Last week you asked Joseph Palaia, Chief Operating Officer & Director of research laboratory Earthrise Space, Inc. about living on Mars one day and building moon machines with students. Below you'll find his answers to your inquiries.Can Mars ever hope to be self-sustaining?
With low air pressure, little in the way of concentrated water/oxygen, no arable soil, cold weather, weak sunlight, and limited natural ores and minerals--can any Martian colony ever be anything other than a constant resource sink for its earth-bound sponsor?
Joseph: Yes a Mars settlement can be self-sustaining. Mars possesses all of the natural resources needed to support agriculture and industry. Mars has also been subjected to the same geological and volcanic processes which have been experienced here on Earth, and these processes concentrate resources. The location for the first Mars settlement will be selected to be in relative proximity to concentrations of a variety of key mineral resources. Early infrastructure sent from Earth will focus heavily on mining, refining and manufacturing tools and equipment which can be used to extract raw resources from the local environment and process these materials into useful products (such a structural materials, air to breath and water to drink). The CO2 Martian atmosphere itself is a resource which can be concentrated and used to support industrial processes, and to produce fuel and oxygen. As for water, there are regions near the Martian equator which contain greater than 50% water ice or hydrated minerals (minerals which contain water bound into their structure). Soil on Mars can be conditioned to be quite good for plants, with the main issue being a lack of organics. Initial agriculture will be hydroponic, but suitable soils can be built up over time through composting of inedible bio matter. Cold temperatures don’t stop humans from living in the far north or south here on Earth, so why would this stop us on Mars? And as for weak sunlight, there is still enough sunlight at the Martian surface to allow for the use of photovoltaics, and nuclear power will supply the rest of what is needed.
The Martian settlement will work over time to first become material self-sufficient (food, water, air, at first low-tech building materials and later higher tech materials) and then eventually will shift focus to working on energy self-sufficiency. But there will be time for this, as the initial nuclear reactors sent from Earth can be designed to last for at least 10 years before requiring refueling.
Other Science Missions
Knowing that much of the early science experiments and resources on either the Moon or Mars will be dedicated to finding ways to survive the harsh conditions of either location, what do you see being the second tier science being performed from either location (other than the obvious search for life on Mars)?
Joseph: I feel that you are correct, in that a lot of the early science investigations conducted will focus on how to locate and extract indigenous resources. However there are a lot of different science investigations which will be enabled by the fact that you will have astronauts and their tools on-site in these locations. Certainly there is the search for life as you point out, but there is also a wealth of knowledge to be gained regarding comparative planetology. In learning more about how Mars formed and the processes which alter it, we will learn more about the evolution of the solar system in general and may learn lessons which can be applied to improve our understanding of the Earth and its formation.
My personal focus has always been on understanding how we can create infrastructure and grow a settlement on Mars. I am not a scientist per se, and while I appreciate and encourage science investigations, for me personally that is not the reason that we will go to Mars. We will go to Mars for the challenge. We will go to Mars to become the builders of a new world, and through that challenge we will learn and grow as a society just as society has learned and grown from the challenges we have faced and overcome in the past.
Build Subterranean Base
Will there be subterranean facilities built, or will the base be all above ground? Seems more logical to use the Moons natural resources to protect the astronauts.
Joseph: For both the moon and for Mars, building underground or building above ground and then covering the facility with regolith (rock and soil) makes a lot of sense. Both Mars and certainly the moon have much higher radiation environments on the surface than Earth. By burying the habitats and other structures you can provide some protection from this radiation. You can also place shielding materials between the structures and the rest of the environment (water or plastics for instance anything which contains a lot of hydrogen).
Re:Build Subterranean Base
Hello, related to this question, and the following question for that matter: With Mars' lack of a magnetosphere and the MARIE experiment failing due to high radiation levels coupled with no ozone layer to absorb UV light, what hope do humans have of using the surface of the planet or introducing flora?
Would it not be more practical to send robots to the Moon and set up infrastructure in an experimental effort to identify problems. Granted the two are VERY different environments, atmosphere, and gravity, but surely the money saved on fuel and communication time would give the Moon a a very strong case to be first settled. I have heard the arguments that rocket fuel can be easily made with late 1800's techniques from the CO2 rich atmosphere. Do those arguments hold any water?
Joseph: You asked a number of questions here. Let me address them one by one.
Your first question seems to concern how do we get plants and people out of the well shielded habitats and onto the surface. Radiation effects can be mitigated sufficiently using shielding technologies built into spacesuits and surface vehicles to permit humans to travel across, explore, and be productive on both the surface of the moon and on Mars. This will especially be true if the time durations spent there are limited. To improve productivity, we can also make use of telerobotics. This would be robots operated in real-time by astronauts working in safety and comfort from within the habitat. One might ask why such robots couldn’t be operated by remote control from Earth well they certainly could be, but remember that there are significant time delays involved, especially between the Earth and Mars. This makes teleoperation very difficult. Operators on the moon or on Mars would not have to deal with this time delay. Regarding how to get plants to survive and thrive on the Martian surface, there have been some recent studies which have shown that there are radiation and lower pressure resistant life which would fare well on Mars. With advancements being made in genetic engineering every day, I have no doubt that this is a solvable problem.
There are certainly a lot of good reasons that we might want to send people to the moon, but unfortunately it would make a poor place for a permanent settlement. While true it is much closer to Earth, thus reducing transportation times as well as time delay to send and receive signals, the moon is lacking in three key resources. These resources, which are absolutely critical for agriculture and industry, and carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. So any settlement on the moon would be focused on trying to find very very efficient recycling systems to conserve and reuse these resources, and would need to import these materials in order to expand and grow the settlement.
Regarding making rocket fuel with 1800’s technology and the CO2 atmosphere on Mars, that’s absolutely correct. I would encourage you to read The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin which outlines the technology needed in detail. Dr. Zubrin actually built a working demonstration unit several decades ago when he was working for Martin Marietta.
Protection from space-based radiation
One of the biggest impediments to long-term settlement of Mars is the fact that it lacks an Earth-like magnetosphere to protect surface dwellers from solar flares/CMEs and other forms of energetic particle radiation. Similarly, the very thin Martian atmosphere provides little of the protection that the Earth has from photon-based radiation (e.g., UV/X-rays, etc.)
How much of a problem is space-based radiation for future Martian settlers, and what would be the best way to deal with it?
Joseph: I’ve already addressed some of this question in my previous responses. In short, we bury or shield the habitats, provide “solar storm” shelters (essentially hollow water tanks) which the settlers can take refuge in for the relatively short duration solar flares / CMEs, incorporate shielding technology into space suits and surface vehicles, and make use of telerobotics where possible.
As for UV, there are numerous UV protectant / blocking coatings which are used here on Earth so this shouldn’t be a problem at all.
Sustainability of the Project?
In comparing 4Frontiers and Mars One, it looks like there are two competing companies working to establish outposts on Mars and both have similar plans for funding - virtual tourism and monitoring of the participants.
The Apollo program was an ambitious program to land humans on the moon. If you consider that it started with Kennedy's speech in 1962 and ended with Apollo 17 in 1972, it only lasted 10 years but the astronauts could all be brought back to Earth to live out their lives.
Even though civil unrest and budget issues led to the demise of the Apollo program, and no humans have visited the moon since, underneath it all was a very quick loss of interest by the public. The world stopped to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon, but by Apollo 17, the US broadcasters had stopped live broadcasts and had resorted to very short updates during the evening news.
Sending humans to mars is for all practical purposes a one-way trip and those humans will need to be supported for the rest of their natural lives. They simply won't be able to create manufacturing facilities essential to be entirely self-sufficient. With the loss of interest in the Apollo program and the presumed inability to bring humans back to earth if either 4Frontiers or Mars One programs/companies cease operations before all of the astronauts have died, what happens to the astronauts or what will be done so that they can live out a full, and to whatever extent possible, enjoyable life on mars?
Joseph: I won’t debate you point for point, because there is simply too much here that I disagree with. I’ll answer you with some general comments:
- 1. 4Frontiers started essentially as a series of research studies where we examined the feasibility of creating a Mars settlement. While our personal ambitions are to pursue this until it happens, I am under no illusion that we have answers to all of the issues which people raise or that we even understand all of the challenges we will face! This is a tremendously large and complex undertaking. We will need to work on this over time.
- 2. One of the biggest challenges, as with many projects, is funding. I encourage the Mars One program to continue its efforts, as I believe we need more people exploring the issues related to creating infrastructure to support humans on Mars but I have not yet examined their information in detail so I don’t know how feasible or well thought out it is. Regarding their funding plan, one thing that I have become convinced of over the past several years is that no single funding strategy will work for creating a Mars settlement. The Mars One approach (reality TV / media coverage) is certainly one possible funding element to consider, but I am not sure how significant it will be compared to other funding pathways. I feel it is just one element of what will need to be a much broader and complex funding strategy.
- 3. I agree that it will not be possible without a great many years of effort for a Mars settlement to become completely self-sufficient. But where I disagree with you is with regards to how much self-sufficiency is necessary. I think you will find that many of the most massive items which will be needed for the settlement (building materials, consumables such as water and gases, etc) are relatively low-tech items to produce. Many high-tech items (computer chips, sensors, etc) are relatively low mass (and so can be imported with only minimal impact on program cost). Another thing to think about here is how many cities here on Earth are completely self-sufficient? Are any? Trade is a necessary part of life here on Earth and I think it will also be a big part of life on Mars (trade between different settlements) and in space (trade between Earth, Mars, the moon, asteroids, and other locations where humans will conduct work and live).
Re:Sustainability of the Project?
Along these lines, since there are two competing companies with similar funding/support plans, both planning to build and populate outposts on mars, how do you plan to work with the other company in the event either of you run short of funding/support? Would you allow the other colony to take up residence in your colony? What if it would overrun resources available to sustain your colony?
What about the other side of that coin? How would you work with the other colony if 4Frontiers was to see the end of funding and then be unable to support your own colonists?
With two colonies on mars, won't that then become a ratings war as each tries to be more interesting to viewers and not be canceled (or at least keep revenue coming in) by whatever media outlet is supporting your colony/company? How far would colonists be expected to go in order to maintain interest and viewership?
Why not work with the other colony/company from the outset instead of competing? It would seem that competing on such a venture is going to doom one of the colonies. Funding for one is questionable enough. Funding for two and competing for public interest could ultimately doom both, couldn't it?
Joseph: Who said we were competing?
How do we get the energy we need to mars.
by Anonymous Coward
Any human base seems to depend on a long term high energy source, in the case of mars the only viable option is a nuclear reactor. Is there any approximate energy requirement basic mining and extraction will need to consume ?
Are any of the current nuclear powerplant designs able to operate in Mar's gravity, atmosphere, and temperature range. Is this something that should be actively pursued ? Are there any powerplant designs that can be shipped to mar's as a whole piece or will they all have to be shipped in parts ?
Joseph: Thank you so much for asking this question. You are dead-on. A Mars settlement will need an energy rich environment to support a human population, including agriculture and industry. 4Frontiers has completed an initial analysis looking at energy requirements for mining, refining and manufacturing. Let me refer you to the following book chapter which was authored by 4Frontiers personnel which includes that information: Palaia J, Homnick M, Crossman F, Stimpson A, Truett J. (2009) Economics of Energy on Mars. In: Badescu V. Mars: Prospective Energy and Material Resources. New York: Springer. Ch 13 p369-400.
There are existing nuclear reactor designs which would be appropriate for use on Mars, but they are not optimal. This is an area which deserves a lot of attention. This is one of the reasons I studied nuclear engineering at MIT in order to get an understanding of this exact question. We have team members with the appropriate skill sets and experience lined up to work on the challenge of creating an optimized nuclear reactor design, and building and testing that design. What we lack currently is the funding to actively pursue this. But we know this is a high priority item and will pursue it aggressively as funding becomes available.
Considering the advances we are making in robotics, what is the justification for having humans in the settlement already in "Phase 1"? It adds a huge overhead to the project; not only in the obvious forms such as food, water, air, radiation protection, space suits, which are all heavy and extremely costly to ship to Mars. But also in the form of safety standards (equipment failure on Mars will likely mean the death of the person operating it). And it also leads to the problem of biosphere contamination.
I think it is very obvious that the scientific ROI is vastly higher for an installation that is strictly electricity driven. Achieving ore extraction and flexible equipment manufacturing so that the base can both replenish itself and expand seems both more economically rational and technologically feasible. And once that is in place, we can get a nice little settlement ready and pre-built for when the first humans arrive.
Joseph: We will certainly send equipment and materials ahead of time, to ensure key assets, equipment, tools and supplies are safely on-site before we commit a human crew. But in terms of setup of equipment or actual operations, it’s largely impossible to do this even taking into account recent advancements in robotics technology. Robots cannot adapt to new situations rapidly the way that humans can. They cannot improvise or innovate on site to overcome challenges which are faced. And robots cannot accomplish nearly as much in a given amount of time as a human on the scene can. For example, all of the geological investigations and exploration conducted by the Mars Exploration Rovers in their several years of operations on the surface of Mars could have been accomplished in one or two days of effort by one or two human field geologists.
I also disagree with you regarding the link between equipment failure and death on Mars. Equipment will be designed to facilitate human troubleshooting and repair. Redundant and backup systems will eliminate single point failures and allow a crew on-site time to evaluate the failure and come up with workable solutions. Certainly humans will be more dependent upon their technology for their very survival than they ever have been before in human history but they will be there to solve problems as they occur, and they will be armed with the knowledge, experience, tools and materials to allow them to tackle whatever challenges they face. Will there be danger and hardships? Yes. But this is no different from how things have been on every frontier in human history.
To date, all attempts to create a sealed and self-sustaining biome have failed; Maintaining the air quality over long periods of time is presently an unsolved problem. At present, there's no way for your settlement to completely untether from Earth: You will need regular shipments of supplies, if only to maintain the air quality. Supplies which can only be replenished through industrial processes available here. How do you plan on addressing this major problem?
Joseph: Closed-loop life support experiments (such as Biosphere 2 and some work by NASA) have focused on 100% or nearly 100% closure. This is where absolutely everything is recycled and reused. We’re not even going to attempt anything approaching this. It’s not necessary (although obviously the more we trend in this direction, the more efficient our operations become). The needed raw materials are on Mars, we just need to send the equipment, tools, and trained personnel to make use of them. If you run low on oxygen, split some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and generate some more. If you run into a problem with carbon dioxide buildup in the habitat’s atmosphere (like they did in Biosphere 2) then just vent the entire habitat (or one section at a time) and start fresh. Better yet, build a regenerating scrubber. Need more water? Go mine more. As long as you have people on the scene with tools and equipment, and enough energy (provided by nuclear reactors brought from Earth and backed up by solar and wind), the settlers will survive, and likely thrive, for as long as they care to stay there.
On creating living areas...
Concerning building living areas, I remember reading in an old Popular Science an idea of building low cost 'moon-homes', and even space stations, via a machine that would scoop up lunar soil, compact it into cubes which are somehow sealed. Then, taking advantage of the moon's low gravity, the cubes can be 'catapulted' precisely to anywhere on the moon, or space, to be caught and stored until later use and assembly. Have you and your students given this idea any consideration, or would spraying sealant on pre-existing cave floors/walls be more feasible for living quarters?
Joseph: There are a lot of different ideas out there regarding how to build habitats on the moon or on Mars. I’m more familiar with habitat construction on Mars, so that’s what I’ll address here.
As you may realize, due to the low air pressure (about 1% of Earth sea level) any structure constructed on Mars will need to be a pressure vessel of some kind. You need to balance the outward forces exerted by the atmosphere contained within the structure (at a comfortable pressure approaching Earth’s sea level) with equal and opposite forces. If you don’t, your structure will explode. At the same time, it would be nice to have a structure with some inherent structural strength to it, so that should you have to open the structure up to the outside atmosphere (low pressure) it won’t collapse.
A number of studies have looked into masonry structures with some type of soil overburden (soil piled on top to push down and counter the outward forces of the internal air pressure). This will work, but the problem with masonry (brick or block) structures is that they are very labor intensive to build. Construction by robots may allow you to somewhat overcome this limitation.
Some individuals have looked at using natural caves on Mars and applying some type of spray sealant to the inner surface. This may be possible but as I mentioned in a previous answer, we will want to locate the settlement where there are concentrations of resources. Imposing the additional constraint of finding a suitable cave, and verifying the structural integrity of this cave, may be untenable.
The construction techniques looked at most closely by 4Frontiers are welded steel pressure vessels, reinforced concrete poured structures (where pre-stressed steel rebar provides the inward force to keep the structure together against the internal air pressure), and spun fiberglass vessels.