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…


3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies: