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

News from Mars: Soil Good for Growing!

Mars_GreenhouseWith numerous plans for a manned mission to Mars, some of which are scheduled to one-way settlement projects, the question of how and what people on Mars will eat is an important one. What will the Martian diet look like? How will they grow their food? Will it people subsist on endless supplies of freeze-dried rations, or will they get all the veggies, fruits and protein they need from hydroponic produce?

Well, according to Dutch ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the Martian settlers might just be able to grow their food in the local soil. In a series of experiments using soil tailored to fit extra-terrestrial environments, Wamelink was able to make a mustard seed sprout. The soil was provided by NASA, a sample which they had collected from the desert, dried out, and cleansed of certain nutrients that’s meant to replicate what Martian and lunar soil would be like.

martian_plantWamelink had ordered more than 100 pounds of each type to his research greenhouse in the Netherlands to see what kinds of plant life might prosper in greenhouses on other planets. He and his team planted tomato seeds, stinging nettle, carrots, rye, and a host of other wild species in the soils in a series of 840 pots, then published their results in PLOS One late last month.

As Wamelink, who works for the Alterra Institute at the University of Wageningen, explained:

I think we’re really the first to do that. We have looked at how plants see what [nutrients are] available in these soils, and it was unknown to NASA. They were very happy when we sent our results.

MarsGreenhouse2What was perhaps most impressive about the results was how well some plants fared in the imitation Mars soil. Some seeds germinated after just 24 hours and flowered within 50 days, something Wamelink had never expected. He knew that nitrogen might not be available in alien soils, but when he analyzed the Martian soil compared to nutrient-poor sand from the banks of the Rhine, he found that Mars actually had much more going for it than he thought.

The Martian atmosphere contains nitrogen, and gusts of gases from the sun charge the nitrogen into a form that is digestible for plants. The planet also contains phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrates – all essential for plant growth. Field mustard and a tough, wild Dutch species called “reflexed stone crop” produced some of the best results. Lunar soil, by contrast, didn’t provide very friendly turf for earthling plant species.

apollo_11_bootprint-e1405838911229Soil on the moon is thin, dusty, and full of aluminum and other heavy metals. Martian soil also contains lots of heavy metals, but it is aluminum that most plants don’t do too well in the presence of. So for the time being (or rather, if and when we settle the Moon), Lunar greenhouses will have to look to imports of Earth soil while Martian settlers can simple scoop the soil they need from outside their airlocks.

However, there are a few snags. For starters, even though Wamelink’s study provided some of the first evidence that species of Earth plants can grow on planets other than Earth, it still doesn’t show how eating those plants might affect humans. The Martian surface experiences lots of radiation, and eating radioactive plants full of heavy metals might not be the best idea for the human digestive system.

mars_growopNevertheless, Wamelink believes that some aspects of the Martian climate might actually be beneficial for plant growth. On a planet with a third of the gravitational pull of Earth, he suspects that plants might be able to grow taller than they ever would on their home planet. In his mind’s eye, he pictures plants encased in skyscraper Martian greenhouses. Alas, not all scientists agree with him, and he admits its an unresolved issue.

Still, its an exciting one that is loaded with potential. And who’s to say that after a little processing and decontamination, Martian soil would have everything the settlers need to grow their own food? The very fact that it is being considered and examined so seriously shows our commitment to making an enduring human presence on Mars a reality someday. And as that day get’s closer, more and more questions are likely to be addressed.

terraformingAnd figuring out how to grow our own crops in Martian soil will provide inevitable feedback on how we could use Earth plants to one day convert the ecology of the Red Planet and make it into something a little more suited to full-scale habitation. Who knows? In a few centuries time, Red Mars may become Green Mars. And perhaps even Blue Mars. Oh, Kim Stanley Robinson, you daring dreamer, you!

Source: fastcoexist.com

News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


Source:
gizmag.com, exploremars.org, indiegogo.com

News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


Sources:
universetoday.com, sciencedaily.com

Curiosity Rover’s First X-Ray Analysis of Martian Soil

Curiosity_cheminanalysisA bit of retro news from the Curiosity front here. Roughly one month ago, before the big announcement about “earthshaking news” was made, there was some other news regarding Curiosity’s ongoing soil analyses. And given all the attention that was dedicated to the possibility of organic molecules, this is one news story that might have been overlooked.

Put simply, Curiosity performed tests that were previously impossible on Mars, using an x-ray scanner that was roughly the size of shoebox in order to conduct detailed analyses of Martian soil. The purpose, of course, was to determine what kinds of minerals it contains and how its soils first came into being.

The device in question, called CheMin, takes a sample of sand – just a thimbleful – and shakes it 2,000 times a second, all the while bombarding it with x-rays. The rays then penetrate the grains, and the way in which they diffract can tell scientists about their constituent atoms. The results are then scanned to see just what kind of mineral composition it has (take a look up top to see the results rendered in stunning technicolor!)

Up until now, this technique has been impossible simply because the equipment needed to carry out such operations were far too large and clunky to fit on a rover. But thanks to NASA engineers, the device in question was shrunk down exponentially in size and even boasts improved electronics, ensuring it is both portable and energy-efficient.

As a result, the Curiosity rover has made some very interesting discoveries. For starters, Curiosity has determined that the soils in the area are extremely similar to those found around the Mauna Kea shield volcano in Hawaii. In fact, it’s identified crystalline feldspar, pyroxenes, and olivine – all of which are common to the soil here on Earth.

Yes, not exactly earthshaking news is it? But it’s interesting nonetheless, and let’s us know once again that Mars and Earth have plenty in common.

Source: Wired.com

“Earthshaking” News From Mars!

Curiosity-RocknestCancel the champagne! Turns out what we have here is a tentative conclusion made by some overzealous scientists. According to an update made earlier today, scientists working for NASA indicated that no organic molecules were found in the sample of Martian soil taken by Curiosity nine days ago. The news first appeared on NASA’s Twitter feed as follows:

“Everybody, chill. After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples.”

This was followed shortly thereafter with:

“Why the wait? We’re moving at the speed of science. My team needed time to analyze the data.”

Uh, yeah. Because that’s what we were concerned with; the wait, not the getting of our hopes up! But last but not least, there some words of reassurance:

“Turn that frown upside down: We’re fewer than four months into a multi-year mission. We’ve only just begun!”

To be fair, this announcement doesn’t rule out the possibility of organic molecules on the Martian surface. It’s just that no organic molecules have been found yet. Unfortunately, having thought that they had detected some traces in their samples, Grotzinger conveyed the team’s excitement about the possibility of a discovery and triggered a bit of a media frenzy. Understandable, but frankly, I have a bit of a bone to pick with Grotzinger himself.

Dude, you had to know we’d all get excited and start hanging on your every update with baited breath. But in the end, we were like a bunch children on Christmas morning, desperately waiting to rip into our presents, only to find that Santa had stuck us with an IOU! Or worse, a note saying: “There are plenty more Christmas’s coming! Be happy!” Turn my frown upside down, Grotzinger? You owe me restitution!

Okay, now that I’m ranted out, I sincerely hope the mission meets with the results they are looking for soon. Granted, Curiosity still has many more years before her mission is complete, but I don’t think I can stand this kind of suspense! And frankly, I’d like to hear about some definitive proof that terraforming is possible on a planetary scale. Get on it, NASA! You got a planet to prep for colonization!

“Earthshaking” News From the Red Planet?

In an interview with NPR earlier today, John Grotzinger – the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Labs – said a recent soil sample test with the SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars) shows something”‘earthshaking.” Like any good scientist (or a terrible tease), Grotzinger and his team are awaiting confirmation before announcing just what it is they’ve found. Nevertheless, the announcement of a potential discovery which could be “one for the history books” has fueled speculation and put many on the edge of their seats.

Thus far, the smart money has been on the discovery of organic molecules in the Martian soil, which is precisely what Curiosity has been up to for the past few months. This is because the very purpose of the SAM instrument to examine the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil, specifically to determine if anything organic is capable of living there. If so, it will end the age-old argument of whether or not life can exist on the surface Mars, even if it doesn’t currently.

It will also prove to be a boon for those who are seriously looking ahead, and plotting manned missions to the Red Planet with the intent of making it habitable for humans. As I’m sure all people are aware of by now, there are plenty of people who are monitoring Curiosity’s findings and hoping they will help determine whether or not terraforming can be carried on the the planet, with the long-term goal of creating a “Green Mars” where terrestrial species can live and thrive, crops can grow, and oceans and rivers can once again exist.

I think I speak for them and myself when I say, “Grotzinger, best of luck to you, and this better not be some kind of media stunt!” Oh, I can’t wait to hear what they find!

Source: Universe Today