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…


News From Space: IAU Revises Stance on Naming Planets

alien-worldGood news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

IAU_exosBut then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:

…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.

This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.

Pluto-System_720-580x344For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.

However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.

gliese-581.jpgThose looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:

  1. Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
  2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
  3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
  4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
  5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation
  6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.

Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

KeplerThis about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.

In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.

kepler22b.jpgAs for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?

Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!

Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!


Pluto’s New Moon to be Named Vulcan

pluto1For roughly a month now, the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has been holding an online poll – appropriately named Pluto Rocks! – to help them name Pluto’s smallest moons, officially designated P4 and P5. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, an online poll ran up until the end of February, at which point researcher and co-discoverer Mark Showalter took the names before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to finalization.

Although there were several choices for for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moon, it was P4 that became the focus of a great deal of attention. Of all the names for this space rock, two top contenders came out on top: Vulcan and Cerberus. Out of a whopping 450,324 people who took part in the poll overall, 174,062 voted for Vulcan, effectively putting it in the top spot. This was perhaps due to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner.

Pluto_moon_orbitsWhen the contest began back, it seemed that two camps emerged as the forerunners for naming the rock. On the one hand, there were the Trekkies who seemed determined to name P4 after famed-character Spock’s homeworld. On the other, there those who belong to IAU camp, who favored the classical Greek name of the beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld.

After just a few days in, William Shatner, Mr. James T. Kirk himself, proposed the name Vulcan, and not just because of the connection to his show. In Roman mythology, Pluto (aka Hades in the Greek pantheon) was the God of the underworld and Vulcan was one of his sons. Cerberus might have been more appropriate since this beast was Pluto’s/Hades companion, but the connection still works, and provides a nice little tie-in to one of the most popular science fiction shows of all time.

Pluto-and-VulcanFans and Trekkies worldwide rallied, and as of Feb. 25th, Vulcan had a comfortable lead over Cerberus and Styx, which were vying for the 2nd place position. SETI has now advised that people be patient, as it will take another months or two for the names of the two moons to be finalized and selected. However, barring any major objections or upheavals, I think it’s fair to say that P4 and P5 will henceforth be named Vulcan and Kerberos.

And I have to say, this is fascinating news in more ways than just one. Not only does it demonstrate that our collective knowledge of the outer Solar System is growing. It also demonstrates how henceforth, astronomical studies and cataloging may become a much more democratic affair. Once considered the province of academics and scholars, space exploration may truly be an open field in the future, subject to mass participation.

Oh, and congrats to Mr. Shatner for his enduring influence, to Mr. Nimoy for the shout-out, and to Trekkies the world over for showing what a committed fandom made up of millions of geeks can do! And may all the people who bullied you for your interests and keen intellectual skills consider what a force you’ve become and cower in fear!