the history of the Moon, and Martian missions will offer new insights into Mars’ geology and evolution (and perhaps if life still exists there!), the MMX mission will reveal things about the history of Mars’ moons and the early Solar System as a whole.
Other proposals that JAXA is currently working on include the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and SPICA, two missions that will explore Jupiter’s Galilean Moons and conduct infrared astronomy (respectively) in the coming decade.
Mars’ relative closeness to the Earth and ample distance from the Sun have made it humanity’s best target for off-world colonization. While a number of institutions are working hard to make a Mars colony a reality, SpaceX was the first to reveal a concrete plan to get to the Red Planet.
That plan has been outlined pretty clearly, but two important parts still lack detail: the spaceship that will transport humanity to Mars and the rocket that would launch that spaceship. While the plan is short on details, it includes plenty of acronyms, specifically MCT, ITS, and BFR.
That transporter would reach space via the BFR, which stands for — no joke — Big F*cking Rocket, which should live up to its name. It’s expected to be bigger than the Falcon 9 and more powerful than the Falcon Heavy, which would make it the most powerful rocket ever built.
Right now, we don’t know too much about the ITS and the BFR. Thanks to a recent Twitter conversation, however, we do know that answers are forthcoming.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was asked for updates about the architectural changes for the ITS and the BFR by Twitter user @RITSPEX, he responded with a promising timeline of “a few month.” As Inverse pointed out, that timeframe would place the announcement in September, one year after Musk first revealed his plans for Mars.
Every other year since 2011, 32 of the brightest young minds from across the globe are invited to participate in the Caltech Space Challenge. They’re split into two teams and given five days to come up with a plan to address a mission statement. This year’s directive was to design a launch and supply station on the Moon to support missions into deep space.
In a post on The Conversation, five of the students involved in the challenge have shared their insights on the benefits of such a station and how we could make it happen. They explain that the presence of a lunar refueling station would decrease the energy needed to leave Earth’s atmosphere. The speed required to break out of the atmosphere is 11 kilometers per second (25,000 miles per hour), which is far easier to achieve without the added weight of excess fuel. Launching with just enough to fuel to get to a lunar “gas station” with a weaker gravitational pull and then heading on to Mars from there would save both time and money.
The fuel that would power these missions would be drawn from the Moon’s ice, which could be processed into a hydrogen-oxygen propellant that is already used in many rockets. The students propose using three types of rovers on the Moon to perform this task. The Prospector would seek out ice, the Constructor would build a launch pad and roads, and the Miner would collect ice and deliver it to storage tanks connected to electrolysis processing plants, which would transform it into usable energy. From there, the fuel would be transported to a location in stable orbit between the Earth and the Moon where spacecraft could refuel.
Why Go To Mars?
The race to get people to Mars has been heating up in recent years, with both governments and private companies competing to be the first to reach the Red Planet. Elon Musk, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and NASA have all stated their intentions, and stopping by the Moon first plays a big part in many of these efforts. NASA plans to build a new space station, the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), in lunar orbit to act as a pit stop on the way to Mars, and the agency has already laid the groundwork for a space fueling station of sorts with their Robotic Refueling Mission launch in November 2016.
Reaching Mars isn’t some Mount Everest/”because it’s there” situation for space explorers. The planet could prove instrumental in the survival of the human species. Stephen Hawking has said he believes we only have another hundred years or so on Earth, and right now, Mars is the closest thing we have to a back-up plan. The problem is, we haven’t even come close to actually stepping foot on it — yet. Between the people already in the space industry and students like those who participated in the Caltech Space Challenge, we have no shortage of great minds working to transform humanity into a multi-planetary species.
Mars 2117 is a virtual reality experience revealed by Terminal Future Media at the 2017 World Government Summit. The experience draws from plans from scientific communities about how an advanced human colony on Mars would look and operate. You may not be able to go to Mars in real life, but an immersive virtual world like this may be the next best thing.
Each year, automakers around the world release futuristic concept cars that force us to reconsider our notion of what a vehicle is, both in terms of looks and functionality. Now, one company is doing the same thing, but instead of reinventing the sedan or pickup truck, they’ve offered their take on a Mars rover.
Through a partnership with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Parker Brothers Concepts has built a six-wheeled, all-electric rover designed specifically to meet the challenges of exploring the surface of Mars. The estimated weight of the vehicle is 5,000 pounds, and it’s a staggering 28 feet long, so you definitely wouldn’t see it rolling down a highway here on Earth. Although it does reportedly have a max speed of 96 to 112 kmh (60 to 70 mph).
One of the rover’s creators, Marc Parker, told Business Insider that NASA provided his company with parameters for the vehicle. They then used that input to design and build their Batmobile-esque creation, which Parker calls “a dual-purpose vehicle.” “It actually separates in the middle,” he explained. “The rear section is a full lab, the front area is a cockpit for going out and doing scouting.”
Just a few days after its unveiling in Florida, the rover is already getting people excited about Mars exploration, and that excitement should only grow over the coming months. This summer, the vehicle will travel to various U.S. cities as part of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center’s “Summer of Mars” event, and after that, it will be included in a new “astronaut training experience” opening at the center this fall.
The impact of the rover won’t be limited to those who see it in person, either. “We’re also filming for a reality television series that’s going to be coming out about this build,” said Parker, who claims the show will be released on “one of the bigger cable networks.”
Like most concept cars, the Parker Brothers’ rover won’t actually see any practical action, but it could serve as a prototype for future vehicles. More importantly, it could inspire interest in space exploration, in which case its creation will have been well worth the effort.
Scientists currently hold two different assumptions regarding the origins of life on Earth. The first and more popular one assumes life began under Earth’s ancient oceans, in deep sea hydrothermal vents. The second suggests that life originated on land. Now, scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have uncovered fossil evidence that supports the second assumption and pushes back — way back —the earliest known existence of life in hot springs.
“Our exciting findings don’t just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by 3 billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, by up to about 580 million years,” Tara Djokic, first author of the study, which is published in Nature Communications, explained in a UNSW press release.
The UNSW scientists made their discovery of fossil evidence of early life while studying hot spring deposits from the ancient Dresser Formation within Western Australia’s Pilbara Craton. These well-preserved deposits were approximately 3.5 billion years old and contained evidence of geyserite, a mineral deposit found only in a terrestrial hot spring environment.
Life on Alien Lands
Though they are noteworthy for what they tell us about early life on Earth, the findings of the UNSW study have implications that extend far beyond our planet. “Our research also has major implications for the search for life on Mars, because the Red Planet has ancient hot spring deposits of a similar age to the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara,” Djokic explained.
Indeed, the presence of water on Mars is already backed by quite a bit of evidence. Some of this water is in the form of ponds similar to ancient hot springs on Earth, most notably in a region of the Red Planet known as Columbia Hills. “The Pilbara deposits are the same age as much of the crust of Mars, which makes hot spring deposits on the Red Planet an exciting target for our quest to find fossilized life there,” Australian Center for Astrobiology director Van Kranendonk said about the study.
Of course, this all assumes that whatever life could exist on Mars would be similar to that of Earth’s, at least on a microbial level. “If life can be preserved in hot springs so far back in Earth’s history, then there is a good chance it could be preserved in Martian hot springs, too,” Djokic concluded.
At the 2017 Humans to Mars conference — which was held on Tuesday May 9 in Washington D.C. — Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had a clear recommendation for NASA: if we’re serious about reaching Mars, ditch the International Space Station (ISS).
“We must retire the ISS as soon as possible,” Aldrin told the conference. “We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost.”
Aldrin made some alternative suggestions for NASA’s Mars program, including handing low Earth orbit (LEO) projects like the ISS over to private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK. He’s also recommended that private companies like Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace build their own independent LEO stations.
Journey To Mars Vision
NASA, however, has a different opinion about the role of the ISS in getting to Mars. Thus far, the ISS has been part of the first phase of the project, which includes testing and developing partnerships with private companies. Furthermore, as Space.com reports, “NASA officials have repeatedly said that the ISS is a key part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ vision.”
In March, members of the House Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space testified that extending U.S. participation in the activities of the ISS beyond the existing 2024 commitment date might not be prudent if getting to Mars is a priority. Right now, NASA spends around $3.5 billion annually on the ISS. The committee’s Chair, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, commented during that hearing that “Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars. What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?”
Over the past century or so, humanity has accomplished a great deal of innovation. We learned to fly (at least with the help of airplanes), built huge machines, cured diseases, and developed computers, the Internet, and smart devices. At the same time, we’ve caused our fair share of destruction, too: in the form of several wars — two of which were world wars — and, of interest as of late, man-made climate change. Now, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking thinks we have 100 years left before doomsday — and we need to get off Earth long before that comes to pass.
The details of Hawking’s latest doomsday warning will be featured in a new BBC documentary airing on June 15 called Expedition New Earth, where he suggests that humanity needs to be a multi-planetary species within the next century in order to survive.
Our Days Are Numbered
Hawking explains that humankind’s days on Earth are already numbered because of climate change, asteroid strikes, epidemics, and overpopulation. The only way to survive? We need to change planets, and fast. A lot could happen in 100 years, and we’ve proven that we’re capable of discovering and developing many things within a century. But could we really go multi-planetary in that timeframe?
If you’ve played StarCraft or any similar game, you’ve probably wondered how your units were able to build bases so fast. Well, those Terran SCVs were probably 3D printers, most likely similar to one that MIT recently previewed.
Though not the first to 3D print a house, MIT’s Digital Construction Platform (DCP) is not your ordinary 3D printer. For starters, it’s a fully customizable, free-moving system that can 3D print an object of any size. Plus, the plan is to make the DCP a self-sufficient construction tool, capable of making individualized buildings designed using onsite environmental data.
In short, the DCP is an autonomous robotic system that can work in any environment using whatever materials nature can provide it with. The goal is, according to Steven Keating, “in the future, to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.”
“So to me it’s not merely a printer,” said Neri Oxman, “but an entirely new way of thinking about making, that facilitates a paradigm shift in the area of digital fabrication, but also for architectural design. … Our system points to a future vision of digital construction that enables new possibilities on our planet and beyond.”
It’s easy to talk about humanity’s role in deep space exploration, but it’s another thing to actually figure out the logistics of the endeavor. One of the greatest risks involved in human space exploration is the risk of radiation. While the Earth and Sun do pose some radiation risk to our astronauts, the greatest source of trouble comes from outer space and is known as galactic cosmic radiation, ancient waves emanating from supernovas of the past.
NASA astronauts are listed as “radiation workers” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In accordance with NASA, OSHA has worked to establish the ALARA Principle, meaning that NASA keeps radiation exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” With this in mind, OSHA waived the terrestrial radiation requirements for NASA, having the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer set the limit. This lead to the current protocol that ensures that astronauts aren’t exposed to radiation that will increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3 percent. But if it’s a trip to Mars that we’re talking about, these low-Earth orbit standards will be modified to fit the expedition.
Ethically Leaving Earth
While NASA has learned a lot with previous research into the long-term effects of living in space, the space agency still has a ton of data to understand, and even more ethical gray areas to define. When on the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to ten times as much radiation as on Earth. A Mars trip would up that exposure to 100 times more than on Earth. NASA has begun to study the effects of long-term exposure with the help of astronaut Scott Kelly, Mark Kelly (his Earth-dwelling retiree twin), and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” says Dan Masys, biomedical and health informaticist of the University of Washington. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.” NASA is working on various means of lessening exposure to radiation, with faster rockets, better barriers between the astronauts and space, and drugs all on the table.
But at the end of the day, the question isn’t about a group of brave astronauts, it’s about the future of humanity. Billionaire tech innovators like Elon Musk are lobbying for humanity’s eventual expansion in our solar system for the key reason of preserving humanity itself. In order to ensure that a single catastrophic event doesn’t spell out the end times for the only life we know to exist in the universe, we must push it forward, or as Musk suggests: establish a colony of 1 million people on Mars as soon as we feasibly can.
Humanity has been fascinated by Mars since long before we stepped foot on the Moon. Our planetary neighbor has been the subject of innumerable works of sci-fi and inspired countless dreams of adventure and exploration. Now, after decades of determination, research, and scientific breakthroughs, we’re finally ready to do it: humans are going to Mars. Really.
We’re in Phase 0 now, conducting tests at the International Space Station (ISS) and developing partnerships with private space companies. Phase I will span 2018 to 2025 and will include the launch and testing of six SLS rockets. Those rockets will deliver components of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a new space station to be built near the Moon to serve astronauts en route to Mars.
After that, Phase II will launch the Deep Space Transport (DST) tube toward the lunar station in 2027, and in 2028 or 2029, astronauts will inhabit the tube for more than 400 days. In 2030, Phase III will see the DST restocked with supplies and the Mars crew via SLS rocket. Phase IV, of course, will be the trip itself in 2033.
That means we’re just a scant 16 years away from reaching a goal that has eluded every generation that came before us.
Staying Healthy and Happy
Completing the mission within their budget will be a challenge for NASA. That budget is currently about .5 percent of the total U.S. budget. For comparison, it was more than four percent during the Apollo Moon missions.
The mission to Mars includes obstacles beyond budget — keeping astronauts healthy and reasonably happy on the journey is chief among them. Without stopovers between Earth and Mars, astronauts will need to port everything they need with them, including air, food, and water, for a round-trip duration of two or three years.
Mental health is likely to be a concern for Mars astronauts, too, as they will essentially be sealed into the space tube for years at a time, with no ability for an emergency return once they leave Cislunar space. NASA’s HI-SEAS isolation experiment has shown promising results, but it is likely that the journey won’t be possible for everyone.
NASA also has competition in the race to get to Mars. Both Boeing and SpaceX hope to get there first, with SpaceX setting the lofty goal of arriving in 2022.
Ultimately, though, we all benefit from the friendly competition in the race toward Mars and the creative solutions it will almost certainly generate. If private companies work out some of these human challenges before NASA can, the agency can build on their experiences and spend its budget and efforts on other problems. In the end, the goal of putting humans on Mars will have been reached, irrespective of which organization crosses the finish line first.
NASA Langley Research Center is developing drones that can fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. Drones like these will be aboard future Rover missions, mapping unexplored regions of the Red Planet, like lava tunnels and deep valleys.
“There’s now a sense of urgency,” according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “The hope is we’ve created enough of a framework that folks can see that there’s a real plan worth executing. But also, it’s not so defined that it if some piece changes, the entire plan gets thrown away and we start all over again.”
The first phase of NASA’s plan is to build what it’s calling a deep space gateway (DSG), which would essentially be a small space station orbiting the Moon. The plan is to assemble it over the course of three SLS flights and have it completed by 2025. The DSG is meant to be staffed on a continuous basis and could sustain a crew of four, with the Orion docked, for 42 days, according to Planetary.org. It would have a propulsion module, a habitation module, and perhaps an airlock for spacewalks.
The DSG would serve as a space port or launch base for potential lunar landing missions, as well as for a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft. This is phase two of NASA’s plan. Planetary.org reports that the DST would be able to support a crew of four for as long as 1,000 days at a time. Between missions, supply and refurbishing runs would be done at the DSG.
The DST would be massive, with a predicted bare weight of about 41 metric tons. The plan is to launch it into lunar orbit in 2027 via a single SLS mission. “There’s really no [other] vehicle today, or even planned, that can launch 41 metric tons (to the Moon) in one piece,” said Gerstenmaier. “We think that that is the minimum size for this Mars-class transport.” If all goes well up to that point, NASA expects the DST to survive three trips to Mars and back.
Despite the agency’s understated approach to sharing its plans for Mars, Gerstenmaier is confident that NASA is well-equipped to pull them off. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said. “If you can give us a clear direction and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”
Bill Nye, everyone’s favorite science guy, recently released a public video message for the current administration. Through his organization, The Planetary Society, Bill has stated (and included a written report of) his official recommendations for the government in relation to their plans for NASA. The Planetary Society gave their 16-page report directly to the NASA transition team.
As many have already read and discussed, the current administration has their sights set on returning to the Moon and pushing forward the goal to put humans on Mars. In fact, many members of the House Science Committee think that not only should sending humans to Mars be an absolute priority, but we should be reaching this goal much sooner (something that those like Tom Young, a past director of Goddard Spaceflight Center, think is currently unrealistic). However, they have also decided that many other efforts of NASA, like climate change research, are less than necessary. In fact, recently, the President-Elect has announced possible plans to defund NASA’s Earth Science Division.
Bill Nye, a longtime supporter of correct, up-to-date scientific information, has shown the current administration how they can tailor their plans to be less “1960s moonshot flashback” and more “scientifically-minded space research.” Bill has laid out these recommendations fully and thoughtfully, and has specified five key suggestions (which he goes into great detail to explain). These suggestions are as follows:
1. Maintain the exploration of Mars as the organizing principle for NASA’s human spaceflight program;
2. Direct NASA to plan an executable, affordable path for sending humans to Mars orbit by 2033;
3. Expand NASA’s highly successful science portfolio;
4. Annual five percent increases to NASA’s budget for five years; and
5. Continue to grow and support the commercial space industry.
These recommendations seem simple enough, but if followed correctly could be the key to a brighter (and scientifically-sound) future. Going far beyond the simple “we want to get humans to Mars,” this plan sincerely outlines and develops ways that could advance and modernize current NASA plans. As both government and private space organizations race to release the most exciting developments to help us achieve our goals of space exploration, guidelines like these will allow all of the excitement and planning to become more grounded in reality.
Unfortunately, and especially currently, there are many who do not see value or validity in science. Even those who are in charge of funding scientific programs and research are not always well-versed in the importance of science. Thankfully, these recommendations by Bill Nye avoid any condescending attitude or overly-technical terminology. It is a helpful guide that can be easily interpreted and implemented.
If these suggestions are followed, NASA will be able to continue searching for life outside of Earth, create safe and viable ways to extend the possibilities of human space travel, and support ongoing research. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Mars 2020 rover, Solar Probe Plus, and the Europa Multi-Flyby Mission are just a few of the many projects and programs that will be able to continue to flourish under these guidelines.
These recommendations will hopefully be viewed and taken seriously by the current administration. While many dismiss NASA and think that missions to space are somehow frivolous, the research that NASA has done in the past has been the basis for a huge percentage of modern innovation. From health and medicine to smartphone technology, NASA researchers have had an irreplaceable impact on scientific advancement. Additionally, as the realities of climate change grow more pressing, the data that NASA scientists obtain and analyze is crucial in understanding how we can improve the harsh truths of our environment.
Ever since Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed his plans to make humankind an interplanetary species by getting to Mars, the world’s attention has been taken over by this fascination for the Red Planet. SpaceX, however, wasn’t the first to have plans for a mission to Mars. In fact, there have been such plans since the 1950s.
With all the attention Mars is getting, a concerned citizen, Sam, asked resident Science Guy Bill Nye: “Why are we trying to live on Mars and re-create Earth there by making an atmosphere and soil and water we can drink and such? Why can’t we take those ideas, that motivation and direct it at our own planet that we clearly need the help with? Why is it easier to start fresh on another planet than to get people talking about our own?”
The Science Guy Says
Bill Nye found the question interesting and relevant. He admitted that getting to Mars and making it habitable isn’t going to be easy: “People, first of all, just don’t grasp the scale of it. It’s a planet. It’s a whole planet,” he said. He also reminded viewers that water, food, and air are non-existent, which would pose many problems.
Nye explained that taking care of our own planet and getting to Mars aren’t two exclusive goals. He credits our desire to visit the red planet to humanity’s sense of exploration, which has pushed us forward over the past centuries. His goal is to establish a scientific research base on Mars, much like our bases in Antarctica.
More than that, however, is how getting to Mars would change our world, especially, “If there’s something alive on Mars, and we could prove it,” Nye said, “it would probably change the world.”
“It would be astounding if we found something still alive there,” he emphasized. “If we make this discovery of life, it would not have been done by an individual. It would be done by a society [which] invested its intellect and treasure in this quest.” He closed by saying that finding life “would affect the way each and everyone of us feels about what it means to be a living thing in the cosmos; what it means to have this place in space.” Finding life on Mars would certainly make the universe less lonely. Thanks, Bill!
For the first time in human history, human space exploration will go beyond our moon. With more than one organization looking to send humans to the red planet, traveling to Mars isn’t just a distant possibility — it’s an impending reality.
In 2020, there will be a specific launch window that will allow travel from Earth to Mars in the shortest, most efficient path possible. Given our current rocket technology, the trip would take about five to six months. This window will not only expedite travel, but will give organizations a more specific time frame to work within. However, according to current progress, it is most likely that government and private space organizations will be sending only unmanned probes until the 2020’s and 2030’s.
NASA notes that “they are currently further along than ever before in human history on [their] Journey to Mars.” Additionally, last year, SpaceX started testing the rocket intended to bring humans to the red planet, China announced its ambitious plans to reach Mars (with an unmanned probe) by the end of the decade, and the UAE announced that they plan to reach the planet by 2117.
Today we have unprecedented support for Mars exploration from Congress, industry, and the general public. Children born in 2017 are more likely than any generation before them to witness, before their 18th birthday, humans walk on another planet for the first time.
The Reality of Martian Travel
This unprecedented support is encouraging, but it will take a lot more than that to send humans to Mars.
For starters, there will be no stopovers between Earth and Mars — which means that everything humans will need, including (but not limited to) food, water, air, will need to be on board for a trip that experts are estimating to last as long three years. Six months to get there, six months back, and at least a year in between as they conduct research and wait for a launch window.
Of course, given advances in technology and the continued success of the International Space Station (ISS), we are significantly more knowledgeable than ever about space travel and how to ensure an efficient use of resources. Still, even the ISS requires supplies to be sent to the outpost every few months.
ISS astronauts consume nearly two pounds of food daily. If you assume the same volume of food will be consumed by a four-person crew on a three-year Mars mission, that means they need to bring a total of 24,000 pounds of food with them. SpaceX may have been able to deliver a payload of 5,500 pounds of supplies to the ISS, but that was because they used an unmanned Dragon capsule.
NASA tried to find a food solution with a recent 3D printing project that yielded a 3D printed pizza. However, it might be more possible to make up this shortage by space farming, but the field is still in its infancy. To date, the ISS’ Vegetable Production System has only been successful in planting flowers and five harvests of Chinese cabbage. Eventually, though, once the technology is better understood and more trials prove to be successful, space farming could hit two birds with one stone and provide food as well as oxygen.
These challenges are currently being addressed by the different space agencies preparing for their Mars missions. And, hopefully, by the time the launch window opens up, we’ll be more than ready to explore the Red Planet.
This week, NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) hosted a community workshop at their headquarters in Washington, DC. Known as the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop“, this event ran from February 27th to March 1st, and saw scientists and researchers from all over the world descend on the capitol to attend panel discussions, presentations, and talks about the future of space exploration.
One of the more intriguing presentations took place on Wednesday, March 1st, where the exploration of Mars by human astronauts was discussed. In the course of the talk, which was titled “A Future Mars Environment for Science and Exploration“, Director Jim Green discussed how deploying a magnetic shield could enhance Mars’ atmosphere and facilitate crewed missions there in the future.
The current scientific consensus is that, like Earth, Mars once had a magnetic field that protected its atmosphere. Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, this planet’s magnetic field suddenly disappeared, which caused Mars’ atmosphere to slowly be lost to space. Over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars went from being a warmer, wetter environment to the cold, uninhabitable place we know today.
This theory has been confirmed in recent years by orbiters like the ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN), which have been studying the Martian atmosphere since 2004 and 2014, respectively. In addition to determining that solar wind was responsible for depleting Mars’ atmosphere, these probes have also been measuring the rate at which it is still being lost today.
Without this atmosphere, Mars will continue to be a cold, dry place where life cannot flourish. In addition to that, future crewed mission – which NASA hopes to mount by the 2030s – will also have to deal with some severe hazards. Foremost among these will be exposure to radiation and the danger of asphyxiation, which will pose an even greater danger to colonists (should any attempts at colonization be made).
In answer to this challenge, Dr. Jim Green – the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division – and a panel of researchers presented an ambitious idea. In essence, they suggested that by positioning a magnetic dipole shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange Point, an artificial magnetosphere could be formed that would encompass the entire planet, thus shielding it from solar wind and radiation.
Naturally, Green and his colleagues acknowledged that the idea might sounds a bit “fanciful”. However, they were quick to emphasize how new research into miniature magnetospheres (for the sake of protecting crews and spacecraft) supports this concept:
“This new research is coming about due to the application of full plasma physics codes and laboratory experiments. In the future it is quite possible that an inflatable structure(s) can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (or 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss) as an active shield against the solar wind.”
In addition, the positioning of this magnetic shield would ensure that the two regions where most of Mars’ atmosphere is lost would be shielded. In the course of the presentation, Green and the panel indicated that these the major escape channels are located, “over the northern polar cap involving higher energy ionospheric material, and 2) in the equatorial zone involving a seasonal low energy component with as much as 0.1 kg/s escape of oxygen ions.”
To test this idea, the research team – which included scientists from Ames Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Colorado, Princeton University, and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – conducted a series of simulations using their proposed artificial magnetosphere. These were run at the Coordinated Community Modeling Center (CCMC), which specializes in space weather research, to see what the net effect would be.
New Opportunities for Exploration
What they found was that a dipole field positioned at Mars L1 Lagrange Point would be able to counteract solar wind, such that Mars’ atmosphere would achieve a new balance. At present, atmospheric loss on Mars is balanced to some degree by volcanic outpassing from Mars interior and crust. This contributes to a surface atmosphere that is about 6 mbar in air pressure (less than 1% that at sea level on Earth).
As a result, Mars atmosphere would naturally thicken over time, which lead to many new possibilities for human exploration and colonization. According to Green and his colleagues, these would include an average increase of about 4 °C (~7 °F), which would be enough to melt the carbon dioxide ice in the northern polar ice cap. This would trigger a greenhouse effect, warming the atmosphere further and causing the water ice in the polar caps to melt.
By their calculations, Green and his colleagues estimated that this could lead to 1/7th of Mars’ oceans – the ones that covered it billions of years ago – to be restored. If this is beginning to sound a bit like a lecture on how to terraform Mars, it is probably because these same ideas have been raised by people who advocating that very thing. But in the meantime, these changes would facilitate human exploration between now and mid-century.
“A greatly enhanced Martian atmosphere, in both pressure and temperature, that would be enough to allow significant surface liquid water would also have a number of benefits for science and human exploration in the 2040s and beyond,” said Green. “Much like Earth, an enhanced atmosphere would: allow larger landed mass of equipment to the surface, shield against most cosmic and solar particle radiation, extend the ability for oxygen extraction, and provide “open air” greenhouses to exist for plant production, just to name a few.”
These conditions, said Green and his colleagues, would also allow for human explorers to study the planet in much greater detail. It would also help them to determine the habitability of the planet, since many of the signs that pointed towards it being habitable in the past (i.e. liquid water) would slowly seep back into the landscape. And if this could be achieved within the space of few decades, it would certainly help pave the way for colonization.
In the meantime, Green and his colleagues plan to review the results of these simulations so they can produce a more accurate assessment of how long these projected changes would take. It also might not hurt to conduct some cost-assessments of this magnetic shield. While it might seem like something out of science fiction, it doesn’t hurt to crunch the numbers!
NASA’s current plans, first outlined in 2010 and later fleshed out in 2015, place humans on the red planet in the 2030s. They are currently developing the necessary capabilities to make it happen in tandem with other agencies and private companies. NASA is collaborating with private innovators, like engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, to 3D print structures on the moon with the eventual goal of creating similar structures that can withstand the radiation of the Martian atmosphere.
Elon Musk sees colonizing Mars as a necessity, and SpaceX has a congruently ambitious timeline for Mars exploration in place. The UAE has plans for a Mars Colony by 2117. Although the ESA is currently more focused on its plan for colonizing the moon, they did announce a joint Mars venture with Russia back in 2011. Even the Mars One Foundation is taking the non-profit approach to what is essentially the same goal: the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars.
“We cannot simulate the same physical and environmental conditions to reconstruct the Martian environment, I mean such traits like Martian microgravitation or radiation exposure,” lead author and University of Information Technology and Management cognitive scientist Konrad Szocik told Seeker.
“Consequently, we cannot predict physical and biological effects of humans living on Mars.”
Many discussions of terraforming Mars have ensued over the years, but the issue of any atmosphere created simply blowing away is a sticky problem for Mars. NASA scientists have conceived of a magnetic shell for Mars which might be able to retain an atmosphere. However, for each technical solution to a specific physical problem, there are numerous other issues that — according to the authors of the Space Policy paper — point to an inescapable conclusion: it will be more practical to modify the minds and bodies of the future residents of Mars than it will be to change the planet to support them.
For Szocik, the social and political aspects of how a Martian colony would function are just as problematic as physical challenges and health problems. “A human being is a social animal and he lives in a group,” he said. “Group problems affect many challenges and troubles, and we should consider now how we can prevent such typical human problems like conflicts, wars, cheating, etc.”
Szocik is also concerned about maintaining life on Mars. First, we would need a large enough colony to avoid problems of consanguinity, and we’d need a suitable technological and medical support system. Each medical worker would need to be specially trained to sustain and extend life on Mars in particular—which is, of course, something that basically no one in medicine at the moment is trained to do. In that respect, preparing for life on Mars might begin with changes here on Earth: we’ll have to reconsider everything we know about learning, relating, working, and be willing to redefine our life expectations.
True to the sprit of humanity’s early settlers, cultivating the land will probably be the best way to provide food for the Red Planet’s early colonists. But just how possible is it to plant seeds from Earth and grow them as Martian crops? To figure this out, the International Potato Center (CIP) — yes, it’s a real institution — launched an initiative last February called the Potatoes on Mars Project.
The effort is reminiscent of the scene from the movie “The Martian” in which Matt Damon’s character plants potatoes to survive on Mars. Turns out, the sci-fi film may actually have been onto something. The CIP worked in tandem with NASA’s Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) to discover if potatoes could be grown under Mars’ atmospheric conditions.
A tuber was planted in a CubeSat-contained environment that was especially designed by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima. Soil taken from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru, described as the most Mars-like soil found on Earth, was placed inside a hermetically sealed container that was installed in the satellite. To simulate the radiation found on Mars’ surface, the researchers used an LED. They built controls to alter the temperature to reflect Mars’ day and night cycles, as well as for adjusting air pressure, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels.
Now, a month after the first tuber was planted, preliminary results have been positive. “It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” said CIP’s potato breeder Walter Amoros.
However, the CIP’s experiment does more than just let us know that the Earth’s first Martian colonists may be snacking on potatoes when they reach the Red Planet in the next decade or so. It also helped us figure out if potatoes could survive in extreme conditions on Earth. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth,” says Chris McKay of NASA ARC in a press release.
By proving that potatoes can be cultivated under the harshest environments on Earth, the study could help the estimated one in nine people on the planet suffering from chronic undernourishment. That problem is likely to get worse considering modern stressors on our environment. “The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected, by climate change are working,” said Amoros.
All in all, potatoes may turn out to be a super food both in space and here on Earth.
If immortality is the Holy Grail of Futurism then the colonization of Mars is its Holy Sepulchre—a big empty tomb. Both attract their pilgrims: the former is a fairytale; the latter is a real place just out of reach, a sort of tantalizing inspiration to hungry dreamers everywhere salivating for land that doesn’t belong to them. These days, from the promises of Elon Musk to the heroics of Matt Damon, we positively fetishize Mars. Yet my advice to the 11th century crusader and the 21st century Martian colonist would be the same: tend your own garden.
I’m afraid that this is blasphemy from someone who calls himself a Transhumanist. After all, the colonization of space is tangentially connected enough to other themes associated with technological progress that they’re ordinarily all lumped together under the general banner of Futurism. In an increasingly divisive political climate, the promises of SpaceX and Mars One shine like the hope of some long-awaited escape from ourselves.
We might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably.
More fundamentally, the allure of space colonization is at the heart of some of our most beloved cultural narratives, shaping the aspirations of explorers since the first days of NASA and the Soviet Space Program. Even the earliest films lionized astronauts. The moon landing was the greatest collective lived experience of the twentieth century, this perfect human achievement more majestic than the pyramids and just as pointless only to the cynical.
Today, we might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably. And given our recklessness when it comes to the fragile environment of this planet, perhaps we could use another world as a backup, just in case. We already have the technology to achieve the goal of getting to Mars, though for a perfect storm of reasons, it has yet to happen. But isn’t getting there a worthy goal? And won’t the journey there (and not only the physical journey, but the technical refinements forged along the way) benefit the cause of Progress with a capital P? Then what the hell am I complaining about?
My intention here isn’t to trash space exploration or regale you with clickbait about the top eleven reasons why the colonization of Mars would be a tragic mistake at this juncture in time. However, I want to seriously problematize the prospective colonization, if you’ll excuse a word that academics tend to overuse. I don’t want to focus on the hackneyed and frankly shortsighted idea that the money spent on getting to Mars could be better employed for services here on earth.
My critique has to do with the repercussions of contemporary attitudes about the seemingly unrelated topics of imperialism in outer space on the one hand and Transhumanism on the other. Cultural prejudices enshrining heroic astronauts blazing across the sky and mad scientists forging abominations pose serious problems for Transhumanists of all stripes and would-be Martian colonists alike.
If the predominant image of space colonizers enshrined in our zeitgeist is heroic pioneers soaring across the galaxy in the name of science and adventure, the narratives surrounding genetic engineering and cyborgs are positively apocalyptic by comparison—just think of Frankenstein, the Terminator, and GATTACA.
Somehow, an astronaut’s 400 million kilometer journey from Earth to a theoretical outpost in a faraway wasteland seems less terrifying than a head’s four-meter journey from its body to a theoretical apparatus capable of supporting its consciousness.
The reasons for this difference in our intuitions are varied. They partly have to do with the genealogy of our ideas about imperialism in outer space, which are grounded in discourse about the benefits of the exploration and exploitation of underdeveloped foreign lands, exotic travelogues, Cold War propaganda, epic films, etc. They also have to do with the attitudes that surround Transhumanism, grounded in skepticism about discredited fields like galvanism, the abuses of the eugenicists, deep-seated fears surrounding physiological dislocation and dismemberment, etc.
Heroes and Monsters
The end result of all this discourse is that, right now in the popular imagination, would-be cyborgs are monsters and would-be Martian colonists are heroes. Let’s take it for granted that the exploration of Mars would provide net benefits for society at large. Nevertheless, whether from the vantage point of someone who wants to investigate Mars and preserve its landscape (let’s call this the environmentalist perspective) or someone who wants to colonize and terraform it (the imperialist perspective, which incidentally seems to completely dominate the environmentalist one), the problem inherent in this tension is immense.
First, imagine you were an environmentalist who felt strongly against the radical transformation of Mars. Your reasons might be varied. To you, the urge to dominate nature with the clutter of terrestrial civilization might seem arrogant and intrusive. True, there are no indigenous Martians to despoil. But the process of terraforming the planet’s surface would still seem to be hugely rapacious.
Imagine drowning its pristine scarlet valleys in water and clouding its translucent atmosphere with chemicals. Wouldn’t even the most single-minded developer preserve some of the planet’s original landscape rather than transform it all? Doesn’t this intuition concede that there is inherent value and beauty in the wild state of the place? If advanced aliens exist within visitable distance of our planet, they are evidently the type to silently observe or ignore us rather than actively intervene in our affairs. How primitive it might seem to them that our conception of space travel in 2017 is still bound to the small-minded earthly impulse to barge in, dominate nature, and claim random parcels of it as our own.
From this perspective, the only visits to Mars should be undertaken for the sake of exploration rather than colonization. The best agents to do so would be robots and cyborgs rather than unenhanced human beings, whose imprint on the environment would be immense by comparison. Yet until the development of cyborgs, we are doomed to either only know Mars indirectly or permanently scar its landscape as successive generations of pioneers perish on its inhospitable surface.
Now, consider the imperialist perspective. To you, between climate change, nuclear war, plague, and pestilence, the existential threats to human civilization are great enough that you feel we need to colonize Mars as soon as possible or face the potential extermination of civilization as we know it. The preservation of the beauty of nature is all well and good, after all, but human interests come first.
Yet the conditions on Mars for the colonizers would be like something out of Dante; indeed, the first Martian immigrants should be “prepared to die,” warns Elon Musk.
As it is, we can’t even control the weather yet here on Earth, let alone create a colony on another planet with an inhospitable atmosphere. The bright eyed and bushy tailed original colonists would be like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, fantasizing about the march of civilization but ending up the lonely dupes of capitalism wallowing in lunacy in a dark place where they shouldn’t have ventured in the first place.
On closer reflection, the imperialist would realize that until it became feasible to travel to Mars on a mass scale, the original colonies could only remain pitiable outposts for misguided dying settlers and insanely rich tourists rather than anything like a safety net for civilization at large. The fastest and most efficient way to transform the landscape would be by the sweat of cyborgs. And yet ironically, with the advent of cyborgs, the need to terraform the environment to suit un-enhanced human needs would perhaps be moot.
While I might have misgivings about the subjugation of a planet ironically named for the god of conquest, I don’t want to disparage a journey there as an admirable Futurist goal. But whether you are an advocate of peaceful exploration or large-scale colonization, the time has come to think realistically about the requisite intermediate steps. We need to make heroes of the pioneers who are willing to risk their lives and careers to overcome the hurdles on the way to our destination “in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching.”
Cyborgs and space explorers are entirely akin in their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of challenging the boundaries of conceivability. Yet in 2017, we call volunteers for the journey to Mars heroes, and there are no volunteers at all for brain implants because no doctor would ever dream of performing such an operation or convening a conference to discuss plans for one.
If a prominent surgeon called for volunteers and warned, as Musk did, that they must be prepared to die, I wonder if the public would meet the declaration with the same resigned sigh in recognition of the heroism of all involved. The principle is precisely the same: a human life is at stake. Yet we are willing to sanctify the sacrificeof the astronaut and glorify him, but would rather reverse engineer a machine analogous to a human brain than implant a machine into one
Investment in Mars in the absence of Transhumanism as a vigorous social ideology doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Transhumanism, but it does come at the expense of the future of Mars. The most widespread current projections of the next century of human development imagine the needs of unenhanced humans predominating as a matter of course. Hence, long-term plans for Mars call for terraforming the planet to create a second Earth. Yet this limitation in our imaginations augurs great brutality and a great deal of human blood spilled along the way as we struggle to dominate conditions not meant for our bodies.
This, of course, does not mean I think there should be no exploration of Mars, or even that I am dead-set against eventual colonization. But I would hope that any such colonization would be undertaken in a spirit of great respect for nature, imposing upon it, let alone uprooting it, as little as possible. And I would also pray that the path toward colonization would be blazed with as few deaths as possible along the way.
Yet this can only take place after the ascendancy of Transhumanism and not a moment before it. For the time being, I would no more recommend a journey to Mars than I would a voyage across the Atlantic to an ancient Roman armed with nothing but a leaky trireme and his copy of Ptolemy.
David Vincent Kimel is a doctoral student in History at Yale. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram (spqrkimel). Visit his blog at earthasitis.com.
Both chambers of Congress just passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2017. With this transformative development, the space agency got a lot more than just $19.508 billion in funding. They also got a very clear mandate: Get humanity to Mars.
To be clear, Mars has been in the works for some time; however, the 2017 Act places a strong emphasis on this goal, making it the focal point of NASA’s long-term plans. In the document, congress asserts that the space agency is to get humans “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.” Opposition to the bill from the administration isn’t expected, so it’s more than likely to be passed into law by the presidency.
There is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multiplanetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity. -Elon Musk
In order to get to Mars by the 2030s, Congress is asking NASA to develop “an initial human exploration roadmap” that must be submitted before December 1, 2017.
The bill outlines the necessity of this roadmap, stating: “It is the sense of Congress that expanding human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and advancing toward human missions to Mars in the 2030s requires early strategic planning and timely decisions to be made in the near-term on the necessary courses of action for commitments to achieve short-term and long-term goals and objectives.”
To that end, the 2017 Act states that this plan should outline clear goals that are a bit closer to home, instead of just making a grand leap to the Red Planet all at once. The document states, “A human exploration roadmap should begin with low-Earth orbit, then address in greater detail progress beyond low-Earth orbit to cis-lunar space, and then address future missions aimed at human arrival and activities near and then on the surface of Mars.”
Speaking of the planned stages, NASA already has a basic outline: “The human exploration of Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth: Earth Reliant [now until the mid-2020s], the Proving Ground [2018-2030], and Earth Independent [now to 2030s and beyond].”
With these planned phases, NASA should be able to easily provide Congress with the roadmap that it’s asking for.
Through this new NASA Authorization Act, Congress affirms that “Mars is the appropriate long-term goal for the human space flight program,” and it is likely that the Moon will be a stop over in 2020, if the current administration’s plans push forward.
NASA’s Mars Missions
Recently, much of the news covering missions to Mars involved private space companies, most notably, SpaceX and foreign space agencies — including China and the UAE.
According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the company will create a permanent Martian settlement. To that end, Musk’s plan includes the launch of the unmanned “Red Dragon” spacecraft by 2018, then sending a new and reusable rocket by 2022 (which will be powered by the just recently tested Raptor rocket), and eventually launching humans to Mars after that—hopefully landing by 2025. However, much of the details still need to be fleshed out.
Regardless, Musk has made it clear that he thinks such a colonization project will ultimately save the human race. And as this directive by congress reveals, the U.S. government agrees. See SpaceX’s plans in this video:
To say, however, that NASA has been sitting idly by would be inaccurate. The space agency has been “on a journey to Mars” for some time.
So, what has NASA been up to in relation to the Red Planet? The agency already has a host of rovers currently on Mars. One, the Curiosity rover, has made much headway in helping us better understand how much water did (and maybe still does) exist on Mars. Another rover is planned for 2020. This Mars 2020 rover will gather and study data on the availability of resources, such as oxygen, on Mars.
In this respect, Sending rovers is one of the first steps in getting people to Mars.
Ultimately, in the end, getting humans to Mars isn’t some empty obsession. It’s a worthwhile endeavor—one that has the potential to inspire generations in the same manner that the Apollo missions (and Moon landing) did. For many, getting to Mars would be the highest point of human exploration they would ever witness. Think of what New Horizon’s arrival at Pluto felt like, and now multiply that by about 100.
Already, Mars rover missions are accelerating innovation and research exponentially, so think of all the things that we could learn once we’re actually there. It is a bold new era in the final frontier.
At the forefront of modern space exploration looms the possibility of manned missions to Mars. From the ambitious schemes of Elon Musk, to NASA’s hopefulplan, to the collaborative endeavor of the ESA and Russia, it seems as though every major space agency is making strides towards putting humans on Mars. But, on a cold and desolate planet whose minuscule atmosphere is severely lacking, how do you sustain human life for long periods of time?
Many scientists and science fiction enthusiasts have, over the years, speculated at the possibility of terraforming Mars. Finding innovative ways to make the surface of the red planet gradually more conducive to human living. There have been many ideas and models created in the hopes of successful terraforming. Engineers designed ashell that could be placed around a small planet which could protect the planet from radiation and help to facilitate an atmosphere over time. Others thought that by breaking apart the martian crust they could release enough CO2 to build up an atmosphere. There have been many attempts, but the issues of cosmic and solar radiation paired with the unsurvivable atmosphere and dry terrain are always too much.
And, while the concept of terraforming Mars isn’t completely impossible, to successfully do it you would need to protect against cosmic radiation, solar radiation and solar winds, increase planet temperature, add oxygen and nitrogen to the atmosphere, and do all of this in a way that could be self-sustaining. Not impossible, but currently posing serious obstacles.
Despite all of these hurdles, scientists have not stopped trying to find inventive ways to terraform Mars. NASA recently proposed a unique strategy that shows a promising solution that could address some of these issues: a magnetic shield. Since the current scientific consensus is that Mars’ atmosphere was lost because of solar winds and the disappearance of the planet’s magnetic field, this solution shows promise. Mars’ magnetic field once protected the red planet while supporting an atmosphere (and moisture), and NASA scientists think it can be artificially restored.
According to Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, “In the future it is quite possible that an inflatable structure(s) can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (or 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss) as an active shield against the solar wind.”
The research team working on this idea recently conducted a simulation with their artificial magnetosphere, thanks to the Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC). They found that their dipole shield would be able to protect against solar wind and help to balance the Martian atmosphere. Because the shield would work as an artificial magnetic field, the atmosphere would actually continue to thicken over time.
This could be just another stepping stone in a long line of terraforming concepts, but this solution holds concrete possibility. Because it could help to actually create a better atmosphere over time and can actually be simulated within a lab, it is possible that the future of terraforming will begin with magnets.
NASA made a recent public request. They stated that they were looking for opportunities to “hitch a ride” on non-NASA missions to Mars. This might sound strange at first, but it makes sense. NASA is not the only agency launching and planning to launch missions into space, and bringing smaller NASA experiments aboard privately owned ships could allow for quicker advancements in research. NASA, along with many others, has ambitious plans of eventually sending manned missions to Mars. However, in order to further our explorations into space, we must first have more information.
Relying only on the data provided by NASA missions would slow progress. Partnering with private agencies like SpaceX would not hinder any privately-funded research, it would only add to the amount and type of information gathered.
NASA has big plans for the future. They have done extensive research into the possibility of terraforming Mars, had astronauts simulate living on Mars for an entire year, and continued planning unmanned missions to the Red Planet in order to learn more. There has even been recent discussion of creating an artificial magnetic field around Mars in order to terraform it over time and make it habitable for humans.
There is a lot of work ahead if NASA wants to put humans on Mars and, hopefully, one day terraform the planet. While there have been successful unmanned missions from NASA and other organizations, joining forces will allow for this progress to accelerate for the benefit of all parties involved. This wouldn’t be a merger of institutions, but rather a smart way to combine resources and eliminate waste. More frequent research on Mars will lead to better science and more informed space exploration. And, as scientists continue to develop the best ways for us to exist on the Red Planet, it is important that we better understand the mysteries of Mars.
The race to the Red Planet is, indeed, on, and the United Arab Emirates wants to be a part of it. Yesterday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, announced the Mars 2117 Project. Its goal? To establish the first inhabitable human settlement on the Red Planet by 2117.
The project will expand on what Dubai sees as its role as a world leader in space science investments. “The new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits, driven by its passion to learn to unveil a new knowledge,” Sheikh Mohammed said, reports Aljazeera.
The first phase of the project will focus on preparing the human cadres able to achieve scientific breakthrough to facilitate the arrival of human to the Red Planet in the next decades. The Mars 2117 Project also aims to prepare an Emiratis scientists team and to develop an international scientific consortium to speed up the research project. The project will start with an Emiratis scientific team and will be extended to include international scientists and researchers, in addition to streamline the human efforts in term of exploring and settlement of the [Red Planet].
The Mars 2117 Project isn’t the first time the UAE has expressed its desires to probe Mars. Back in 2014, the government announced the creation of a space agency with a goal to send an unmanned explorer to Mars by 2021.
Getting to Mars is a race, yes. But the daunting tasks involved — developing technology to travel fast enough, getting back from Mars, etc. — require a more collaborative approach. According to Sheikh Mohammad, this seems to be what UAE’s Mars 2117 Project brings to the table: “The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.”
The study of Mars’ surface and atmosphere has unlocked some ancient secrets. Thanks to the efforts of the Curiosity rover and other missions, scientists are now aware of the fact that water once flowed on Mars and that the planet had a denser atmosphere. They have also been able to deduce what mechanics led to this atmosphere being depleted, which turned it into the cold, desiccated environment we see there today.
At the same time though, it has led to a rather intriguing paradox. Essentially, Mars is believed to have had warm, flowing water on its surface at a time when the Sun was one-third as warm as it is today. This would require that the Martian atmosphere had ample carbon dioxide in order to keep its surface warm enough. But based on the Curiosity rover’s latest findings, this doesn’t appear to be the case.
These findings were part of an analysis of data taken by the Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray Diffraction (CheMin) instrument, which has been used to study the mineral content of drill samples in the Gale Crater. The results of this analysis were recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where the research team indicated that no traces of carbonates were found in any samples taken from the ancient lake bed.
To break it down, evidence collected by Curiosity (and a slew of other rovers, landers and orbiters) has led scientists to conclude that roughly 3.5 billion years ago, Mars surface had lakes and flowing rivers. They have also determined, thanks to the many samples taken by Curiosity since it landed in the Gale Crater in 2011, that this geological feature was once a lake bed that gradually became filled with sedimentary deposits.
However, for Mars to have been warm enough for liquid water to exist, its atmosphere would have had to contain a certain amount of carbon dioxide – providing a sufficient Greenhouse Effect to compensate for the Sun’s diminished warmth. Since rock samples in the Gale Crater act as a geological record for what conditions were like billions of years ago, they would surely contain plenty of carbonate minerals if this were the case.
Carbonates are minerals that result from carbon dioxide combining with positively charged ions (like magnesium and iron) in water. Since these ions have been found to be in good supply in samples of Martian rock, and subsequent analysis has shown that conditions never became acidic to the point that the carbonates would have dissolved, there is no apparent reason why they wouldn’t be showing up.
Along with his team, Thomas Bristow – the principal investigator for the CheMin instrument on Curiosity – calculated what the minimum amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide would need to be, and how this would have been indicated by the levels of carbonate found in Martian rocks today. They then sorted through the years worth of the CheMin instrument’s data to see if there were any indications of these minerals.
But as he explained in a recent NASA press release, the findings simply didn’t measure up:
We’ve been particularly struck with the absence of carbonate minerals in sedimentary rock the rover has examined. It would be really hard to get liquid water even if there were a hundred times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than what the mineral evidence in the rock tells us.
In the end, Bristow and his team could not find even trace amounts of carbonates in the rock samples they analyzed. Even if just a few tens of millibars of carbon dioxide had been present in the atmosphere when a lake existed in the Gale Crater, it would have produced enough carbonates for Curiosity’s CheMin to detect. This latest find adds to a paradox that has been plaguing Mars researchers for years.
Basically, researchers have noted that there is a serious discrepancy between what surface features indicate about Mars’ past, and what chemical and geological evidence has to say. Not only is there plenty of evidence that the planet had a denser atmosphere in the past, more than four decades of orbital imaging (and years worth of surface data) have yielded ample geomorphological evidence that Mars once had surface water and an active hydrological cycle.
However, scientists are still struggling to produce models that show how the Martian climate could have maintained the types of conditions necessary for this to have been the case. The only successful model so far has been one in which the atmosphere contained a significant amount of CO2 and hydrogen. Unfortunately, an explanation for how this atmosphere could be created and sustained remains illusive.
In addition, the geological and chemical evidence for such a atmosphere existing billions of years ago has also been in short supply. In the past, surveys by orbiters were unable to find evidence of carbonate minerals on the surface of Mars. It was hoped that surface missions, like Curiosity, would be able to resolve this by taking soil and drill samples where water had been known to exist.
But as Bristow explained, his team’s study has effectively closed the door on this:
It’s been a mystery why there hasn’t been much carbonate seen from orbit. You could get out of the quandary by saying the carbonates may still be there, but we just can’t see them from orbit because they’re covered by dust, or buried, or we’re not looking in the right place. The Curiosity results bring the paradox to a focus. This is the first time we’ve checked for carbonates on the ground in a rock we know formed from sediments deposited under water.
There are several possible explanations for this paradox. On the one hand, some scientists have argued that the Gale Crater Lake may not have been an open body of water and was perhaps covered in ice, which was just thin enough to still allow for sediments to get in. The problem with this explanation is that if this were true, there would be discernible indications left behind – which would include deep cracks in the soft sedimentary lakebed rock.
But since these indications have not been found, scientists are left with two lines of evidence that do not match up. As Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Project Scientist, put it:
Curiosity’s traverse through streambeds, deltas, and hundreds of vertical feet of mud deposited in ancient lakes calls out for a vigorous hydrological system supplying the water and sediment to create the rocks we’re finding. Carbon dioxide, mixed with other gases like hydrogen, has been the leading candidate for the warming influence needed for such a system. This surprising result would seem to take it out of the running.
Luckily, incongruities in science are what allow for new and better theories to be developed. And as the exploration of the Martian surface continues – which will benefit from the arrival of the ExoMars and the Mars 2020missions in the coming years – we can expect additional evidence to emerge. Hopefully, it will help point the way towards a resolution for this paradox, and not complicate our theories even more!
Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.
One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.
This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).
While similar-looking ridges can be found in many places on Mars, they do not appear to be formed by any single process. As Laura Kerber, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the survey report, explained in a NASA press release:
“Finding these ridges in the Medusae Fossae region set me on a quest to find all the types of polygonal ridges on Mars… Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars. Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground.”
Such ridges have also been found on Earth, and appear to be the result of various processes as well. One of the most common involves lava flowing into preexisting fractures in the ground, which then survived when erosion stripped the surrounding material away. A good example of this is the Shiprock (shown above), a monadrock located in San Juan County, New Mexico.
Examples of polygon ridges on Mars include the feature known as “Garden City“, which was discovered by the Curiosity rover mission. Measuring just a few centimeters in height, these ridges appeared to be the result of mineral-laden groundwater moving through underground fissures, which led to standing mineral veins once the surrounding soil eroded away.
At the other end of the scale, ridges that measure around 2 kilometers (over a mile) high have also been found. A good example of this is “Inca City“, a feature observed by the Mars Global Surveyor near Mars’ south pole. In this case, the feature is believed to be the result of underground faults (which were formed from impacts) filling with lava over time. Here too, erosion gradually stripped away the surrounding rock, exposing the standing lava rock.
In short, these features are evidence of underground water and volcanic activity on Mars. And by finding more examples of these polygon-ridges, scientists will be able to study the geological record of Mars more closely. Hence why Kerber is seeking help from the public through a citizen-science project called Planet Four: Ridges.
Established earlier this month on Zooniverse – a volunteer-powered research platform – this project has made images obtained by the MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) available to the public. Currently, this and other projects using data from CTX and HiRISE have drawn the participation of more than 150,000 volunteers from around the world.
By getting volunteers to sort through the CTX images for ridge formations, Kerber and her team hopes that previously-unidentified ones will be identified and that their relationship with other Martian features will be better understood.
We need to get to Mars, and we have to get there by 2033. At least, that’s what Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, Mark Kelly, former NASA astronaut, and Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, think.
“With great pride and confidence, our new President and Congress should commit together to NASA sending Americans to Mars by 2033—a realistic goal consistent with the demands of both rocket science and political science,” a recent article by Wired states.
The article cites three clear and simple reasons why the U.S. needs to get to Mars so quickly. The first reason is for science. With the recent discoveries about Mars, especially the existence of water and the possibility of microbial life, the article states that getting there “offers the chance to help answer a fundamental question: ‘Are we alone?’” The second reason is more practical, as “a national push to go to Mars would require new technologies, goods, and services that would yield an enormous return on investment to our economy. With such an effort, the American space program could generate considerable economic activity and create many US-based jobs.”
Now, 2033 isn’t an arbitrary date. It is an estimate that has been calculated based on current progress. Getting to Mars is, predictably, technologically and logistically taxing. But, thankfully, it’s a team effort between NASA and multiple private space companies, notably SpaceX.
The dream of sending people to Mars is alive. We need to make the program and strategy to do it a reality. The alternative is to give up, to take our players off the field, to concede the human exploration space frontier to other countries, and thereby guarantee defeat. […]
The big question before us and our leaders in Washington is whether we will make the investments and develop the plan we need to ensure that budding explorer and soon-to-be pioneer is an American.
In past years, the government hasn’t been remiss in ensuring the success of US space exploration efforts. Last December 2016, U.S lawmakers passed a bill for NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2017. “Today, NASA’s budget is 0.5 percent of the federal budget; the agency receives about $19 billion per year, of which about $8 billion is spent on human space flight,” according to the wired article.
The dream to reach Mars isn’t as far off as it had been when it was first conceived in the 1960s. And thanks to efforts from both the public and private sectors, we may actually get there by the hopeful year of 2033. Augustine, Kelly, and Hubbard are keeping their fingers crossed: “We hope the world will watch us be the first to send Americans to Mars and bring them home safely.”
**ARTICLE NOTES**Title: New Evidence Confirms That Microorganisms Can Survive on Mars
note development and how discovery was made. Second section, expand on what this means for alien life, terraforming, etc
Bits of life
It turns out there may actually be life on Mars, but not in the way that many have hoped for. According to a year-long study by a team of astrobiologists at the University of Arkansas (UARK), microbial life could survive in the environment on Mars. The team published their study in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.
It was the discovery of Methane on Mars that prompted the team’s study. “On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars,” according to lead author Rebecca Mickol, astrobiologist at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences at UARK. “Of course, there are a lot of possible alternatives to the methane on Mars and it is still considered controversial. But that just adds to the excitement.”
Methane on Earth is produced by microbes called methanogens, usually found in swamps, marshes and the guts of cattle. These simple organisms on Earth can survive without the Sun and oxygen, relying on hydrogen for energy and carbon dioxide as their main carbon source.
The team’s experiment recreated the harsh environments found on Mars and exposed test-tube grown methanogens to them. The Martian environment has extremely low atmospheric pressures, roughly six-thousandths of Earth’s surface pressure. The methanogens were contained in liquids representing what could have flown underneath Mars’ surface. The scientists found that all four species managed to survive for three to 21 days.
Surviving in Mars
NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen traces of ancient rivers, lakes, and seas that once covered Mars. And because the presence of water on Earth is so indicative of life, scientists have been exploring the possibility that life existed on Mars billions of years ago. This new study shows that it’s possible that life still exists on the Red Planet today.
“In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them,” said Mickol. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t other organisms out there on other planets or moons as well.”
The UARK team’s study is groundbreaking. Proof that alien life could indeed exist on Mars could change the way we will approach the Red Planet. With plans of bringing human life there, it will be important to search for where this microbial life could be found and how not to damage it —especially if we terraform the planet (Though, the presence of microbes could also help to terraform Mars).
If microbes on Mars are found, they would be life forms originally inhabiting Mars. Think of all that we could learn by studying them. To find out if these microbes do indeed exist on Mars, the team continues to experiment with methanogens to see if they could thrive and grow at such a low pressure.
If such microbes can live on Mars, who is to say that they aren’t present elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond? According to Mickol, “with the abundance of life on Earth, in all the different extremes of environments found here, it’s quite possible there exists life — bacteria or tiny microorganisms — somewhere else in the Universe…We’re just trying to explore that idea.”
For the greater part of 2016, Mars was the focus of mankind’s fascination with space, and so much of this focus centered on our desire to know about life on the Red Planet. Was Mars once a host to extraterrestrial life? Well, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on a mission to satisfy this curiosity, and recently, it uncovered something worthwhile to add to its discovery notes from last year.
Scientists are convinced, more than ever, that Mars was once a wet planet. Some billions of years ago, Mars hosted large lakes, they assert, and traces of evidence supporting this assertion have been discovered by Curiosity. The rover has also found mineral deposits that suggest the previous periods with water lasted even longer than we thought.
For the past several weeks, the Martian rover has been examining slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges in an area of Mars known as “Old Soaker.” NASA believes that these could be mud cracks that formed about 3 billion years ago. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Nathan Stein, a member of Curiosity’s team. “It looks like what you’d see beside the road where muddy ground has dried and cracked,” he added.
So, Mars most probably had water, but does this mean that there was some kind of life on the Red Planet? Everywhere we find liquid water on Earth, we find life, but Curiosity will need to roam around a little more before we can be sure that the same can be said of Mars.
2017 looks like it’s going to be a fantastic year for futurists and sci-fi lovers. Whether you’re set on a much-anticipated sequel or a fresh standalone, this year is set to be awash in sci-fi features. Check out these five films to watch out for, and how they’re tied to real scientific advancements.
Life (March 2017)
Set aboard the International Space Station, this six-member crew is on a mission to become the first team to discover proof of extraterrestrial life on Mars. While conducting research, they find that life forms not only exist, but also might be much more intelligent than ever expected. The trailer seems to hint that the film will combine the realism of Gravity with the abject horror of Alien.
A resurgence of films set in realistic space conditions could be a response to increasing public attention to current space travel projects, such as those being conducted by SpaceX. With the arrival of the first humans on Mars rapidly approaching, and increased scientific efforts to search for intelligent life, our interest in seeing these kinds of stories is only going to grow.
Ghost In The Shell (March 2017)
Based on the 1995 anime film sharing the same title, Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a cyborg faced with a mission to take down a dangerous criminal hacker. We’re hoping that director Rupert Sanders can combine his visual flair with a substantive exploration of some of the original film’s heady concepts.
The story delves into ideas such as consciousness and the repercussions of technological advancement – topics that aren’t at all unfamiliar to today’s researchers. In fact, science just recently took steps toward pinpointing where in the brain human consciousness is centered. Lately, there’s also been lot of focus on the ethics of AI within the scientific community, with some even calling for a mandatory kill switch.
Alien: Covenant (May 2017)
Alien: Covenant is the second chapter of Ridley Scott’s prequel trilogy, beginning with Prometheus and connecting with the original Aliens in 1979. The film captures a colony aboard the Covenant, who are bound for an uncharted planet within the outer reaches of the galaxy. When they arrive, they find that they aren’t alone. After they discover the planet’s sole survivor, the last “synthetic” from the failed Prometheus expedition, they encounter an alien life-form that turns their paradise into a dangerous world where they must fight to escape.
It’s too bad Steven Hawking was not a figure in the universe of the Alien films. Had he been, the crews from Weyland-Yutani would have known better than to make first contact. The famed scientist has recently warned against humans being the ones to initiate with alien beings, as the results could be devastating to our species.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (July 2017)
Luc Besson is returning to the beloved genre that put his name on the map. The director of the much loved (and hated) space opera, The Fifth Element is returning to the cosmos. His latest outing is based on the French comics series Valérian and Laureline. The trailer promises a wild ride full of lush visuals and plenty of over-the-top action to spare. The film’s massive $180 million budget will allow for a lot of delicious eye-candy to complement the mindless action.
We back here in the present are also starting the see the beginning of the kind of super suits Valerian gets to wear which give humans heightened ability. Some of these suits are being designed to increase the abilities of the elderly or disabled, but they can also be used to assist workers doing heavy lifting or other physical tasks.
Blade Runner 2049 (October 2017)
Here comes the long-awaited sequel to the original Blade Runner, which was released over three decades ago. It takes place in Los Angeles, where a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling) is led on a quest to find the former blade runner (Harrison Ford) who hasn’t been seen in more than 30 years. The film is being helmed by the visionary director Denis Villeneuve, known for his dark visual tone – one that matches the world created by Philip K. Dick and visualized by Ridley Scott in the original film. Watch out for the companion VR content being made available on the Oculus Rift, coming out around the release of the movie in October.
As with space travel, the technology behind bioelectronics and artificial intelligence is rapidly developing. Much like the world of Rick Deckard, robots are taking over tasks that only humans could previously do. The inclusion of VR content is also an interesting development for such a high profile film. It will be interesting to see what future campaigns will include, should this prove to be successful.
The clever girls and boys at NASA are always dreaming up new ways to circumvent the biggest obstacle to effective space travel: the speed barrier. Space is big, as you might have heard—and it takes a long time to get around.
It’s about three days to the Moon, which isn’t too bad; but Mars is another story altogether. With current methods of chemical rocket propulsion—the same that have been used for some three-quarters of a century—a voyage to the Red Planet would take about five months.
But a team of NASA scientists, headed by Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have envisioned a different means of getting about space—one that requires nothing more than a beam of light. Called “photonic propulsion,” it requires little more than a solar sail of ultralight material, which is pushed along by energy beamed from an orbital laser array.
Lubin’s team was awarded a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant, to the tune of $100,000, to begin the planning and testing phase of the project. It is being called—with a typically NASA-esque acronymic flair (though in this case to a somewhat unfortunate effect)—Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN).
The idea is to yoke a small probe to a solar sail, orbit a laser array, and push the probe toward its destination at speeds far in excess of anything we can attain these days. Lubin estimates a probe weighing only a few hundred pounds could be accelerated to Mars using this method in just three days. Scale the technology up from unmanned probes to manned vessels (no mean feat), and we could be talking about a journey to Mars in a month—one-fifth of the travel time via conventional techniques.
New Paths to the Stars
As we begin to seriously prepare for our first journey to Mars, there’s been a flurry of research into novel propulsion methods to help get us there. One very promising avenue leads to the VASIMR nuclear electric thruster, which opens up the possibility of a journey to the Red Planet in only 40 days. The technology is still in development, and has some key challenges—most notably building a space-capable nuclear reactor to power the engine array—but it seems to be one of the most immediately realizable technologies for fast interplanetary travel.
Other ideas have been mooted, including Charles Bombardier’s somewhat fanciful Solar Express concept, which could—theoretically—reach something like 1% of the speed of light. The peculiar “EM drive,” meanwhile, still makes headlines; although, barring a significant contravention of the laws of physics, it seems destined to follow cold fusion into the dustbin of scientific history.
So it seems photonic propulsion is one of the better options we currently have. If the technology can be scaled up and made to endure the rigors of frequent space travel, it might just be our best hope for colonizing the Solar System; when it comes to reaching for the stars, it might just be the only option we have for a very long time.
The surface of Mars is a barren landscape riddled with peril. From high energy radiation to barreling sandstorms, it is unbearably dry and currently unsurvivable for human beings. However, with the looming possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and future prospects of populated colonies on the Red Planet, NASA has been investigating different habitats that would best protect humans from the harsh elements.
NASA accepted more than 165 applications for a Mars habitat design contest this past year as part of their Centennial Challenges program that engages the public in the advancement of technology. Utilizing the public to innovate in this manner has allowed for an influx of creativity. Applicants have 3D printed models of their designs, and while the ultimate winner was the ‘Mars Ice House,’ there were a number of promising and intriguing designs. Below are the top three winners of this contest.
The third place winner of this contest was Team LavaHive. As their name indicates, their model is to be constructed with recycled spacecraft materials and ‘lava-casting.’ Regolith (the rocks and soil that lie loosely on the surface) would be made molten and shaped into coils and layers to form the shapes of the habitat. Each shape created would be sprayed with an adhesive to ensure that it is airtight. This method would protect not only against the harsh sand and wind elements, but also against high-energy radiation. These structures would exist both above and below the Martian surface, with the capacity to add additional subterranean modules.
The second place winner was Team Gamma. Their model is designed to be constructed by pre-programmed, semi-autonomous robots on the surface of Mars prior to the arrival of human astronauts. Each habitat may hold up to four adults and will be built using 3D printed structure, inflatable modules, and regolith. The regolith would be fused using microwaves, creating a barrier that would protect against radiation. The structures would exist both above and below the surface.
One unique aspect of this model is that the robots will not be given exact step-by-step directions. Instead, they will be given rules and objectives. This will allow them to operate even if communication fails and there are unexpected difficulties.
The design of the compact 93 sqm habitat modules combines spatial efficiency with human physiology and psychology, with overlapping private and communal spaces, finished with ‘soft’ materials and enhanced virtual environments, which help reduce the adverse effects of monotony, while creating positive living environment for the astronauts.
The ultimate winner of this contest was Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York, New York, or Team Mars Ice House as they are known. Kevin Vipavetz, the senior systems engineer at NASA’s Langley research center, and his team considered “many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution.”
The Ice House is a large inflatable dome surrounded by a layer of 3D printed ice and a relatively thin layer of loose regolith. This strategy relies on the assumption of water in Mars’ northern hemisphere. This model is most capable of protecting human life against the intense cosmic and solar radiation, and surface contamination, while also allowing the structure to be completely above ground. The dome will feature an outer and inner shell, allowing for movement without a spacesuit and the possibility of growing plants.
All three of these designs might look outlandish and improbable, but they are structurally sound and capable of supporting human life and innovation. Some day, far into the future, one of these designs could be your future home on Mars.
The world is competing in a new space race – this time around, it’s a mad dash for Mars. SpaceX and NASA have been vocal about their plans to reach the Red Planet, but now, a new competitor is speaking up.
Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said Beijing aims to launch its first Mars probe around 2020 to carry out orbiting and roving exploration, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the Red Planet. The announcement was made in a press conference held early this week for the release of a policy paper that detailed China’s intent to explore deep space.
The ultimate goal is to establish China as frontrunner in the field of space exploration by 2030. By then, the country also plans to have landed on the moon – a goal they hope to achieve by 2018. Eventually, China also plans to send probes to Jupiter and its moons.
Plans to Reach The Red Planet
The original space race was defined by the United States and Russia battling for supremacy in spaceflight capability from the 1950s through the 70s. America proved to be the winner of this race when they landed on the moon in 1969. China lagged behind – the country didn’t send its first satellite into space until 1970.
While the country was a late entrant into the space race, they have effectively stamped their intent to become a serious contender in the decades since. To date, they have staged a spacewalk, sent a rover to the moon, launched a space lab, and sent five crews into space. The latter marks China as only the third country in the world (the other two being the US and Russia) to have been able to achieve this successfully.
Given all the advances in technology however, this generation’s space race is more competitive than ever, with governments going head to head with privately funded organizations. SpaceX has already announced plans to colonize Mars within the next 40 to 100 years, targeting 2025 as the year they reach the Red Planet. As far as Elon Musk, the company’s CEO is concerned, it’s no longer a question of whether we will ever reach Mars, it’s a matter of when.
NASA on the other hand, who hopes to reach Mars by 2030, has divided their plan to reach Mars into several phases: “intensive research aboard the International Space Station to complex operations in multiple staging orbits for deep-space simulations, and finally missions and home-building on Mars.”
However, NASA’s associated administrator for science, Thomas Zurburchen says that it isn’t necessarily a race. “If Elon Musk brought the [Mars] samples in the door right now I’d throw him a party out of my own money,” he said in a previous interview with Seeker.
With the U.S. Congress giving NASA the funds it needs to send manned missions to Mars, the space agency is serious about making it to our nearest neighbor. They are taking a multi-step approach, first focusing on improving human spaceflight capabilities through tests of technologies like the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket out near the Moon.
Before it sends people to Mars, NASA has several more unmanned missions in the works. The first is InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), which is set for a 2018 launch as part of the agency’s Discovery Program to put a geophysical lander on Mars to study the planet’s interior.
Speaking of landers, NASA also plans to send a rover to the Red Planet by 2020. This Mars 2020 Rover “will carry seven carefully selected instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet,” according to NASA.
Other plans in the pipeline include a sample return mission by the second decade of the 21st century, though no concrete plans have been revealed for that just yet.
ESA’s ExoMars: Take Two
After a botched landing of its ExoMars lander earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled to have a second go at it by 2020. For the second mission, the ESA is including a rover equipped with a drill to allow for the study of Mars’ interior, as well as instruments for exobiology and geochemistry research. It will also include a Proton launcher provided by Russian space agency Roscosmos.
SpaceX isn’t the only company looking to establish a colony on Mars — Netherlands-based non-profit Mars One wants to be the first to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.
Th company’s plans include sending robotic precursor missions in 2020, 2022, and 2024, with the first settlers scheduled for launch in 2026 to land on Mars by 2027. Recently, the program had some trouble, suspending work on a couple of its robotic missions. In the meantime, Mars One continues its candidate selection process for astronauts and development of spacesuits for Mars.
Boeing Enters the Competition
The most recent company to express interest in joining the race to Mars is Boeing. The veteran rocket developer wants to beat newbie SpaceX to Mars, and both are currently working with NASA on program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Though a detailed plan outlining Boeing’s missions to Mars hasn’t been released yet, according to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket.”
If you’re thinking of volunteering to go to Mars—should the offer come up—you might want to hold your horses.
Before we can even start sending people to Mars (a trip that would take around three years) an assessment must be made of the health risks associated with long periods of exposure to zero-gravity environments, and preventive measures must be identified and developed.
To that end, NASA launched the Human Research Program (HRP) in 2005, a research project dedicated to “investigating and mitigating the highest risks to astronaut health and performance in support of exploration missions.”
So far, the longest period that astronauts have been in space is almost one year—that’s twice the normal time for astronauts to spend in space. American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent nearly a year at the International Space Station (ISS) and served somewhat as guinea pigs for testing the long term medical, psychological and biomedical effects of long periods of space travel to the human body, a mission aptly named the One-Year Mission. Kelly and Kornienko are now undergoing studies to assess how their long stay in space has affected their health.
Space Biology: Health Hazards
Space Radiation Messes You Up…in Many Ways
Radiation is, by far, the most serious, most dangerous, and scariest health hazard out in space. Once you venture out beyond the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, there will be nothing to protect you from space radiation. According to Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI): “Exposure to space radiation increases the risks of astronauts developing cancer, experiencing central nervous system (CNS) decrements, exhibiting degenerative tissue effects or developing acute radiation syndrome.”
The effects of space radiation may appear immediately, or much later after exposure. According to NASA: “It can damage your central nervous system, with both acute effects and later consequences, manifesting itself as altered cognitive function, reduced motor function, and behavioral changes. Space radiation can also cause radiation sickness that results in nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue.”
“The food you eat and the medicine you take must be safe and retain their nutrient and pharmaceutical value, even while being bombarded with space radiation,” they add.
As of now, we still do not have the means to combat this.
Males and Females Experience Different Effects
It has been established that men and women are affected differently. Examine the differences through the visual below.
As mentioned earlier, studies are underway to completely identify all the health hazards of lengthy space travel. Intensive studies also focus on the effects of space travel on cells, tissues, hormones, and the immune system as microbes (including your own microbiome) can change in space. They are also easily transferred, increasing your risk of disease. Hopefully, these studies will progress quickly so that counteractive measures to these effects can be developed for safer deep space travel.
SpaceX plans to perform its first Red Dragon landing on Mars by 2018 – but it won’t be carrying any of NASA’s science instruments. Although NASA wants to see Elon Musk’s plans to conquer the Red Planet succeed, NASA would rather make sure SpaceX can pull them off first. If for any reason the mission fails, NASA doesn’t want millions of dollars of their equipment going down with the Dragon.
“I can’t wait for it to be successful, because it opens up our opportunities to deliver important science instruments into the Mars environment,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division head, speaking at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual fall meeting. And until this happens, he is keeping his fingers crossed.
“Landing on Mars is hard. I want to wait this one out,” Green said.
SpaceX isn’t rushing things by targeting a 2018 landing. It’s a matter of opportunity, aiming for a once-every-26-months chance when Earth and Mars align favorably. SpaceX wants to take every launch opportunity that would present itself in the future, hopefully beginning in 2018.
And, as SpaceX very well knows by now, missions as crucial as landing on Mars require ample time to go over every single relevant detail. Researching and studying the steps is critical.
According to Plan
For its part, SpaceX has been taking all the necessary preparations and precautions to ensure the critical technologies are prepared for the Mars missions. Perhaps the most important tech that will be key for a successful landing is the Dragon capsule’s onboard SuperDraco thrusters, which are needed to perform what SpaceX calls “supersonic retropropulsion”.
NASA is providing technical support to the first Red Dragon mission in a number of areas, via an unfunded Space Act Agreement. The space agency will get something out of the deal as well: access to most of the data gathered during Dragon’s landing on Mars.
Supposedly, the Dragon will force its way through the Martian atmosphere traveling far faster than the speed of sound. The SuperDraco thrusters — not parachutes — would then act as a counter force to slow the capsule down for a manageable thud on the Red Planet’s surface This strategy has never been executed before, and NASA is all too keen on seeing it succeed.
Facebook users got a sneak peek into the future when National Geographic hosted a 360 degree tour of a test habitat where crew members of the Mars Society are simulating a Martian mission. The crew just spent 80 days in the habitat and gave an exciting view into what life on Mars might look like.
This mission was a part of the larger Mars 160 mission designed to simulate the conditions and constraints of an actual mission to Mars. A team of seven crew members are participating in two 80-day excursions at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah (which you’ll see in the video) and then another 80 days at a research outpost in the Canadian Arctic.
During these simulations, crew members “will conduct a sustained program of geological, paleontological and micro-biological field explorations,” similar to the investigations that would be conducted on the Red Planet.
National Geographicis currently airing a miniseries, Mars, dealing with Martian exploration. You can catch the series finale on Monday, December 19, at 9/8c.
The Mars Society gives regular updates, including daily images, to Space.com.
A recent discovery supports these claims. The Curiosity rover’s study of different rocks over the Gale Crater’s elevational range of about 200 meters (650 ft) covers a timespan of roughly tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years. Throughout this period, the environment in the crater, which supposedly cradled an ancient Martian lake, was continually changing, but not enough to preclude life from existing.
The newest evidence of this ancient life on Mars is Curiosity’s discovery of boron, marking the first time that this element has been found on the Red Planet.
“We are seeing chemical complexity indicating a long, interactive history with the water. The more complicated the chemistry is, the better it is for habitability,” John Grotzinger, Curiosity team member and geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, explained in a press release. “The boron, hematite, and clay minerals underline the mobility of elements and electrons, and that is good for life.”
Where There Is Water…
Based on observations by Curiosity, the ancient lake in the Gale Crater was initially composed of fresh water (neutral-pH water). It became slightly acidic over time, and saltier still a little later.
This all happened over a period of millions of years, as the crater’s lake went through periods of drying out and then filling up again as groundwater rose. Despite these changes, Grotzinger believes that the area remained mostly habitable, as some forms of microbial life could’ve been sustained by groundwater during the lake’s dry spells.
If the conditions on ancient Mars were largely similar to those on Earth, where there is water, there is a great chance that life could exist, as well. The abundant traces of silica, which is excellent at preserving microbial life on Earth, found in Curiosity’s samples could aid future life-hunting missions on Mars. “I think this is a tremendously exciting discovery,” said Grotzinger.
“Mars is the next step of our space program. It’s the challenge that’s been staring us in the face for the past 30 years. At one time in the ancient past, Mars was very similar to the conditions of early Earth. We now have ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ on the surface of this new world. The Mars rovers have captured our imaginations. They genuinely are explorers in the old-fashioned sense.”
Thirty years ago, Carl Sagan wrote these words, urging the continued funding of NASA’s programs in the U.S. budget. However, there are obstacles that we still face when it comes to exploring, understanding, and conquering the Red Planet.
The U.S. is the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. We lead the globe in the exploration of the solar system and the development of commercial, military, and communication satellites. We can reach the Moon and Mars, but it seems we can’t (or don’t) stay long. Instead, we spend billions of dollars leaving and returning again.
In order to build on Mars, to stay on Mars, and ultimately expand to other worlds, there are two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, the establishment of a permanent presence in space requires the development of space-based infrastructures. We can see Mars with our “eyes” and “ears”—our probes—but we can neither physically reach it nor stay there until we’ve first established significant human enterprise, industry, and presence operating off Earth.
The second obstacle in relation to establishing a permanent human presence in space is the why? In short, to explore, understand, and build on the Red Planet, we need an economic impetus to do so.
So what is the next step? How do we maintain a human presence off Earth? How can we access the resources of the Solar System if we can’t stay in space any longer than it takes for the trip there and back again?
In the past half-century, we’ve had three real answers to this question: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Skylab, and the Freedom. All projects towards permanent habitable space stations. Yet, all three projects were canceled due to financial obstacles.
With one exception.
A Long Voyage into the Cosmos
The Freedom Space Station project launched in 1994, and it was eventually converted into a larger Space Station, one that is still in operation today under a different name.TheFreedom and Russian Federal Space Agency space station project (MIR-2) modules were integrated, ultimately becoming the Russian Orbital Segments and American Orbital Segments of the International Space Station (ISS).
These canceled Russian and American projects formed the first joint international undertaking off Earth.
Can the U.S. maintain its place as a leader of the development of space-based industry? Could the U.S. create its own space station as a stepping stone into the cosmos? Let’s imagine it.
The space station could legally operate the way Tiangong 1 and 2 have. The Tiangong stations, translating to Heavenly Palace, have been the only other manned stations in space besides the ISS. Though small, the Tiangongs are nonetheless an entity of the Chinese government. An easy, if not entirely semantically correct, way to think about it is that the Tiangongs are a city of China in space.
Any developments by the U.S would be the American counterpart, the city in space—a design which was investigated by NASA more than a quarter of a century ago. The U.S space station should not only be intended as a scientific laboratory, but as a central location for U.S. economic activities, such as asteroid mining and space solar power (1). Ultimately, this new space station’s primary purpose would be to generate space-based industry, providing burgeoning enterprises with the resources to initiate economic activity off Earth. The new U.S. Space Station would be the realization of the three failed NASA projects to colonize the solar system
Making Space Affordable
With the development of space-based economic activities, such as space solar power and asteroid mining, this can lead to the creation of technology that will facilitate the accessibility of space by allowing companies to generate revenue from their efforts.
Currently, it costs millions of dollars to send a pound of anything into space, whether it’s computers, water, or personnel. Space solar power is an economic impetus that could lead to sustainable and renewable energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste, and is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Additionally, asteroid mining can bring rare-earth metals and resources within our grasp, materials that are in limited supply on Earth and are used in everything from electric vehicles to computer chips. Resources that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium, water, rare-earth metals, oxygen, and hydrogen. These could be used to sustain the lives of astronauts on-site, to create rocket propellants, and to send back to Earth. Notably, in space exploration, using resources gathered while on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization, eliminating the need for billion-dollar-chemically-based rockets to bring such necessities from Earth.
These space-based industries are our frontier, the new frontier. Building a home amongst the stars can not only lead to the construction of the technology for easier ways of getting off the Earth, but also to new ways of thinking about space travel—like non-rocket space launches, a geosynchronous orbital tether to the stars, or even the laser propelled lightcraft (2).
Understanding The Need
Of course, having a U.S. space station would not be simple. The project will require us to create new space-based industries and catalyze a new frontier of economic activity with a dedicated human presence in space. But imagine drastically reducing the financial burden of maintaining satellites in space. Imagine being able to build ships while in space as opposed to launching them from the Earth and battling the clutches of gravity. Imagine the military advantage of a space station that can send aid to any position on the globe. Imagine 1000 Americans in space on an American Space Station in a new branch of the military.
Most importantly, such an enterprise would likely create unprecedented economic opportunities off Earth that we’ve never before considered, which could ultimately lead up to an even larger space station and the true colonization of the solar system.
Ultimately, a permanent U.S space station is not only a step for American aerospace industry gaining the foothold to tap resources of the solar system, but another big step for humanity becoming a multi-planetary civilization and one day reaching (and staying) on the Red Planet.
(1) Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power, oil, gas, ethanol, nuclear plants, and coal plants, space solar power does not emit greenhouse gasses or hazardous waste. It is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in huge quantities. It works regardless of cloud cover, daylight, or wind speed. Further, space solar power can be exported to virtually any place in the world, and its energy can be converted for local needs — such as the manufacturing of methanol for use in places like rural India, where there are no electric power grids. Space solar power can also be used for the desalination of sea water and the agricultural development of previously barren, open lands. Lastly, space solar power can provide a market large enough to develop the low-cost space transportation system that is required for its deployment. This, in turn, will also bring the resources of the solar system within economic reach.
(2) Laser propulsion is in its early stages of development. Lightcraft use an external laser source or maser energy to provide power for producing thrust. The laser/maser energy is focused to a high intensity in order to create a plasma. The plasma expands, producing thrust.
Many Mars missions are facing a very blunt controversy: how much is it going to cost to send people up there to study and possibly colonize the Red Planet?
A contender in the Mars space race is Mars One, a space tech organization that originates in the Netherlands. The company has two direct arms: the Dutch non-profit Mars One Foundation, and the British public company in charge of monetization, Mars One Ventures. Now, the Ventures profit arm has announced an agreement with Swiss InFin Innovative Finance AG to a shares takeover bid.
“The acquisition is now only pending approval by the board of Mars One Ventures,” the companies said in a joint announcement.
The finance takeover solidifies Mars One’s efforts to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. On the Mars One website, they discussed their reliance on corporate investments and donations as a primary funding source. The space tech company did try to gain additional funding by pitching a television reality show about the missions to and life on Mars, but this was axed by their partner production company.
To get to the Red Planet is a big dream that needs to bring in big bucks. The different companies gearing up to get us there are funded in different ways.
NASA plans to bring astronauts to Mars itself by the 2030s. It’s funded by the US government using federal revenue from income, corporate, and other taxes.
SpaceX receives most of its seed money from billionaire founder Elon Musk. It also gains much from its government subsidy, with an estimated $4.9 billion coming in for the space tech company and Musk’s electric car empire, Tesla. SpaceX has a more urgent timeline, and they plan to get millions of people up to the Martian “colonies” by 2024—just check out their new outline for a future “Mars-shot.”
Lockheed Martin, based in Maryland, is another privately-owned aerospace company with dreams of the Red Planet dancing through its head. Their Mars Base Camp, a collaboration with NASA, believes it can send astronauts to space by around 2028. It sources funds from its numerous corporate profits, together with investments.
While we’re not sure who can get us to Mars first, what’s certain is that it’s going to take a lot of money to do it.