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.

 
 

Monday, 19 May 2014

Mobile posting -catching up

Here I am writing about cutting-edge space science and this is the first time I have ever posted from my cell phone. It might not become a habit. My samsung galaxy does have a voice input app built in, but it is not making it easy for me. Keypad is making a tough training ground for my hand-eye coordination.  Etc. Etc. If you use one of these, you know what I mean... unless I'm hopelessly behind the 30 to 50% of the human race who probably use these things their whole waking lives. (I guessed the %).
No doubt it's been said many times but these tiny handheld boxes are good on mobility but short on ability compared to 'grownup' devices.
So do you want me to link this to the current blog theme of life on Mars? Ok. How many years will it be til a marstronaut will post blogs from some handheld while roving across the cratered terrain of Arabia Planitia or another of that planet's stunning vistas? Would anybody dare hazard a guess? And what will they be blogging about?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Echoes Of A Greater Invitation

Some advocates of space exploration point out the statistical risks of large rocks colliding with the Earth and bringing our civilisation to its knees and causing untold suffering. "So let's get up there and learn how to deflect the rocks!" they say. I can see the sense in doing so. Any effort to defend the defenceless and bring help to those in need is right up my street, as one who attempts to follow the example of Jesus. (Read: stumbling, hesitantly, trying to keep up... )


The Hayabusa probe, developed by the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) to return a sample of material
from a small near-Earth asteroid in 2005.


Others now are developing robotic - and then crewed - spacecraft to explore and exploit the mineral wealth of the same asteroids - Near Earth Objects, as they're sometimes called - saying that this will boost the global economy. And I think they're probably right.


Planetary Resources' proposed Interceptor, a low
cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration

As you can see from my other posts, though, the most stirring and visionary reason I can see for developing reusable, affordable launchers and capabilities for long-duration space missions is to allow human beings to settle other worlds such as Mars. Elon Musk, brilliant and innovative billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX, aims to build a colony on Mars in order to make humanity a 'multi-planetary species' - ie. a species able to survive disasters such as careless asteroids falling on our homeworld. He really is trying to save the world!

Reaching and settling Mars is often cited as the New Frontier, a huge task for freedom-loving people that will re-ignite the vitality and spirit of New World settlers during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.


An areologist examines rocks on the floor
of a canyon on Mars. Image from http://blogs.kqed.org/science/
Didn't you feel your blood stirring just a little when Mars One issued its invitation for colonists? Of course, when they realised that the colonists were expecting to live the rest of their lives on Mars, most people drew back and would not consider the offer for themselves, however much they might identify with the aims of Mars One.

However, it also resonates with me, this plan for the 'marstronauts' to lay down their Earthly lives and devote themselves to a great, historic cause. Colonising Mars in itself I think is a worthy vision, but not so much in the manner of Elon Musk. I just believe that all the Universe is God's Universe and it's our honour and privilege to be able to explore it, live in it, and look after it responsibly for the good of all.

But seeing the Mars One recruits get ready makes me think how each of us is called to an even greater challenge, whichever planet we happen to live on.
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple [meaning, apprentice or student] must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (from Matthew's Gospel, chapter 16)

We Jesus-people may look odd to others, or may be mistaken for the American Right, but what we're called to do is to live a radical life of love in the footsteps of our Master. That's something that has been changing the world for the better for the past twenty centuries (with some notable failures and fakes).


Oh, and the long-term survival of the species is already assured, Elon. Forever. To join up, you just have to leave everything behind and follow Jesus into his New World.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Reaching for Mars


Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC


Below I've listed a few of the resources and ideas that I've found so far concerning the colonisation of Mars. Elsewhere, if you look hard, you'll find better lists (with prettier pictures too) but this is my handful of data and perspective on the subject.
Here are some organisations actively involved in research or with the stated aim of establishing a colony on Mars. (It's easy enough to search Facebook for Mars groups for yourself, and some of them are fairly sane too.)
Its founders include Robert Zubrin, an innovative rocket scientist formerly at Martin Marietta, a visionary speaker and writer. His practical ideas ended up being too far ahead of the establishment, so he resigned and founded his own company. Now NASA and virtually the whole space exploration movement acknowledges that his 'Mars Direct' plan is basically where it's at. 
The Mars Society has established two simulated Mars bases, one in Utah, one in the Canadian Arctic. Volunteer scientists go and stay there to do real research relating to Mars.
Their mission statement includes the following:
 The purpose of the Mars Society is to further the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet.
SpaceX: Space Exploration company with sights set on colonising Mars.
SpaceX's visionary owner, Elon Musk, is a daring billionaire. It's said that big money hates taking risks - thus, nearly 50 years after the first Apollo moon landing, humans-in-space still consists of a few people hanging out in low Earth orbit. And the rockets and hardware in use now are based on '60s designs. Really.

Enter Elon Musk and his 3000+ employees. They've gone through the design of rocket launchers with a magnifying glass to find out how to make it cheaper to build and fly rockets to orbit. And they're well on the way to making the world's first fully-reusable rocket launch system. (No, the Space Shuttle wasn't fully reusable. Only the winged beast was; the boosters and external tank weren't truly reusable).
What does this have to do with a Mars colony? Obviously to get there you need to launch a great deal of equipment - and some people - from Earth to orbit. That's actually the most expensive part. SpaceX is lowering the cost per kilo of launching to Earth orbit by innovating, testing and flying new things. Right now their engineers are developing the Raptor rocket motor which will be powered by methane and oxygen. So far, most heavy-lift motors use hydrogen and oxygen. But hydrogen's very hard to store long-term, and methane can be manufactured fairly easily on Mars (or it can even be found and used on many asteroids).
What is more, Elon Musk has strongly expressed his vision to 'make humanity a multi-planetary species' by building a large and lasting colony on the Red Planet. He plays his cards close to his chest, so there aren't many details available and there's plenty of speculation, such as this 'fan art' concept of SpaceX's Mars colony Ship:

I expect you've heard of this one so many times already. Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One, wanted to go to Mars as a boy after watching an early Mars probe on TV. Now he's an entrepeneur, recruiting thousands of potential Mars colonists for a one-way trip to begin a colony there. He admits he doesn't have the team-building personality to make a good crew member, so he won't be going himself, at least not at first.
Here is their own list of web links related to their grand scheme:

....to be continued!