Elon Musk has presented a study with details on how SpaceX plans to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. The research has been published in New Space, and expands on the plans introduced by Elon Musk at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico in September 2016.
During the IAC presentation, Elon Musk stated that the reason he was acquiring assets through other ventures was for the sole purpose of making human life interplanetary. Musk however noted that it was a massive task, and welcomed co-operation from other private spaceflight companies towards establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.
Private spaceflight companies are an important component of NASA’s Journey to Mars, a major undertaking that requires the US space agency to use every resource at its disposal. The space telescopes, new launch systems, space stations, commercial cargo craft, and a bunch of orbiters and landers will all play a role.
Mars is an object of interest of colonisation because of how suitable the conditions on the Red Planet are for hosting humans. A study from Harvard shows that four billion years ago, Methane in the atmosphere of Mars made the local conditions warm enough to support life. Data from the Curiosity rover shows that the Gale crater on Mars had a lake with conditions suitable for life, about three and a half billion years ago.
Mars is also the best candidate for a permanent settlement, by process of elimination, considering how unsuitable the other options are. The weather on Venus is too violent, and Mercury is too close to the Sun. The Moon, and the satellites of the Gas Giants are options. However, the Moon does not have nearly as much resources as Mars, and the Gas Giants are much farther away than Mars. Mars is the first stepping stone for making humans an interplanetary species.
SpaceX and NASA are scouting Mars for a landing site to seed of a potential permanent settlement. One of the criteria for selecting a landing site is easy access to large quantities of ice, preferably closer to the surface. Another important criteria is that the site should be close to the equator, for better power generation through solar panels.
The plans are not in the realm of science fiction any more. The chain of events leading up to future manned missions to Mars has already began. In October 2016, just a few months before the end of his term, the then President of the United States outlined NASA plans to send humans to Mars by 2030 in a story for CNN. “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he wrote.
In March 2017, the US Congress passed a bill known as the Nasa Transition Authorisation Act of 2017 that approved of a manned mission by NASA to Mars by 2033. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, approved the bill a few days later. One of the key points in the bill was that NASA would have to look into a “potential human habitation on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st Century.”
NASA: Journey to Mars
The first step for NASA is to successfully undertake a manned mission to Mars, where the early explorers will stay on the planet for a short period and then return to Earth. A one way trip to Mars would take about a year and a half if current technologies are used. By the year 2030, this period is expected to come down to about six months.
The pioneers cannot possibly take everything they require on the mission, so NASA is building the technologies needed for using the resources available on the red planet itself. The approach is called in situ resource utilisation (ISRU). The equipment for extracting the raw materials will have to work under the harsh and alien conditions on Mars.
The soil and atmosphere are different from the Earth, so the equipment for the mining of materials on the surface will have to be adapted to the Martian conditions. Additionally, the gravity on the Red Planet is sixty two percent lower than that on Earth. The excavators will have to work in the low gravity environment. One of the options that NASA is exploring for mining on Mars is the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR).
Food will be another requirement for supporting a manned mission to Mars. The International Space Station has two VEGGIE facilities where experiments are being conducted on growing plants in low gravity environments. NASA will have to figure out what kind of nutrients need to be added to the soil on Mars, to allow crops to grow. Even high school students are helping out studying the suitable kind of crops to grown in space, by just identifying the crops that grow best in the artificial conditions. NASA has even designed inflatable greenhouses for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
Shelter is another important consideration for the manned mission. Taking along all the equipment needed for housing the humans, the equipment, the farms and the laboratories would be too expensive. A lot of material would be required because of the lethal amounts of radiation on the Martian surface, as well as the constant bombardment by micrometeorites. The current approach by NASA involves building structures from 3D printers that use the regolith on the Martian surface.
Researchers from the Northwestern University in the US have developed a 3D printing technique that uses the kind of soil found on Mars, to create a pliant and flexible material similar to rubber. The material can be cut, folded, rolled or otherwise shaped in a number of different ways. The technology can be used to make tools, or print interlocking blocks similar to LEGO bricks, to be used for constructing buildings.
One of the ideas proposed by Stanford and NASA engineers is to combine the regolith available on the Martian surface, with a protein derived from bovine blood. The component is easily available as a by-product from slaughterhouses, and practically becomes glue when mixed with soil. To make the component available on Mars, the idea is to create factories of organisms genetically engineered to produce the protein binder. However, there is an alternative to bio-concrete.
The iron oxide on the surface of Mars, that gives it the characteristic red appearance, has a property that can be very useful for humans. The iron oxide acts as a binding agent, and allows for the Martian regolith to be compacted into bricks, without the need of an Oven. The only thing necessary is pressure, there is no requirement to add anything to the soil, or heat it. The resulting bricks are stronger than concrete reinforced with steel.
Any epic space adventure is incomplete without a trash compactor. NASA is building a trash reactor that can convert garbage into fuel, and other resources needed by humans in a space colony, including oxygen and water. Such a trash to gas reactor already exists at the Kennedy Space Center, one of the NASA facilities. Annie Meier, a chemical engineer at the Kennedy Space Center says "There is food waste, there is biological waste, there is packaging waste. Here at Kennedy, we’re working on how to make this waste into useful products, such as methane for fuel."
One of the key part of the plan for going to Mars and beyond is building a permanent space base near the Moon, to act as a gateway for deep space missions. NASA has teamed up with Boeing to develop the plans for such a base, to act as a testbed for emerging technologies needed for pioneering interplanetary missions. NASA even has plans for a year long manned mission to the Moon to prepare for the eventual manned mission to Mars.
One of the studies conducted by NASA suggests an ambitious project to make the conditions on Mars more suitable for human life. The idea is to permanently place an inflatable magnetic dipole at the Sun facing Lagrange point to create a magnetopause that will protect the Red Planet from the ravages of solar wind. Mars once had an atmosphere that has been stripped away by the Sun. The artificial magnetosphere to shield the planet could be the first step in terraforming it.
SpaceX: Making human life interplanetary
While NASA wants to go to Mars for exploration and the advancement of science and technology, for SpaceX and Elon Musk it is a question of survival. If humans do not get to Mars, we are going to die out. The challenge is to reduce the cost of a Mars mission to make it affordable, which means reducing the cost by a factor of five million per cent.
Reusability of the rockets is an important part of bringing down the costs. Another way of brining down costs is to build bigger rockets, deploy tankers in orbit, and regularly shuttle spacecraft between Earth and Mars. The idea is to use every single launch opportunity for an efficient trip to Mars, and make the trips as regular as a subway service on Earth.
The system for achieving this is known as the Interplanetary Transport System. A re-usable booster will deploy colonial ships or tankers into space, and then return to the Earth to be used again. With a lift off mass of 10,500 tons, the ship and booster combined will make the heaviest launch vehicles currently planned.
A Dragon spacecraft to Mars is already being planned as early as 2018, and another one in 2020. These are pathfinding missions, meant to identify suitable landing spots for the first colony ship with humans on board. The first ship will have a propellant plant, to mine the water and carbon dioxide on Mars and convert it into fuel for the spaceships going back to Earth. The first Mars flights are planned to begin by 2023.
Making sure that all the resources available are used optimally is a challenge for closed systems in space, such as a space station. It would be a much bigger challenge to establish that efficiency in a space colony. The eventual aim is to keep sending missions to Mars to build a self sustaining city on the Red Planet. Electricity for the settlement will be provided by an array of solar panels.
A self sustaining colony needs a minimum of 10,00,000 people. This means 5,000 to 10,000 manned missions to Mars, with each ship containing between 100 to 200 people. The spaceships are padded out with entertainment areas and arenas for zero gravity games, to make the travel a bearable experience.
For SpaceX, a permanent settlement on Mars will allow humans to explore even deeper in the solar system. This allows spacecraft to hop from the Earth, to Mars, and beyond. Prime targets include Enceladus and Europa, moons of Jupiter, and Titan, a moon of Saturn. Fuel depots on these moons would allow humans to hop even further.
In the paper published by New Science, Musk writes “You could travel out to the Kuiper Belt, to the Oort cloud. I would not recommend this for interstellar journeys, but this basic system—provided we have filling stations along the way—means full access to the entire greater solar system.”
Boeing: Path to Mars
Boeing is also supporting NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars by building the architecture to support the vision. In fact, the CEO of Boeing has vowed to beat SpaceX to be the first private spaceflight company to reach Mars. This will not be a colonisation mission, or a pioneering mission. Boeing also has the costs figured out… they plan to simply send tourists. Dennis Muilenburg proclaimed at an event, “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” according to a report in Bloomberg.
Apart from the space launch system (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, which are both in the production stage, Boeing is in the early stages of developing a transit habitat for housing the pioneers on the first mission to Mars. Before the trip to Mars, the hardware and the equipment for the journey will be tested on the International Space Station, as well the gateway for deep space operations in the vicinity of the Moon.
Another craft by Boeing in the early stages of development is a deep space tug. The tug will be useful for docking operations, and moving tankers and spacecraft about in space. The tug will be propelled by a combination of solar electricity captured through panels, and chemicals. Boeing plans to realise the deep space tug and the transit habitat by the early 2030s.
By the late 2030s, Boeing plans to build two spacecraft necessary for regular operations on Mars. The two vehicles in the concept stage are a Mars Lander and a Mars Ascent Vehicle. The Mars Lander has a heat shield which will separate from the craft after entering the atmosphere, allowing the lander to execute a soft propulsive landing. The ascent vehicle will take the lander back into space, and also contains a module similar to the transit habitat, for stays of short duration. The Mars Ascent vehicle can potentially be used as an emergency vehicle for the early travelers to Mars.
For Boeing the entire mission is an undertaking to advance various aspects of the human race. The mission to mars is an opportunity to learn more about the origins of life, perhaps discover new and alien life. We can use the resources on the planet, and the advancement of science and technology will foster economic growth. Most importantly, such a mission will leave a better future for the next generation.
Colonising Mars will be a global effort
As Boeing points out, there are young men and women in schools dreaming about going to the Red Planet. These will probably be the people who realise the technologies necessary, as well as make up the pioneering crew on the first manned missions. Lockheed Martin had recently held a competition for school students, to design a spacecraft for manned Mars missions. Here is the winning entry:
Rick Ambrose, executive vice president for Lockheed Martin Space Systems said, “Our Generation Beyond resources help make STEM learning fun and inspiring. Humanity's next giant leaps in space deeply depend on students at the K-12 level pursuing careers in science and engineering”
Last month, the Ohio State University hosted the Armstrong Space Symposium, which included astronauts from the Apollo Moon missions as well as representatives from leading private spaceflight companies. The discussion centered on how mankind will get to Mars. Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, 85 years of age, said that he would not mind volunteering for the Mars mission, "I can sit all day and watch TV and not get bored, send an old man."
Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins said "I don’t think Musk understands the enormity of a Martian mission. It makes Apollo look like child’s play." There were no SpaceX representatives, but Will Pomerantz, Vice President for special projects at Virgin Galactic responded with "All this stuff is harder than anyone thought."
In the New Science paper though, Musk does not hesitate to admit that the mission can fail. Musk writes, “There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot. There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible”. Musk does provide an explanation for SpaceX undertaking such ambitious schemes – it is to gather more support.
"There are also many people in the private sector who are interested in helping to fund a base on Mars, and perhaps there will be interest on the government sector side to do that too. Ultimately, this is going to be a huge public–private partnership. Right now, we are just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and to keep the ball moving forward. As we show that this is possible and that this dream is real—it is not just a dream, it is something that can be made real—the support will snowball over time."
Ken Davidian, director for research at the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation and a panelist at the Armstrong Space Symposium noted that the importance of the ambitious plans."We’re lucky that we have (people) as ‘irrational’ as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk that they’re willing to pursue these goals" Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center pointed out that going to Mars “is going to take all we got—NASA and the billionaires and the private space agencies. It’s going to take all mankind.”
Massive reusable rockets, 3D printed habitats, crops grown in controlled environments, optimum use of resources, recycling waste to the largest extent possible and efficient use of solar energy, are just some of the scientific and technological advancements needed for colonizing Mars. Establishing a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet may make humans an interplanetary species, but it also holds the promise of making the Earth a better place to live in.