Tag Archives: Mars

One-way ticket to Mars, redux

Earth-Mars montageThe one-way mission to Mars is becoming one of those hardy perennial stories, earning a mention here back in the spring of 2008 when former NASA engineer Jim McLane spoke out in favour of the idea.

Now it’s the turn of Lawrence Krauss, who sums up his attitude to Mars missions with the phrase “to boldly go where no one has gone before does not require coming home again”.

The most challenging impediment to human travel to Mars does not seem to involve the complicated launching, propulsion, guidance or landing technologies but something far more mundane: the radiation emanating from the Sun’s cosmic rays. The shielding necessary to ensure the astronauts do not get a lethal dose of solar radiation on a round trip to Mars may very well make the spacecraft so heavy that the amount of fuel needed becomes prohibitive.

There is, however, a way to surmount this problem while reducing the cost and technical requirements, but it demands that we ask this vexing question: Why are we so interested in bringing the Mars astronauts home again?

His arguments focus on finance (a one-way mission is far cheaper and more logistically simple) and anthropological pragmatism (the journey might well reduce the astronauts’ lifespans considerably, so why waste the remainder of their lives dying in an Earth hospital when they could be doing useful stuff on Mars?). It’s a very cold set of equations, of course… but as has been pointed out before, there’d probably be no shortage of volunteers, be they elderly scientists or younger bold adventurers. Hell knows I’d love to go.

Furthermore, Krauss is probably correct in suggesting that Congress and NASA would never take the political risk of a mission that could be seen as signing a definite death warrant for American citizens, even if they chose to go. So perhaps that one-way ticket will be supplied by a private company… if it’s ever supplied at all. [via SlashDot; image by Bluedharma]

Over to Mars in 39 days

marsA fascinating article at New Scientist on a new nuclear powered ion drive called VASIMR that could transport astronauts to Mars in as little as 39 days:

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas

Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines, which simply accelerate their plasma by sending it through a series of metal grids with different voltages. In that setup, ions colliding with the grid tend to erode it, limiting the power and lifetime of the rocket. VASIMR’s radio frequency generator gets around that problem by never coming into contact with the ions.

Hitherto most plans to get to Mars involve lengthy journey times, during which exposure to cosmic rays and extended periods of weightlessness (ameliorated somewhat by centrifugal artificial gravity) could have a debilitating effect on the adventurers.

The creation of these powerful ion drives is an exciting and interesting development. Certainly I hope to see someone get to Mars within my lifetime. I wonder what technique will be used?

[from New Scientist][image from chipdatajeffb on flickr]

UK government to part-finance manned Mars mission?

marsI know, it sounds pretty far fetched – but evidently all this stirring talk of great achievements has gotten someone hot under the collar, as Wired UK gives the (apparently exclusive) news that the UK government may change its policy on funding contributions to the ESA in favour of supporting manned missions, possibly someday sending a Brit along on a manned mission to Mars:

… Drayson said that the review would not result in a larger budget for space research in the UK, but could reverse the country’s refusal to fund manned missions. He said the European Space Agency’s (ESA) selection of a British astronaut, Tim Peake, for its astronaut training programme and the agency’s work towards a mission to Mars would help to capture the public imagination.

[…]

To date, the UK has only supported robotic explorations in space, and stipulated that the £180 million that it pays towards the work of ESA is not used for manned space programmes. As a result, the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, travelled to the Mir space station on a Soviet rocket in 1991 as part of a privately funded mission. Other Britons who have also reached space did so by changing their nationality to become American or by going as space tourists with Russian space shuttles.

Drayson hopes to change this stance, but acknowledged that any UK manned mission would be the result of a collaboration with other nations. “Reaching Mars will be a huge scientific challenge but it won’t be done without a global effort,” he said.

The consultation will also look at whether the current UK space body, British National Space Centre (BNSC), should be replaced by a new British space agency. Drayson suggested that the new agency will be called Her Majesty’s Space Agency.

HMSA… sounds like something from an as-yet-unwritten Warren Ellis comic. Who knows what will actually come of it – the UK government will say anything that they think has a hope of raising a smile at the moment – but it’s quite gratifying to think that we might get involved more seriously with space exploration. Sadly I’m now way too old and unfit to even consider revitalising my childhood dream of being an astronaut… I doubt they’d need a blogger, anyway. *sigh* [image from Physorg]

But hey, I’ll bet Paul McAuley’s pretty stoked by the news; only yesterday, he was suggesting that a Mars mission should be reinstated as a long term goal for human space exploration:

Not because it’s easy; because it’s hard. Not because the Russians (or Chinese) might get there first. Cold War imperatives like that died when the Berlin Wall came down. No, we should send an international mission, for all humankind.

[…]

Impossibly ambitious? Foolishly optimistic? Maybe. A waste of money better spent on problems right here on Earth? These guys don’t think so. And hey, there are always going to be problems here on Earth, and most of the money will stay right here, employing an army of specialists and engineers, stimulating new technologies. There’s been a large amount of looking back, these past weeks, and regret for what might have been, if the Apollo programme hadn’t been abandoned. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

And, as pointed out at The Guardian, there’d be no shortage of volunteers for a manned Mars mission, even if it were made plain that it was a one-way ticket:

“You would find no shortage of volunteers,” said John Olson, Nasa’s director of exploration systems integration. “It’s really no different than the pioneering spirit of many in past history, who took the one-way trip across the ocean, or the trip out west across the United States with no intention of ever returning.”

[…]

Nasa is currently bound by Kennedy’s directive to bring its astronauts home, Olson said. But the other nations rapidly developing space programmes may shed the constraint, as could the commercial companies that may supplant national efforts. “Space is no longer for power and prestige; it’s truly for economic benefit,” the Apollo 11 flight director Eugene Kranz said. “The technology that emerges from high-risk, high-profile, extremely difficult missions is the technology that will keep the economic engine of our nation continuing to go through the years.”

With currently foreseeable technology, a round trip to Mars launched from a lunar outpost would take two to three years – a journey of six to nine months each way and a year-long mission on the surface.

If I was even close to meeting the selection criteria, I’d volunteer without a second thought.

But in the meantime, while we’re stuck here on Earth, how about a little mood music, eh? This video features a bootleg recording of Pink Floyd’s lost “lunar landing jam”, which they played out live as part of the BBC’s covergae of the Apollo landings [thanks to DailySwarm]. Get yer interplanetary blues on…

Travel to Mars… without ever leaving the parking lot

MarsSo, do you think you could cope with the cramped conditions and prison psychology that would be an inevitable part of a manned mission to Mars and back?

Well, here’s the test – we’ll lock you in a fake space capsule that’s sitting in a parking lot somewhere outside of Moscow for about a hundred days with five other people and watch you through cameras to see how you get on.

The idea is for the 550 cubic-metre “ground exploration complex” (GEC) to recreate as closely as possible the atmosphere of a spacecraft racing through the solar system, bombarded by cosmic radiation. Any return flight to Mars – at least 34 million miles from our planet – would take between 18 months and three years, including landing and exploration.

The volunteers – four Russians, a French airline pilot and a German army engineer – will be kept under constant camera surveillance to record the physical and psychological impact of their time in the isolation chamber.

Isn’t this lifted wholesale from a J G Ballard story? You’re surely going to get some industrial-grade cabin fever going on…

Mark Belokovksy of the IMBP admitted the psychological pressure of living in close quarters with five other human beings could crack even the toughest guinea pigs.

“Tension is inevitable,” he said candidly. The fact the 105-day “flight” will be a single-sex trip on this occasion may be a blessing. During a similar experiment in 1999 the participants were given vodka to celebrate New Year’s Eve: two members then got in a fist fight after one tried to kiss a female volunteer from Canada.

Yeesh; the green-eyed monster in outer space, no less. I wonder where I can find details about that Canadian experiment – I’m curious to know whether the women fared any better at the isolation than the men did. Would an all-female crew be more stable, or less? How about a crew of eunuchs?

But if you’ll permit me a brief flight of fancy, mashing up this story with that half-remembered Ballard piece and the Moon hoax conspiracy theories: I wonder if it would be possible for a government with sufficient space capability to run an entirely faked CGI Mars mission that fooled everyone, even the cosmonauts themselves? [image by jasonb42882]

Should Mars be treated like a wildlife preserve?

MarsFinding life on Mars would be pretty awesome, right? Of course it would – but it would also mean we’d have to change the way we work on the red planet, because of the ethical can of worms presented by contaminating a whole new biosphere.

We’ve already contaminated it, though – all of our probes and landers are likely festooned with Earthside microbes. Now some planetary scientists recommend that, should life be found, we remove or destroy our Martian hardware and keep things pristine:

He warns that Earth life could be reawakened if weather conditions on the planet change. This could happen as a result of periodic swings in the planet’s tilt, or if humans purposely alter the Martian environment, which, ironically, they might do to make conditions cosier for any Martian life they might discover. Microbes on subsurface drills in search of liquid water could also contaminate potential Martian habitats.

Here’s Jamias Cascio’s response:

… if life is found, definitely. No question. If fossilized life is found, also definitely, since that could mean dormant life, waiting for a Mars Spring.

If there’s no evidence of past or present life found… the question becomes more difficult. I always kind of sympathized with the Reds over the Greens in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but I also believe that establishing a human foothold off of Earth is a wise long-term survival strategy.

Could we justify changing the Martian climate, knowing that — as with Earth — such changes are irreversible?

The answer to that will depend on circumstance, I guess; it’s worth considering that the sort of political climate that would lead to greater exploration of Mars might well be the sort of climate that produces colonial attitudes. And the colonial era was pretty big on resource exploitation… [image by chipdatajeffb]

What do you think – should Mars be preserved pristine?