Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):
The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.
Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.
So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.
The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.
Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.
We’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful. However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone. While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .
Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop. I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste. Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.
I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute. BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.” As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.
Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission. Sound too ambitious? Maybe not. I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal. Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.
With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.
While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission. For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.
Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow Sci Fi author and host of Mars Pirate Radio Doug Turnbull. He has posted our discussion in two parts here (tab down to Episodes CXXV and CXXVI). It was a pleasure to speak with a like-minded space enthusiast on topics ranging from the works I have written with Tom James, to science fiction in general, to the future of human space exploration and settlement.
Fans of big budget, cheesy Sci-Fi will be glad to learn that the first trailer is out for Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s due in theaters June 2016, and picks up 20 years after the initial attack. My personal hope is for something more serious than the original. Roland Emmerich returns to direct, although he and Dean Devlin only get a character credit. The screenplay is by Carter Blanchard, James A Woods and Nicholas Wright, all with paper-thin writing credits so it’s hard to know what to expect.
Anyway, the official site has some interesting backstory details that had me intrigued. First is the alternate timeline. Picking up in 1996, and anticipating an eventual return by the invaders, the surviving Earthlings have adopted the aliens’ technology and have been preparing. Apparently we have a Moon base and also bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea.
Additionally, there is also a reference to the impact of alien technology on consumer gadgets. That sounded particularly intriguing at first, until I read the details that mention “breakout consumer products that were inspired by alien weaponry – including the touchscreen smartphone, bladeless fans, drones, and airport security scanners”. OK, that’s as stupid as it is disappointing.
Still, I’ll try to reserve judgment for the final product. As much as I am hoping for more realistic science fiction like what we were recently treated to with The Martian, I don’t mind the occasional alien shoot-em-up.
Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces. These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith. This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.
These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base. Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.
At today’s briefing, NASA scientists announced that data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has confirmed that the solar wind plays a leading role in stripping away the Martian atmosphere, which was once thick enough to support abundant liquid water on the surface.
That’s not a new theory, and it’s hardly surprising that a planet with a third the gravity of Earth and a negligible magnetic field would be susceptible to the effect of solar wind, at least compared to Earth. However understanding the mechanisms at work helps us to understand Mars’ past as well as its future. I’m particularly interested in the impact these findings have on the potential for eventually terraforming Mars.
In line with NASA’s recent focus on Humans-to-Mars, the agency announced a new contest to design structures on Mars using existing materials found on the planet. The In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge offers a $10,000 first place prize and two $2,500 second place prizes.
Of course, ISRU is a cornerstone of all practical Humans-to-Mars proposals, and it’s nice to see NASA embracing it. Personally I’d like to see a near-term sample return mission with the return powered by fuel derived form the Martian atmosphere, a much bolder ISRU demonstration than some of the proposals currently under consideration for the Mars 2020 mission.
ISRU is so critical because it significantly lowers the cost and (if done properly) the risk of the mission. As NASA indicates:
One advantage of using resources from the planet instead of bringing everything from Earth is the potential to save the agency more than $100,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cargo each launch.
As for that $100,000, that’s gotta come down quite a bit, regardless of ISRU. Of course the private sector is making great strides there already.