Establishing a human settlement on Mars would arguably be one of humanity’s greatest ever achievements. Considering man has yet to set foot on Red Planet soil, this ambitious primary goal of Dutch non-profit organization Mars One is perhaps a touch whimsical. Despite criticisms, mission founder Bas Lansdorp is showing no signs of deflation and seems confident the proposed 10 year timeline is plausible.
But it seems that not everyone shares his level of confidence, as a damning feasibility report by MIT scientists last year essentially outlined why it will fail and that the astronauts’ dreams of dying on Mars may come around a tad earlier than they had in mind. Now, to rain on Mars One’s parade once again, one of the project’s most distinguished and fervent advocates has suggested that both the project’s timeline and budget are naïve, the Guardian reports.
“It will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive,” said Gerard 't Hooft, Nobel laureate and Mars One ambassador. “When they first asked me to be involved I told them ‘you have to put a zero after everything,’” he said, meaning a budget of tens of billions and a launch date sometime next century would be more realistic.
Mars One is still in the process of whittling down candidates to the last 24 after almost a quarter of a million applied. After the astronauts are selected following their performance in a series of group challenges, they will receive training in a replica base on Earth and help prepare for planned colonization in 2025. But before they are sent off in groups of four, a Demonstration Mission is scheduled to take place in 2018 which includes the launch of a communication satellite. This will be followed shortly by another communication satellite and an intelligent rover in 2020, and then a series of cargo missions which will deliver another rover, living units and life support systems.
But just how viable is this mission design? Not particularly, according to MIT scientists, who recently conducted an independent assessment of the technical feasibility of Mars One’s plan. Through the development of a settlement analysis tool and a logistics model, they were able to gain insight into architecture decisions required for successful colonization, and also predict the number of launches needed and how much it would realistically cost.
According to the report, there are several reasons why the project as it currently stands won’t be successful. For starters, 15 Falcon Heavy launchers will be required to establish just the first crew for colonization, racking up an initial bill of $4.5 billion which will significantly increase as more crew members are sent out. As lead author Sydney Do explains to CNET, that’s because the additional staff will require more life support equipment, alongside parts to maintain this new equipment plus spare parts for repairs of older machinery. To reduce settlement costs and payloads required, the authors suggest that Mars One consider on-site manufacturing of parts.
In order to establish a settlement, astronauts will have to rely on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), meaning they will be totally dependent on what they are provided with at the start and what they can squeeze out of Mars, like water from the soil. But the report is quick to point out that current ISRU technologies are insufficient for this. Extreme Tech notes that NASA’s next scheduled Mars rover will be equipped with an ISRU unit to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, but that isn’t due to launch until 2020, which is cutting it fine for Mars One.
Since colonists won’t have the privilege of a local supermarket, nor a supply rocket to deliver goods each month, they will be reliant on what they can produce themselves, which means growing crops. Plants produce oxygen, which at first glance may seem ideal for the inhabitants, but unfortunately in a closed environment, oxygen levels will become dangerously high. Currently, they have not tested any technology that has the ability to suck out the excess oxygen whilst keeping hold of the nitrogen required to pressurize the pods.
In the absence of such a system, air pressure will quickly begin to drop, resulting in the first predicted fatality at day 68 from a lack of oxygen. Not only that, but if they can’t correctly balance gas levels, the excess oxygen would become a fire hazard. However, Lansdorp argues that oxygen could easily be removed by a process called “pressure swing adsorption,” and is therefore not something to worry about.
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So if crew members do not die from hypoxia or incineration, there is still a possibility that they may starve to death, according to the report. The authors write that each astronaut will require, on average, 3,040 calories each day, and to keep them nourished and healthy, crops must be carefully selected since 100% of this demand must be provided by biomass production systems. According to their calculations, an area of 200m3 will be required for these crops, which is four times larger than what Mars One has proposed. However, they do note that there should be enough room to accomodate this increase.
Although Lansdorp was quick to refute the study, Mars One has yet to produce its own feasibility study, although apparently they have commissioned Paragon Space Corporation to do this. It will be interesting to see the results of this, because as of yet we have not seen that much science from Mars One to give us an awful lot of confidence in the 2025 deadline. That’s not to say it is impossible, but we would like to see some more concrete plans before we begin to get excited.