More Plans to Colonize Mars!

mars_lifeFolks may recognize the name SpaceX, the private aerospace company that in May of last year launched a module into space to resupply  the International Space Station. An historic occasion, that was the first time a private spacecraft has has ever docked with the ISS, and signaled a growing trend in the development in commercial space travel. Well, it seems that the company’s founder has more ambitious plans now.

Yes, in a bid to make sure his company is not left behind in any future space endeavors, CEO and billionaire Elon Musk has announced plans to colonize the Red Planet with a population of 80,000. The announcement came back in November at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, where Musk appeared to receive the Society’s gold medal for helping to advance the commercial space industry.

The first phase of the program, which is contingent on the development of reusable rocket that can take off and land vertically, would start off modestly with only a handful of explorers leaving Earth at a time. To make it happen, SpaceX has already started to work on their next-generation reusable Falcon 9 rocket, known as “Grasshopper”. This rocket has already made two short flights, including one in which it reached a height of 2 meters (6 feet), and another in which it leaped to a height of  5.4 meters (17.7 feet). Small beginnings, as they say!

The projected cost for each colonist looking to make the trip would be roughly $500,000. In short, those who are not rich or extremely adventurous need not apply! What’s more, he estimated that the entire program would cost about $36 billion, an inevitable expense to set up the initial infrastructure and transport. But once that is done, he believes enough people will be interested and find it within their means that the venture will pay for itself.

In an interview with, Musk’s vision for sending people to Mars was described as follows:

“Accompanying the founders of the new Mars colony would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars’ atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet’s subsurface water ice.

“The Red Planet pioneers would also take construction materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars’ atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil. As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, the big rocket would start to transport more people and fewer supplies and equipment.”

So save your pennies and prepare for the day when tickets go on sale! Hard to say exactly when that will be, but chances are, it will be either feasible or abandoned by 2030. That’s when NASA plans to mount manned missions to the Red Planet. And like I said, men like Musk don’t want to be left behind!


Wanted: People for Mars!

MarsOneThey’re called Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands that intends to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet by 2023. What began as a proposed Reality TV project that would hopefully recoup the costs of sending people to Mars has since matured into a project for actual, factual colonization. There’s just one thing missing at this point…

They need people to volunteer.

A little over a week ago, they released a document specifying their application criteria. Clearly, they can’t take just anyone. Among the five key categories for qualification are Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity (no pun!), Ability to Trust, Creativity and Resourcefulness. Oh, and you must be at least 18 years of age, kind of like getting in to an R-rated movie. No specific technical qualifications are necessary, but if you’ve got a go-getter attitude, a positive outlook and are willing to learn, I’m sure they can teach you.

terraforming-marsThe selection process will begin during the first half of 2013, and will still be based around a reality TV concept. Basically, it will take the form of Mars One experts and viewers of a “global, televised program” choosing who they want to see go. Those ultimately selected will be assembled into teams of four, with at least six teams hoped to be prepared to launch in September 2022. But only one team will make the first trip to the Red Planet, and that team will be decided democratically.

The training process will take eight years, and will include simulated missions, practice in a restricted mobility environment, and lessons in electronics, equipment repair, basic and critical medical care. In 2016, the company plans to begin rocketing supplies to Mars, including spare parts, two rovers, and living units that can be assembled into a base once humans arrive.

It’s a testament to an age where commercial space flight is fast becoming a reality, and internet-based voting, crowdsourcing and information sharing can take the place of space agencies and government sanctioned research. Sure, it still sounds like a pipe dream, but the effort alone is impressive isn’t it? And given all the advances that are made every day, who’s to say what will and won’t be possible within the next few decades?

To read the application in detail, click here. And check out the video of Mars One’s proposed mission:


News From The Red Planet!

mars_lifeIt’s been quite the busy month for NASA and the Curiosity Rover Team. In addition to the hectic research schedule and the excitement over all the potential finds, there’s also been a lot of planning as to what future mission will be like. Already, NASA announced that they plan to send another rover (InSight) to Mars in 2016, this one for the purpose of conducting interior planet studies. But given the success of Curiosity thus far, NASA announced recently that the multi-year, robotic rover program will continue, and will include an additional launch in 2020.

Apparently, this has much to do with the reelection of Barack Obama, whose commitment to space exploration also means that NASA can go ahead with its plans to create an outpost on the Moon. According to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, this and the planned 2020 launch will ensure that “America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.”

The planned mission portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, and participation in the European Space Agency’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.

That alone is pretty exciting  news. But in and around these grand announcements, the Mars Science Labs also released some information a week ago concerning the Martian soil samples which were thought to contain organics. Though the samples did prove to be “earthshaking” as was hoped, they did present some rather interesting findings which are now being released.

curiosity_samplesApparently, the samples taken with the “Rocknest” inside the Gale Crater showed signs of water, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, that were delivered by Curiosity’s arm to the analytical laboratory inside the rover. Lamentably, this does not confirm the existence of organic compounds, as the team hoped. But the find does confirm what Curiosity team and NASA scientists have been postulating for some time – which includes the existence of water on Mars and the existence of complex chemical compounds.

Also, it’s important to note that this kind of soil surveying was not possible with any previous rovers or exploratory missions in space. Curiosity is the first Mars rover that is able to scoop soil into analytical instruments and conducts tests in the way it has, so really, any findings should be considered a windfall. Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission also demonstrated the ability of the rover laboratory to analyze diverse soil and rock samples, which will continue over the course of the next two years.

And as the team was sure to mention in a Tweet made shortly after the “earthshaking” discovery did not materialize, there’s still plenty of time to find all that they are looking for. Curiosity’s mission is far from over, and she will hardly be the last surveyor – man-made or manned – that will be roving the landscape of the Red Planet.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Curiosity’s Best Image Yet!

In case you were worried that Curiosity had fallen into a ditch, more news has just come from the Red Planet featuring everybody’s favorite rover! It seems the robot has been taking pictures again, and word around the campfire is that it is Curiosity’s best yet! Having taken a break from its usual round of performing scientific research on soil samples and surface terrain, Curiosity took a pause to snap a self-portrait

Well, in truth, it was fifty-five photos, all of which were taken by the Rover’s hi-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager. These photos were then combined back at Mission Control by NASA personnel to form a panoramic image that shows Curiosity at work digging holes in the sand and with Mount Sharp in the background. The area of the shoot is appropriately known as the “Rocknest” since this is where Curiosity has been for the past few months, gathering scoops of Martian soil for analysis.

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, the images serve an important function. According to NASA’s website, “Self-portraits like this one document the state of the rover and allow mission engineers to track changes over time, such as dust accumulation and wheel wear.” Apparently, they also ensure that Curiosity continues to function within established parameters while personnel are not at the helm.

Check out the full image below. As you can plainly see, it is high-resolution and extremely detailed.

Engineering Life for Mars

And we’re back with some more news of and about the Red Planet! Thanks to Curiosity’s ongoing efforts to discover potential life on Mars, scientists back at home have begun to seriously contemplate engineering life that will help in our own colonization efforts someday. The rational seems to be, “why search for life on Mars when you could create it?”

And the reasons for this seem pretty straightforward. Though Mars may have supported life at one time, it is not an especially hospitable environment right now. If in fact human beings settle there someday, survival won’t be easy. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 60 degrees Celsius, and the almost-nonexistent atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide.

And although water exists in Mars’ ice caps and there’s some evidence that oceans once existed, today it’s essentially a deep-frozen desert. If the would-be settlers ever want to live beyond sealed domes, and eat something other than hydroponically grown food and melted ice that is constantly being recycled, efforts to be got underway to ecologically engineer the surface.

And one such group is a team of undergraduate students from Stanford and Brown Universities that are busy applying synthetic biology to space exploration, outfitting microbes to survive the extreme Martian conditions and produce resources needed to sustain a human colony. According to Ben Geilich, the team Captain, the benefits are obvious: “Obviously, bringing up heavy machinery or building materials is going to be really expensive. The benefit of having bacteria that can do this for you is they’re really small and very light. Once there, they could grow food, produce medicine, extract minerals, and build building material.”

The fruit of their labor is the Hell Cell, a genetically engineered assemblage that could enable a bacterium to withstand extreme cold, dryness and radiation. It includes genetic modules, or BioBricks, based on DNA from a variety of ultra-tough organisms, including a cold-resistant species of Siberian beetle that makes “antifreeze” proteins, a radiation-resistant bacterium that sequesters large amounts of the element manganese, and E. coli, which produces a nutrient that confers cold and drought resistance.

It’s part of a process that Andre Burnier, one of the team’s mentors and a lab technician at NASA’s Ames Research Center, described in the following way: “You go into nature and find genes, and then you can recombine them into circuits that you cannot find in nature.” After presenting their Hell Cell during the regional International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) challenge this month, the team has since moved on to developing bacteria that could extract minerals from Martian sediment or recycle rare metals from spacecraft electronics. In addition, they are also investigating heat and acid-tolerance mechanisms that could be useful in other planetary environments, particulary Venus, which as you may recall, is also a candidate for terraforming.

Needless to say, Geilich is excited by all the doors theirs and the research of others is opening. “In the coming years,” he says, “I think we’re going to see a huge boom in stuff done with bacteria, only limited by our imagination and creativity.” But of course, not all agree. As Burner indicates, there are ethical implications that are likely to upset some, should the concept ever be made viable. After all, if there is no life on planet to begin with, then there are no ethical implications about transforming it. But send in the bacteria to change up a world that already boasts life, and you are essentially committing eco-genocide.

All of this puts me in mind of the Genesis Project from Star Trek II and III. There, scientists created a device which could alter the configuration of any planet within minutes. With a name like “Genesis”, the purpose was pretty self-explanatory – to create life from lifelessness. But this made it absolutely necessary to find a lifeless planet, otherwise whatever was already there would find itself permanently altered.

Funny how science fiction predicts real science, up to and including the ethical implications. They were pretty good movies too, go heck them out. And follow the link below for more reading on the subject!