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:, (2),

Settling Mars: The Mars Base Challenge 2014

mars-colonyLife on Mars can’t become a reality without some serious design concepts and engineering. And that’s why Thingiverse, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, conduct the Makerbot Mars Base Challenge every year. Taking Mars’ extreme conditions into consideration, people are tasked with designing a utilitarian Mars base that can withstand the elements and make settlers feel at home.

The competition opened on May 30th and received some 227 submissions. The challenge brief asked entrants to take into account the extreme weather, radiation levels, lack of oxygen and dust storms when designing their Martian shelters. And the winning entries will each be awarded a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in order to help them fully explore their designs for Martian abodes.

And although the applicants did not always nail the science, their designs have a novelty that has not been seen in some time. This can especially be seen in with this years finalists, which included a design for a Martian pyramid, a modular beehive and a three-tiered Acropolis.

MarsChallengeResultsThe Thingiverse community appears to have been hugely supportive, printing out the designs themselves and offering handy hints in the comment section beneath each entry. Some were dismissed for being impractical; for example, those that would be immediately flattened or kill all of its inhabitants if it were installed on the Martian surface. But one designer, Noah Hornberger, points out:

A toy car does not need fuel because it runs on the imagination of the child who drives it around. So it seems to me that I’m driving my toy car at full speed and you are here telling me what kind of fuel and oil it needs to run. I would rather leave the physics to the right people.

Luckily, that’s what NASA is on hand for – to ensure that it’s not just the mathematicians and engineers that have an interest or a say in our Martian future, but to make sure those designs and dreams that come from the public meet the basic scientific and engineering requirements. Bringing together inspired ideas and realistic needs, here’s how this year’s finalists measured up.

MarsPryamid-4_Feature_preview_featured This Mars structure is designed with resource consumption and allocation in mind, and also takes into account that the majority of activity would be taking place inside the structure rather than outside. As its creator, Valcrow. explained:

High traffic rooms all have ample natural Martian light to help with the crews extended isolation and confinement… This design focuses on looping essential systems into as many multi-functional roles as possible to ensure that the very limited resources are used and reused as much as possible.

This includes food created through a sustainable aquaponics system which would sit at the top of the pyramid, where it can get some light. A mirror-based series of solar panels will be responsible for collecting energy, with a nuclear generator for backup, and water would be stored near the main power center so that it heats up. The whole thing is inspired by the Pyramid of Giza, but unlike that beauty it can be reconfigured for science or engineering tasks and experiments.

Mars_beehiveThis second design, known as the Queen B because of its modular beehive configuration, comes with all the mod cons and home comforts you might expect on Earth – a kitchen, two bathrooms, a garden, and a 3D print lab and decompression room. Its creator, Noah Hornberger, chose a flat-panelled, low-level design that would be cheap and easy to build and allow for less heat energy to be lost. The hexagon shape was chosen for its durability and ability to form modular designs.

Depleted uranium would be used to create laminated panels that would shield out the elements, but would need to be sandwiched between other materials to make it safe for the occupants. An exothermic chemical reactor would meanwhile be used to heat an underground water container, which will provide heat for the basecamp. Excess steam could also power generators to supplement solar power.

Speaking on behalf of his creation, Hornberger said:

I have extrapolated on the idea of a fully functional apartment on Mars with all the modern amenities fitted inside 16-foot-diameter hexagons. I think that to present Mars life to people and actually make it appealing to the public it needs to feel like home and reflect the lifestyle trends of Earth living.

Mars_acropolisAnd last, but not least, there’s the Mars Acropolis – a design that blends materials used here on Earth to create a classic futurist design that looks like it would be at home in the classic Fritz Lang film. Concrete, steel and Martian soil help form the outer wall that protects the population, while carbon fibre, stainless steel, aluminium and titanium would be used to build the main body.

Three greenhouses contain the vegetation and help filter the air and produce oxygen, and there are decompression chambers at the entrance. On level two, residents can park their shuttles before entering the living quarters and labs, while level three acts as the nerve center – with flight operators and observation posts. It’s joined by a huge water reservoir that flows to the first level for purification.

Designer Chris Starr describes the layout as follows:

The structure serves as a mass research facility, to explore and develop means for additional colonization of the planet. Due to the water vapour contained in the Martian atmosphere, that vapour can be harnessed into usable liquid water, where the condensation is collected from the water vapour, which is filtered back into the reservoir.

mars_one2In all cases, the designs draw attention to the fact that any structures intended for life on Mars will have to achieve a balance between resource management, comfort and entertainment, and security against the elements. At this point, there’s no telling exactly what a Martian settlement will look like; but as always, the truth will likely be stranger than fiction. To see more designs that made it to the Mars Base Challenge this year, check out Thingiverse’s website.


News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.