Category Archives: In the Shadow of Ares

Nat Geo Goes to Mars

Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033.  You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.

Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.

Better Never than Late?

Barrack Obama has been busy writing OpEd pieces lately, including one in my favorite magazine, The Economist, and an extremely curious one published October 11 on

While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay.  However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration.  I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.

On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over.  Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama:  Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:



Gemini-Mars Winner Announced

The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year.  Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here.  Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.


The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC.  Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings.  I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.

The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”.  Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.

Zubrin on SpaceX to Mars

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.


Life Imitates Art: the Farmer ‘Bot

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize this invention: FarmBot is an open-source CNC farming machine  — it even resembles what I imagine the prototype of the farmer ‘bot at the Jacobsens’ homestead would look like:

The three-axis machine employs linear guides in the X, Y, and Z directions, which allows for tooling such as seed injectors, watering nozzles, sensors, and weed removal equipment to be accurately positioned. Impressively, FarmBot can cultivate a variety of crops in the same area simultaneously.

FarmBot is controlled via mobile device or laptop, while its web-based interface makes customizing your garden as simple as playing FarmVille. You can also build and schedule sequences by dragging and dropping basic operations, adjust the parameters to your liking, and save. Meanwhile, a decision support system adjusts water, fertilizer and pesticide regimens, seed spacing, timing, and other factors based on soil and weather conditions, sensor readings, location, and time of year. And of course, FarmBot can be manually operated in real-time as well.

I liked their term “precision agriculture” – we may have to adopt that for the name of one of the Martian startups.

Note that in the comments, they refer to using machine vision and grippers to weed the robotic farm – while that wouldn’t be an issue in Martian agriculture since weeds would not be imported from Earth, that same capacity gives the farmer ‘bot the ability (described in the book) to automatically recognize and prune unhealthy leaves/plants and to harvest produce at its optimum moment.

Now take this technology and scale it up to 20m-wide gantries hovering over kilometer-long fields, and mate it to automated fulfillment center pick-place robots in city-block-sized hydroponics installations, and you get the bubbles at the Green.


Dragons on Mars?

Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.

SpaceX MarsWe’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.


Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Life Imitates Art – Gardener ‘Bot Edition

Hey, this sounds awfully familiar: This robot is a better gardener than you

Vegetable expert Richard Hassell and his team recently revealed a new robotic system that grafts more quickly and efficiently than a human ever could. They modified a Korean-manufactured robot to grab two plants, precisely slice the upper shoot of one and the root stock of the other, and clamp the two parts together so they can grow into a single plant.

Mars Sample Return on the Cheap?

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.

Ordnance Survey Maps Go Off The Planet 

This looks good – one of my gripes about writing fiction set on Mars is that despite the huge volume of photographic and topographic data accumulated over the past fifteen-plus years, it’s nearly impossible for a non-planetary-scientist to visualize the terrain using the information products planetary scientists have generated from that data. This effort appears to remedy that problem by presenting the aforementioned data in a familiar format: Ordnance Survey Blog OS maps go off the planet

The planet Mars has become the latest subject in our long line of iconic OS paper maps. The one-off Ordnance Survey Mars map, created using NASA open data and made to a 1:4,000,000 scale, is made to see if our style of mapping has potential for future Mars missions. Our Cartographic Designer, Chris Wesson, designed the map…

While the Ordnance Survey isn’t printing these maps as of yet, they are taking requests at the link above to gauge interest in doing so. Meanwhile, you can view the (enormous) electronic version on the Ordnance Survey Flickr page.