What would it take for humans to build a settlement on Mars?
When preparing for interplanetary travel, best to pack light
Do we have the technological know-how to send humans on a one-way trip to Mars? Bas Lansdorp, cofounder and CEO of Mars One, seems to think so. The Dutch entrepreneur and his Mars One team plan on establishing what could be the first human colony on Mars.
"The first humans that are going to Mars are going there to stay," said Lansdorp. "They need to stay in order for this mission to be feasible."
The plan is to send robotic rovers out in 2020 to find the best location for a settlement. Rovers will prepare the location for the arrival of life support units, space suits, and living units, which would land in 2022, with the humans showing up in 2025.
"We plan to have systems operating on Mars for several years before humans arrive," Lansdorp explains. "But it's a mission with plenty of opportunity for delays."
Once everything is set up on Mars, four people — two men and two women — would travel on a compact space station that will hold enough food rations and water for the 7- to 8-month journey to the Red Planet.
There won't be any cool Star Trek–type of technology used for the mission though. Lansdorp is relying on his aerospace partners to come up with simple solutions, using existing technology. "If you're going to Mars, you don't want to bet your life on something that has not been tested for at least a decade," he said.
Powered by solar panels, the life support units will feed oxygen, nitrogen, and argon into the living unit — about 538 square feet of living space — to create a breathable atmosphere for the crew. The living unit will also have an airlock system to ensure the settlement is sealed when the crew leaves to explore the planet.
Space suits — or, in Mars One parlance, "Mars Suits" — are basically the same as the ones used by the Apollo astronauts on the moon. They will be worn by the crew to protect them from the thin atmosphere and the harsh weather, which averages a rather chilly -81 degrees Fahrenheit.
Assuming that the solar panels are successfully supplying the colony with electricity and the life support systems are fully operational, the crew will set up their new home upon arrival. According to the Mars One website, the settlement will have bedrooms, a living room, showers, a kitchen, and plant production units that will grow their food. The crew's source of water will be extracting water from the planet's soil.
If that sounds farfetched, you're not alone. Engineers at MIT aren't convinced the mission's plan will work.
In a recent report, researchers created an analysis tool that examined the Mars One mission model. They discovered that unless new technology is developed for the mission, the chances for human survival would be slim.
For example, growing crops as the main food supply would produce unsafe levels of oxygen within the colony, eventually causing the humans to suffocate. To avoid this, a system that can remove excess oxygen would have to be implemented, a technology that hasn't been developed for use in space.
"We do have the technology to extract oxygen from the air on earth," explains Sydney Do, a research assistant in the Department of Aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and one of the authors of the study. "But we don't yet have a technology that can do that in space or on Mars, and do it to last a lifetime."
Another problem is how much food the colonists will need to survive. Based on the work and activity levels of astronauts on the International Space Station, Do found that the crew would need to consume about 3,000 calories a day to stay alive on Mars. That's a lot of food to grow in a such limited space.
Do's recommendation is to bring food to Mars rather than bring supplies to grow and maintain it, especially if Mars One plans on sending more colonists in 2026.
"They would need more land to grow more food," he said. "Expansion would require more infrastructure and more water."
Accessing enough water could also be a challenge. Extracting water from the planet's soil by "baking" it could be used on Mars, according to the report, but such a device has not been developed to the scale required to sustain a human colony.
"We're all supporters of Mars exploration and colonization. However we are intimately familiar with challenges and risks of doing something like this," said Do.
A roundtrip mission seems more feasible to Do. "There would be less risk, and more opportunity to thoroughly test the technology on the planet prior to longer missions," he said.
But Lansdorp disagrees.
"A return mission is so immensely complex, it's almost impossible," he said.
He argues that successfully launching rockets from Earth already requires a huge number of highly skilled engineers, so how can that work on different planet with only four crew members?
Despite the report's findings, Lansdorp is confident about the mission's plan.
"We've discussed the MIT report, and most of it we already knew, but our suppliers are taking it into account," he said. "We know that landing on Mars isn't going to be easy."