Friday, 14 November 2014

Martian Salad Bar

As befits a cafe on Mars, here's a post about food.

Astronauts and Marstronauts who are away from sources of Earth-grown food may subsist on dehydrated food, packaged meals and so on, but as the engineer involved in the following video (see link below) points out, the sensory experience of eating real food adds a huge amount to our lives. We take it for granted, but travellers to Mars will probably start longing for something fresh after a few weeks or months. A graduate team at the University of Colorado have been developing a kind of automated plant grower and a robot plant-tender. Don't view this unless you like interesting things.

Meet the Gardening Robot

If such devices are to be used on Mars, in the initial stages of a colony, I would want to ask:

- Does the complexity of the electronics and mechanics in SPOT and ROGR justify the potential gain to the colony? The more complex things are, the harder they are to fix. Many spare parts would be required. Couldn't the colonists simply aim to bring or make their own soil, use some basic temperature & humidity data loggers, and hand-tend their gardens?

Beyond that, agriculture is not my speciality, but I'm sure that researchers such as those in the excellent video have been thinking through the details.

But as soon as they've worked out the details and are harvesting their first crop of Martian chili peppers, I'd like to reserve one kilo for use at the Red Planet Cafe.

Both images extracted from Motherboard video presentation.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Travelling to orbit by BALLOON?

When you first hear this one, you may be excused for thinking, 'No way! This is a hoax!'

But it's based solidly on real physics, and has absorbed the combined efforts of some serious engineers with degrees and all that.

It's called: Airship-To-Orbit.

Yes indeed. There is a real R&D company called JP Aerospace, founded by John Marchel Powell, that's totally committed to developing a non-rigid, lighter-than-air method of reaching low Earth orbit. And the crazy thing is that it makes perfect sense. Not only that, but it leaves me wondering why people like NASA or ESA haven't pumped a ton of money into it and made it work a whole lot quicker.

They may have their reasons. Read on.

JPA's plan is a three-stage process. First, a U-shaped high-altitude airship carries a crew of 3 up to 140,000 feet (that's well over 40km) where it docks with a 'Dark Sky Station'. It has this misleadingly sinister name because, well, the sky's dark up there. You're almost in space. Then from the Sky Station, an Ascender vehicle slowly powers up into orbit using a hybrid propulsion system which they're still developing. This Ascender vehicle is part-airship, and will measure maybe 6,000 feet (1800m) in length. That's over a mile! But it should be feasible, since this craft never touches the ground and operates well above the most turbulent layers of the atmosphere.

The problems? Well, how ever you get up out of the atmosphere, in order to achieve orbital velocity your vehicle must accelerate. This means energy must be expended, so you need fuel and an efficient propulsion system. How much energy is being saved by the use of airships? How much cheaper will the whole system prove to be?

One thing is undeniable, I think: ATO does look to be the safest way to reach space that's yet been proposed. Airships comprise a large number of gas cells. If a few are punctured, well, that's unfortunate, but it's not a disaster. The worst that will happen is that the airship simply has to float back down to Earth sooner than expected. No explosions, no sudden death.

I have a sinking feeling, though, that the main reason this approach hasn't received a huge swell of investment from aerospace companies is that it could prove to be too cheap! All those lucrative contracts for building big rockets... think about it.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Prepare for take-off?

I enjoy keeping up with the latest in space technology, but it seems I've been sleeping at the wheel. Someone's been inventing the future and I missed it.

An English inventor, Roger Shawyer, has been developing a microwave-powered thruster which uses absolutely no propellant!

Voices in the scientific community are expressing doubts and questions - along the lines of 'How can this possibly be true?' This is because, as we have understood the universe since the time of Sir Isaac Newton, if something pushes one way, there must be something pushing the other way. In a rocket motor, for example, tons of burning fuel shoot out the back which pushes the rocket in the opposite direction. Ion thrusters in satellites use electric fields to push ionised gas and move the satellite. But in this new device, nothing moves! Just microwaves. And microwaves have no mass.

Roger Shawyer proposes that the microwave radiation pressure difference inside the tapered chamber produces the thrust. The Chinese scientists who have both verified Shawyer's results have a different way of explaining it, and when NASA repeated the experiment recently they declined to propose a theoretical explanation.

Honestly, I'm fascinated. Will this prove to be another let-down, like cold fusion? Or will this be the 'dawning of a new age in the history of space travel', in the style of some of the recent journalism? Time will tell.

What could this lead to, if it's true? Certainly it might be put to good use in satellite station-keeping - maintaining a satellite's precise orbit against the slight but constant drag of the outer fringe of Earth's atmosphere.

If it can work efficiently on a large scale, in a vacuum, it might prove practical to power interplanetary probes and crewed craft on missions to Mars and elsewhere. If mission planners are suddenly told 'You don't need to take fuel anymore', everything will change. The need for fuel to accelerate and decelerate, to change orbits, is the big limitation on all space missions.

The force produced by this microwave drive looks small so far, but it can be maintained for as long as there's electrical power to generate it. So use nuclear power, perhaps, or lots of solar power, and a spacecraft could accelerate gradually, steadily, over a long period, to build up a truly impressive speed. The transit time to Mars, for example, might be reduced to weeks instead of months.

The eventual result, though, will be closer to home for me: I think that science fiction writers will have to change gears! Usually a writer has to 'invent' a space drive like this to allow easier travel to the planets, and eventually the stars, and it's tricky to make it believable. Perhaps, if there's a real space drive in use, it will make our new microwave-powered spaceships look realistic. Perhaps we'll still be inventing the next generation of drives. What next? Bio-fuel starships?

Friday, 20 June 2014

Martian Survival Classes

It doesn't take much research into the human and technical elements of colonising Mars to realise that huge numbers of people across the world are keen to see it happen. Many of them are using online forums to pool very practical ideas. 

What are the basic technologies that will keep colonists alive?

First of all is oxygen. The very thin atmosphere of Mars is mostly carbon dioxide. Water can be electrolysed into oxygen and hydrogen. So how will they find enough water?

- By digging it up! The loose Martian dirt, or regolith, contains a varying amount of water ice. Heat the regolith and collect the water vapour.
- By reacting the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere with hydrogen to make water and methane. The latter is useful as fuel for rockets and generators. But the need for a stock of hydrogen may make this impractical for long-term use.
- By 'adsorbtion' into a special kind of rock called zeolite. Zeolite is a range of minerals known to be good 'molecular sieves'. One of these has a certain atomic structure which allows water molecules to enter, but keeps out the larger carbon dioxide molecules. So it just sits there and soaks up water from the atmosphere.

How efficient is zeolite? According to a NASA fact sheet the atmosphere is 210 parts per million of water by volume. So to squeeze one litre of water vapour from the air, you'd have to pump about 5 cubic metres of Martian air through the zeolite. And when that water vapour condenses into liquid, it only makes about 1ml of water! (It's actually a lot less, because the density of water vapour would be very low at Mars's very low atmospheric pressure.) So you'd need a lot more than 5,000 cubic metres of air to make a liquid litre. Then again, that tiny amount of water vapour in the atmosphere will vary by season and location. A zeolite unit with an air pump may become standard survival gear aboard crewed Mars rovers.

All this is like continually planning a vacation that never comes. It will be intriguing to see how the first Mars pioneers solve their problems.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Changing The Sign

Just a quick change to this virtual meeting place - A café is more suited to customers of all ages than is a cocktail bar. Those customers chasing harder drinks please get back in your Mars rovers and drive east-north-east about 5 kilometres, where you will find 'Craig's Crater'. It's a friendly place, but beware the bar snacks.

Friday, 6 June 2014

ISS Astronaut Rediscovers Ancient Wisdom?

So I got last-minute tickets to a talk by Chris Hadfield at the local auditorium.

The matinee show was for school children, as shown above. Colonel Hadfield began his quest to become an astronaut at the age of nine, after watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon in 1969. I have dim, black-and-white memories of that, too, but I was only three. He is a great communicator, eager to pass on what he has learned and experienced to inspire the younger generation.

He weaved one topic into the next, stitching them with some great stories - stories from 400 kilometres straight up, during his missions aboard the space shuttles and the International Space Station. If you want to get a flavour, look here on YouTube. There's an amusing site devoted mostly to his book, An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth.

What did he have to say that makes any sense to us mere Earthlings? Quite a lot. Here are the headlines, each of which need a great deal of unpacking and serious thought: 
  • Head for a big goal and live in the light of it
  • And at the same time enjoy what you're doing every day
  • Train hard to become competent
  • Prepare in detail for what could go wrong 
From his book, I also found this surprising point (surprising coming from an astronaut): 
  • Aim to start off as a zero- serving others - don't be arrogant. Be a learner. A good team player can't afford a big ego.
Chris Hadfield believes that a good communicator uses art to affect people deeply with the message.
I've heard that last one before, phrased differently. Sounds like ... Sounds a lot like what you'll find in an old, old book that I read quite often. Chris Hadfield doesn't speak about religious faith or spirituality, but wisdom is still wisdom wherever it comes from.

I wonder how Mars One trainees will become this seasoned and wise in just five to ten years of training. I wonder how Elon Musk will fuse these realities into his plans for SpaceX and the colonisation of Mars. It took Chris Hadfield about 21 years of experience as an astronaut to discover all that. You can read wisdom in a book but it takes the ups and downs of life to become wise, often learning from mistakes. From making the right decisions. Like... right now. Should I just take another coffee, another chocolate? Should you play more World of Warcraft or get back to your studies, your work? Choice of breakfast cereal, choice of college program. The passion with which I want to reach my goal feeds power into my ability to make the right choices each step of the way.

Aiming for a great goal does give depth to your life. The greater the goal, the more inspiring, but the easier to become disillusioned if things don't go as we'd hoped. For about ten years of my life I determined to learn Arabic. Not only would I be able to speak and read Arabic, I decided near the outset, but I would learn it well enough to be able to write poetry in that noble language! Actually it was the desire to be able to communicate with ordinary people that drove me onwards as the years went by, and I never did become much of an oriental poet. That's OK.

I  hope any would-be astronauts and marstronauts happening to read this will plot a course towards a noble, realistic and enduring vision to power them through the many years of preparations. Train to be competent, prepare for every possible disaster, keep your ego on a tight leash, commit yourself to your team-mates' success, and have a great time while you're doing it all!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Japan's Vision To Reach The Red Planet

Great that the Japanese government is getting on board the vision to explore and settle Mars. Here's an article about that.

And here's a picture of them doing it!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Real Mars Person

Mars One has narrowed down to 705 marstronaut candidates from its olympic-sized pool of over 300,000. I was looking at a few of the 705's "Pick Me!" one-minute videos and came across one named Stephen, a Canadian living in Toronto. (Why does he want to live on Mars? I've just spent 3 days in Toronto and I fully sympathise.)

This candidate's refreshing. It felt like I almost knew him after his minute was up - I've met someone rather like him, I think, but he had an East London accent, listened to Tom Petty and claimed to be joining an expedition up Mount Everest.

Back to Stephen. Rather than your typical 30-to-40-year-old PhD-scientist-mechanic space fan, he's a world explorer. And he has the appearance of someone who's lived life fully, in every imaginable climate. He claims to have visited 160 countries. How can he possibly keep count? He shows pics of himself  drinking tea (spot the spoon in the tin mug) on a Sahara trek,
chilling out in Antarctica and doing some rescue diving. The line that made me smile, though, was near the end of his presentation: "I've seen the planet Earth. It's time to move on." He looks like just the kind of laid-back survival expert who would thrive on another planet. Good luck, Stephen!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Mars People

I think this could become a key 21st century question: What kind of people will thrive in a colony on another planet?

More particularly, is there a mix of personalities that will lead to a viable new society? From reading the opinions online and in print - and remember that in this field even the experts have never really done it before - most voices talk about the importance of team players, highly motivated and multi-talented people who can put their hand to almost anything and not fall apart under intense pressure.
Artist's concept of the initial Mars One base. Note: there's
plenty of equipment that could go wrong here. Who's going to
stay calm enough to fix it? (pic: Mars One)
Mars One: Good luck. I hope you find plenty of them!

If you listen to enough of the talks given by Bas Lansdorp, the founder of Mars One, you'll eventually hear him say that yes, he grew up dreaming of going to live on Mars, but no, he won't be on any of the small teams being formed. Why? He's too much of a driven individual, an entrepeneur who thinks too highly of his own opinions. He knows he'd be a terrible team member. Wise man. (The original reason he gave for not going was that he's found a very nice girlfriend, thankyou, and she doesn't want to go. That's also a good reason for staying firmly on this planet. I sympathise.)

Slow down for a moment, though, and think about this I'm-going-to-Mars thing.
What will it really be like for the successful candidates? Mars One is picking out teams of four from the thousands who applied. A large part of their training will consist of spending months together, in those small groups, stuck in some Arctic region or in a desert, in a simulated Mars colony base. The Mars Society is carrying out a similar project.

The Mars Society will attempt to conduct a one-year
simulated human Mars exploration mission in the
Canadian high Arctic at its Flashline Mars
Arctic Research Station (pic: Mars Society).


Have you ever spent a few months with three other people? It's hard even to imagine. Sailors of small ocean yachts may have a good idea of the psychological tensions and pitfalls. That odd habit of speech or physical mannerism that seemed so trivial in normal life may become a major cause of stress when cooped up for long periods. People's minor character flaws that you hardly noticed before could gradually become a saw blade, grinding away at the fabric of the team.
Artist's concept of the Mars One outpost simulation (pic: Mars One).
So it's good that the Mars One teams will be stewed in the pressure cooker here on Earth, to expose problems like this. As a writer, I'm fascinated in how these people will resolve these tensions. It makes for a good story. As someone who's been married now for 13 years, I can tell you that in a close relationship, unless both parties are willing to change, there will be frequent bursts of unpleasant fireworks. The everyday phrase 'swallow your pride' becomes one of the most challenging proverbs, some days. It's something like trying to gulp down a chicken without first taking out the bones. Who would want to do such a thing?
I think those colony candidates will come out of the Colony Simulation training either spitting vinegar at each other or counting their three teammates as their best friends forever. And judging by the high motivation and calibre of many of the applicants, I'm guessing it will be the latter.