Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

Mars_exploreWith the exploration of Mars continuing apace and a manned missions looming, there has been an explosion of interest in the idea of one day settling the planet. As the non-profit organization known as Mars One can attest, many people are  interested in becoming part of a mission to colonize the Red Planet. In fact, when they first went public, some 200,000 people signed on to become part of the experience.

The fact that the trip would be one-way and that the  plans for getting them there did not yet exist was not an deterrent. But if a recent study from MIT is to be believed, those who choose to go will and have the experience televised will be in for a rather harsh experience. According to a feasibility study produced by researchers at the Institute, the plan has potentially deadly and astronomically expensive flaws.

mars_revelationspaceAfter analyzing the Mars One mission plan, the MIT research group found that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days. The other astronauts would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The analysis also concludes that 15 Falcon Heavy launches – costing around $4.5 billion – would be needed to support the first four Mars One crew.

The technology underpinning the mission is rather nebulous; and indeed, that’s where the aerospace researchers at MIT find a number of potentially catastrophic faults. While the technology to set up a colony on Mars does technically exist, most of it is at a very low technology readiness level (TRL) and untested in a Mars-like environment. And the prediction that things will be worked out with time and crowdfunding does not appear to be sufficient.

Mars_one2Mars One will rely heavily on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – squeezing water from Martian soil and oxygen from the atmosphere. But these technologies are still a long way off large-scale, industrial use by a nascent human colony on Mars. NASA’s next Mars rover will have an ISRU unit that will make oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere of CO2 – but that rover isn’t scheduled to launch until 2020, just two years before the planned launch of Mars One.

Originally, Mars One’s sign-up list included some 200,000 candidates. That number has now been whittled down to 705 – a fairly even mix of men and women from all over the world, but mostly the US. Several teams of four astronauts (two men, two women) will now be assembled, and training will begin. The current plan is to send a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the first team of four to Mars in 2022 – just eight years from now. 

spaceX-falcon9The whole thing will be televised as a reality TV show, an instrinsic part of the plan since much of the funding is expected to come from media sponsors and advertisers. In the interim, a number of precursor missions – supplies, life-support units, living units, and supply units – will be sent to Mars ahead of the human colonizers. More colonists will be sent fairly rapidly thereafter, with 20 settlers expected by 2033.

The new feasibility study was led by Sydney Do, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done similar studies on other space missions. Do and his team ran a computer simulation based on publicly available information about the Mars One plan and the kinds of technologies it would rely on. The researchers entered data about the crew’s age, weight and activities to find out how much food, oxygen and water they would need.

Mars_GreenhouseThey took into account information from Mars One, such as its plan that “food from Earth will only serve as emergency rations” and the astronauts will mainly eat fresh food they grow themselves. The simulation monitored conditions in the Mars One habitat over 26 months – the amount of time between spaceships from Earth that would resupply them – or until the death of a crew member, whichever came first.

The results of their study were presented in a paper at the International Astronomic Union conference in Toronto last month. They suggest that serious changes would need to be made to the plan, which would either call for the astronauts to grow all their plants in a unit isolated from the astronauts’ living space to prevent pressure buildup in the habitats, or import all food from Earth instead of growing it on Mars.

mars_one2The researchers recommend the latter, as importing all the necessary food along with the first wave of colonists (not including the costs of development, operations, communications, and power systems) would cost $4.5 billion and require 15 Falcon 9 Heavy Rockets to transport it. Comparatively, flying all the equipment needed for the astronauts to grow their own food indefinitely which cost roughly $6.3 billion.

On top of all that, Do and his research staff have concluded that the project will not be sustainable financially. While Mars One says each subsequent manned mission will cost $4 billion, Do’s study found that each mission would cost more than the one before, due to the increasing number of spare parts and other supplies needed to support an increasing number of people.

mars_roverNaturally, Mars One replied that they are not deterred by the study. CEO and co-founder Bas Landorp – who helped develop the mission design – said the plan was based on the company’s own studies and feedback from engineers at aerospace companies that make space systems, such as Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin. He added that he and his people are “very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible”.

In any case, the study does not claim that the plan is bogus, just that it may be overreaching slightly. It’s not unreasonable to think that Mars One could get people to Mars, but the prospects for gradually building a self-sustaining colony is a bit farfetched right now. Clearly, more time is needed to further develop the requisite technologies and study the Martian environment before we start sending people to live there.

Mars_simulationOh well, people can dream can’t they? But the research and development are taking place. And at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that a manned mission to Mars will be happening, along with additional robot missions. These will help lay the groundwork for eventual settlement. It’s only a question of when that could happen…

Sources: cbc.ca, extremetech.com, web.mit.edu

Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

Developing World Tech: BRCK Mobile Internet Device

BRCK1Far from Silicon Valley in California, there is a place that some are now calling “Silicon Savannah.” Located around Nairobi, and centered on the nonprofit collective Ushahidi, an explosion in African tech is taking shape. And this month, backers of the collective’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign are finally getting their hands on BRCK – a long-awaited device that is the antithesis of shiny, expensive internet hardware.

A mobile Internet router, BRCK is essentially a self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device that promises to bring internet access to remote communities and underdeveloped neighborhoods all around the world. And as an added bonus, it reverses the usual order of globalization – having been invented in a developing country, built in the US, and intended for customers in any country anywhere.

BRCKIt can connect to the web in one of three ways: by plugging in a standard ethernet cable, by bridging with other Wi-Fi networks, or by accessing 3G or 4G data via a basic SIM card. Originally, Ushahidi invented it in order to overcome infrastructure challenges – specifically, inconsistent electricity and Internet connectivity – plaguing young upstarts in Nairobi. But it turns out, plenty of other people and places face the same challenges all over the world.

Contrary to public opinion, it is not just developing or underdeveloped countries that experience infrastructure challenges. Recently in the UK, Virgin Media customers across London lost service; while in the US, in what appeared to be an unrelated event, millions of Time Warner customers across the U.S. – largely in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa – were knocked offline.

Developed-and-developing-countriesBut even just focusing on the developing world, BRCK’s potential market is enormous. While only a quarter of people from the developing world are currently connected, they already account for a staggering two-thirds of all people online today. While the technology is not exactly cutting-edge by most standards, it offers numerous advantages that take the needs of its potential market into account.

Beyond its three connection methods, BRCK can keep up to 20 users up and running for as long as eight hours during an electrical outage. And should the internet be unavailable in a given locale, the device continues operating offline, syncing up when its connection is restored. In addition, the stock hard drive is 4 gigabytes big, and it has a storage capacity of up to 32 gigabytes.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Nairobi_Kibera_04.JPGBRCK CEO Erik Hersman, who cut his teeth in the industry as a blogger, sees the company’s base in Nairobi as one of its greatest assets, particularly given its target market. Having been born in Sudan and having settled in Kenya with his young family,  ( is well-suited to addressing local needs with local solutions:

I describe it as a new remix of old technology. That’s the key to understanding Africa’s technology… If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere… We’re playing with dirty power and crappy Internet, so the device has to be resilient.

While designed in Kenya, BRCK is manufactured and assembled in Texas by a company called Silicon Hills, which is located outside of Austin. With its matte black, rubberized case, BRCK is elegant, but mostly unassuming, and has the relative dimensions of an actual brick. It’s too large to fit in a pocket, but small enough to carry in a backpack, place on a desk, or even on the hood of your Land Rover in the African countryside.

BRCK2By weight, BRCK is substantially heavier than a plastic router, but it’s also much more than one. In addition to its battery, BRCK has multiple ports, including a general-purpose input/output, enabling users to program and connect other hardware – such as sensors or a solar charger – to the device. But what is perhaps most compelling about BRCK, are its potential applications.

In truth, the greatest possibilities lies in the ability to break away from the model of centralized internet providers. This could lead to nothing short of a revolution in how people get online, and in way that would ensure a far greater measure of “equality of access”. As Hersman explained it:

We see enormous resonance with the work of other organizations. Take the proliferation of web-enabled laptops and tablets in schools; why is it that each of these devices connect to a mobile tower? Why not to a single, centralized point? …We’re at a place in history where the barriers to entry are no longer in the software space, but in the hardware space. Because we don’t yet have fully functioning maker spaces and rapid prototyping abilities here in Nairobi, the design process is still relatively slow and expensive, but the barriers are coming down.

Achuar community monitors learning to use GPSEducation, health, environmental, and even military and governmental organizations are already in conversation with BRCK and multiple entities are testing it out. For consumers in emerging markets, BRCK’s $200 price tag may be a stretch, but the company is looking at purchasing plans, which have worked well in developing nations for both the cell phone and energy sectors.

But BRCK’s business model is ultimately based more on companies than individual consumers. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization that has worked in two dozen countries around the world, is one such company. According to its founder and executive director, Emily Jacobi:

The reason that we backed BRCK and that I’m excited to see it come about is because it fills an important gap in hardware and tools. We’re going to remote areas and training groups – indigenous groups, refugees, and other at-risk populations – to map the land and communities using GPS devices and cameras. We’re particularly excited about BRCK’s ability to facilitate collaborative work, as well as function offline.

internetIf there was one thing that the Digital Revolution promised, it was to bring the world together. Naturally, there were those who thought this to be naive and idealistic, citing the fact that technology has a way of being unevenly distributed. And while today, people live in a world that is far more connected than in any previous age, access remains an illustrative example of the gap between rich and poor nations.

Hence why an invention like the BRCK holds so much promise. Not only does it neatly reverse the all-too-common direction of technological development – i.e. technology conceived by a wealthy country, built in a poor one, only sold in wealthy ones – it also helps to shorten the gap between rich and poor nations when it comes to accessing and enjoying the fruits of that development.

This month, orders began shipping to buyers in 45 countries around the world this month. To get your hands on one, check out Ushahidi’s website and learn more about their efforts to develop open-source, equal-access technology.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, digital-democracy.org, ushahidi.com

News from Space: Time Capsule to Mars

Time_capsule_to_mars1The selfie is an apparent obsession amongst today’s youth, snapping pictures of themselves and posting them to social media. But for just 99 cents, people can send a picture of themselves to the Red Planet as part of the Time Capsule to Mars (TC2M) – a student-led, crowdfunded project that aims to send three CubeSat microsatellites to the planet containing digital messages from tens of millions of people from all around around the world.

The objective of the TC2M – a project of Explore Mars – mission is to inspire people throughout the globe and allow them a personal connection with space exploration in the same spirit of the Apollo missions. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.

Mars_exploreWith the help and support of NASA, MIT, Stanford University and Deep Space Industries (among others), the student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.

In terms of sending media content, people currently have the option of uploading only images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months, TC2M claims that participants will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.

Time_capsule_to_mars2Emily Briere, a mechanical engineering student who is heading the project, explained their aim thusly:

We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission. The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success.

The data will be carried by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested. The data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is extremely dense and could last for millions of years, hence making it ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thrusterThe technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system. But the most interesting technology of all will be in the form of its engines.

The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS), a microthruster developed at MIT that is essentially size of a penny (pictured above). Each spacecraft will be powered by 40 thruster pairs, which will generate thrust using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The ionic liquid propellant is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe a scaled-up version may one day bring humans to Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thruster1The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.

The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserved uncorrupted on the surface of the planet for a long, long time. As for how they intend to keep it stored until the day that manned missions can retrieve it, there are a few options on the table.

Time_capsule_to_marsOne option that is being considered is to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point – meaning it won’t disintegrate upon entry – and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.

A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored in a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. And as it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars3The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017. You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website. And for those interested in possibly contributing, stay tuned to find out how and where you can donate once the crowdfunding campaign is up and running.

So in addition to showcasing new spacecraft, new media technologies, this project is also an attempt to stimulate interest in the new age of space exploration – an age characterized by public access and involvement. It’s also an opportunity to make your mark on the Red Planet, a mark which will someday (if all goes to plan) be uncovered by a new generation of explorers and settlers.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals:


Sources:
gizmag.com, timecapsuletomars.com, web.mit.edu

News from Mars: Put Your Name on a Crater!

mars_lifeMars is a interesting and varied place, with enough mysteries to sate appetites both subtle and gross. But as we come to study it up close and get to know it better, a peculiar challenge arises. Basically, there are thousands of geological features on the Martian surface that don’t yet have names. Up until now, only those mountains, hills and craters that are observable from space have been designated.

With the Mars rovers pouring over the surface, each new feature is being named and designated by NASA scientists – The Gale Crater, Yellowknife Bay, Mount Sharp, etc. But what of the public? Given that this is the age of public space travel where regular people have access to the process, shouldn’t we be able to toss our hats in the ring and get a chance at naming Martian features?

Mars_impact_craterThat’s the goal of Uwingu, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public participation in space exploration. In addition to naming exoplanets, they have begun a project to that gives people the opportunity to name over 550,000 craters on Mars. By getting people to pledge donations in exchange for naming rights, the company hopes to raise over $10M to help fund space science and education.

The project touched off in late February, with their map of Mars uploaded to the site and half a million plus craters indicated. Just like how Apollo astronauts have named landing site landmarks during their Moon missions or how Mars scientists have named features they’ve encountered on robotic missions, Uwingu proclaims that, “Now it’s your turn.”

Mars_cratersNot only are there craters to name, but people can also help name the map grid rectangles of all the Districts and Provinces in Uwingu’s “address system” – which they say is the first ever address system for Mars. Prices for naming craters vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars apiece. For each crater a person purchases and names, Uwingu gives them a shareable Web link and a naming certificate.

In the past, Uwingu has been a source of controversy, particularly with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial objects and planetary features. In general, they are opposed to Uwingu’s methods of selling naming rights to the public. As the organization states on their website:

The IAU is the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Mars_craters1But Alan Stern, NASA’s former science program and mission director, claims that Uwingu is independent. He also stated that in 50 years of Mars exploration, only about 15,000 features have ever been named. What’s more, he and the rest of the Uwingu team – which includes several space notables, historians and authors – know that the names likely won’t officially be approved by the IAU.

Nevertheless, they claim that they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way. As early settlers started calling it that, it soon became the only name people recognized. Uwingu hopes that their names will also stick, given time.

mountsharp_galecraterIn the past, Stern has admitted that having people pay to suggest names with no official standing is sure to be controversial, but that he’s willing to take the chance – and the heat – to try and innovative ways to provide funding in today’s climate of funding cuts. As he stated in a series of recent interviews:

Mars scientists and Apollo astronauts have named features on the Red Planet and the Moon without asking for the IAU’s permission… We’re trying to do a public good. It’s still the case that nobody in this company gets paid. We really want to create a new lane on that funding highway for people who are out of luck due to budget cuts. This is how we’re how we’re trying to change the world for a little better.

He also pointed out that Uwingu is independent, and that this map is one they are generating themselves through crowdfunding and public participation. Whether or not the names stick is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the process will not be determined by any single gatekeeper or authority – in this case, the IAU. It will reflect a new era of public awareness and involvement in space.

mars-mapIn the past, Uwingu’s procedure has been to put half of the money they make into a fund to be given out as grants, and since they are a commercial company, the rest of the money helps pay the their bills. So no matter what – even if you pitch a name and its outvoted by another, or the names just fail to stick when the cartographers finish mapping Mars – you’ll still be raising money for a good cause.

For those interested in naming a crater on the Red Planet, click on the link here to go to Uwingu’s website. Once there, simply click on a spot on the map, select the crater you want (the price for the crater is indicated when you select it), offer a name and explain why you’ve chosen it. And be sure to check out some of the one’s that have been named already.

Sources: news.cnet.com, universetoday.com, uwingu.com

The Future is Here: Smarty Rings

smarty-ringsOkay, its not exactly here yet, but the implications of this idea could be a game changer. It’s known as the Smarty Ring, a crowdfunded idea being advertised on Indiegogo by a group of inventors in Chennai, India. And at its core is a waterproof, stainless steel band that will feature an LED screen and connect to your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology.

For some time now, the Chennai-based group has been the source of some controversy, due mainly to the fact that they have no working prototypes of the ring, but also because they have not identified themselves beyond giving their location. They also freely admit that the photos of the Smarty Ring on Indiegogo and on their website are photoshopped.

smarty-rings1Surprisingly, this has not prevented them from being able to mount their campaign to raise money for its development. While the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has rules requiring creators to be clear about the state of a project’s development and show a prototype “demonstrating the product’s current functionality,” Indiegogo has no such rules.

However, this has not stopped their campaign – which officially closed at 11:00 am ET on Dec.11th, 2013 – from raising a total of $299,349 from their original goal of $40,000. Numerous blueprints of what the watch would look like, including detailed images of its electronics, are also available on their campaign page. What’s more, the group is still taking advanced orders and offering discount pricing to anyone who orders one before Dec.30th.

smarty-rings3Also, the group has become much less clandestine since the campaign closed. In response to questions, group spokesperson Karthik said the project was founded by Chennai-based mechatronics engineer Ashok Kumar, and that their team of inventors includes electronic and computer engineers with experience in robotics and nanotechnology.

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to create a high-tech gadget that would also double as “high-end fashion jewelry,” according to an email to CBC News from the team’s marketing director, Karthik, who did not give his last name. The group also claims on their website that the average smartphone user checks their phone every six minutes, and promises to make that unnecessary, saving time and the battery life of the smartphone.

smarty-rings4According to the The Smarty Ring’s site, the features are to include:

  • A clock with stop watch, timer and alarm
  • Notifications of calls, text and email messages, and social networking updates from services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype
  • Phone controls that let users accept or reject incoming calls, make outgoing calls to preset numbers, and control music or the phone’s camera
  • A phone tracking feature that beeps when your phone gets more than nine meters away from you
  • The ring charges wirelessly and its creators guarantee 24 hours of battery life

The Smarty Ring team says the retail price for the device will be $275, but backers and people who preorder before Dec.30th will be able to get one at the reduced price of $175. They estimate that delivery will begin sometime in April of 2014. They are also offering cheaper versions that include only the tracking feature or the clock and tracking features.

smarty-rings5Needless to say, if this is a scam, it is clearly a well-thought out and elaborate one. Not only is the idea of a smart ring that can connect wirelessly to other devices and do the job of a smartphone entirely within the bounds of current and developing technology, its a very cool idea. But if it is in fact real, its realization could mean a new wave of innovation and design for the smart devices market.

Currently, designers and developers are working towards the creation of smartwatches, smartphones, tablets and phablets that are not only smaller and much thinner, but also flexible and transparent. An even smaller device, such as a ring or bracelet, that can do the same job but be far more ergonomic, may be just what the market ordered!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this promotional video from the Smarty Ring website. And be sure to check out their website and determine for yourself if they are liars, inventors, or just plain dreamers:


Sources:
cbc.ca, indiegogo.com