News from Space: We’re Going to Mars!

marsAs part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.

As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).

elon-musk-on-mars-curiosity-self-640x353One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and  private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.

These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.

Fan art concept of the MCT
Fan concept art of the MCT

And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.

And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival. 

Earth_Mars_ComparisonAnd as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).

During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.

Mars_one1When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.

In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.

Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2)sploid.gizmodo.com, mars.nasa.gov

100,000 People Want to Go to Mars, And Not Come Back

MarsOneEver since they announced their plan to establish a colony on Mars by 2022, Mars One has been flooded by applicants eager to set foot on a new planet and make it their home. In fact, according to a recent story by CNN Tech, over 100,000 people have volunteered for the mission, knowing full well that it would be a one-way trip and their stay on the Red Planet would be permanent.

Anyone who is 18 years of age or older can apply, and the fee runs anywhere from $15 to $38, depending on your nationality and the gross domestic product of your country. Ultimately, only 40 people will be selected this year, and only two couples will be sent ahead with the first mission. This mission is slated to leave by September of 2022 and land on Mars by April of 2023, with another group of four to be sent two years later.

Mars_landerThe applicants can all be seen simply be going to their website, where each person has created a profile and can be voted on. According to Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One, only those who have completed the registration process can be seen here:

There is also a very large number of people who are still working on their profile, so either they have decided not to pay the application fee, or they are still making their video or they’re still filling out the questionnaire or their resume. So the people that you can see online are only the ones that have finished and who have set their profiles as public.

In terms of what the selectees will do once the project is up and running, the website offers a basic rundown. First, the volunteer astronauts will undergo a required eight-year training in a secluded location, where they will learn how to repair habitat structures, grow vegetables in confined spaces and address “both routine and serious medical issues such as dental upkeep, muscle tears and bone fractures.”

mars-one-brian-versteegIn terms of how settlement will occur, the plan is to send a series of Mars One landers equipped with up to 2500 kg (5,500 pounds) of food, solar panels and supplies each. After eight missions, more than 44,000 pounds of supplies and 40 people will have arrived and the capsules themselves will be formed into the settler’s habitat.

Two things Earth won’t be sending is water and oxygen, since the settlers will be manufacturing these themselves. According to Lansdrop, these will be manufactured on Mars:

We will evaporate it and condense it back into its liquid state. From the water we can make hydrogen and oxygen, and we will use the oxygen for a breathing atmosphere inside the habitat. This will be prepared by the rovers autonomously before the humans arrive.

mars_astronautsNaturally, a good many details, such as where the $6 billion dollars for the first mission are going to come from, whether or not the technology truly exists to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, and whether the people going up will be able to survive for extended periods of time until new waves arrive and new settlements are opened up.

In addition, there are experts who say that the risks are too high given the distance and exposure to radiation involved. A round-trip journey to Mars could expose astronauts to the maximum amount of radiation allowed in a career under current NASA standards. While Mars One does not negate this issue, they have yet to indicate how they intend to keep their astronauts shielded from the harmful cosmic rays.

mars_astronauts1However, this has not deterred some 30,000 Americans and over 100,000 people worldwide from signing on. What’s more, Lansdrop has said repeatedly that the project will be funded by sponsors and media that will pay for broadcasting rights of shows and movies documenting everything from the astronauts’ training on Earth to their deployment and colonization of Mars.

Basically, they intend for the entire process to be a worldwide media event, a massive reality TV show, with the necessary advances and funding worked out as time goes on. Right now, all they are looking for is volunteers so that corporate and media sponsors understand just how serious this is and that the willingness to go is there. No telling if that will be enough, but it is a start.

tito-mars-mission-conceptWhat’s more, Mars One is not alone in trying to make a trip to the Red Planet a reality. The Inspiration Mars Foundation is another such private venture, which is seeking to send a couple on a 501-day, round-trip journey aboard a space craft that will take then to Mars and back in 2018 without ever touching down on the surface.

Here too, the issue of funding, the technology involved, and the problem of radiation shielding are all being considered and ironed out in an ongoing manner, with some rather interesting possibilities being considered (such as using human feces and waste plumbing to shield the astronauts from radiation!)

spacecraft_marsUltimately, it seems that certain private ventures are not willing to wait for NASA’s planned 2030 excursion to Mars before general settlement and terraforming can begin. And though it may prove unfeasibly by the time frames being proposed, the excitement and desire to make things happen sooner than projected are understandable.

And as Lansdorp explains, much of the project has to do with telling a story, perhaps the greatest ever told:

What we want to do is tell the story to the world. When humans go to Mars, when they settle on Mars and build a new Earth, a new planet. This is one of the most exciting things that ever happened, and we want to share the story with the entire world.

For the full CNN story, plus video of the interview with the Mars Society, follow the link below:

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2013/04/22/w1-mission-to-mars-willett.cnn.html

And be sure to check out Mars One promotional video:


Sources:
cnn.com, mars-one.com, applicants.mars-one.com