LET’S GO TO MARS!
Last week it was all about those 7 new planets that are “only” 39 light-years away and might perhaps possibly maybe be a home for life.
But let’s get real:
There’s a planet that’s truly nearby, one that with some work could sustain life-as-we-know it, one with water and enough sunlight for food crops, one that, with some improvements in current spacecraft technologies, we could get to after a journey of only nine months or so and within the lifetimes of most of us.
So let’s talk seriously, really seriously, about going to Mars.
FiveThirtyEight is featuring a series of posts about that challenging trip. One by Rebecca Boyle describes some reasons why going to Mars is looking more hopeful. NASA is said to be working toward getting people into orbit around Mars by 2032. A handful of companies are also planning Mars projects. The most serious appears to be Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Six crew members are part of the fifth HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) mission to study human behavior and performance relevant to long-duration space missions. At Motherboard, Ben Sullivan explains what that involves–including the process of composting human waste that contributed to making The Martian so memorable.
NASA has another Mars rover mission scheduled for 2020 and has just released its short list of possible landing sites. At Gizmodo, Rae Paoletta delves into the arguments for and against each one.
Mars is too cold to have liquid water on its surface, but there’s evidence water did flow there once upon a time, some 4 billion years ago. How is that possible if Mars has always been cold? Recent reports from the Curiosity rover have only deepened the mystery, according to Xaq Rzetelny at Ars Technica. But it appears that there is liquid water underneath the planet’s surface, water that is available for mining. It would have to be purified, too.
A MARS PROJECT NEEDS . . . MONEY. ALSO LAWYERS
The main thing that would make all this work, according to Christie Aschwanden at FiveThirtyEight, is just . . . money. Lots and lots of money.
There will also have to be lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers, according to Maggie Koerth-Baker, in a post that is one of the series at FiveThirtyEight. “We may slip the surly bonds of Earth,” she says, quoting John Magee’s celebrated tribute to taking flight. “[B]ut we will not escape the knots tied by Earth law and politics.”
The primary legal document setting out the rules for space dates from 1967 and was largely a product of the Cold War. At the moment it’s not clear whether that conflict is still with us or will be vanished by Trump.
But will it matter?
Koerth-Baker suspects that what the US and Russia want to do about spatial hegemony (or enmity) may not make much difference. “[R]ecent history suggests that the future could upend a lot of our expectations. The history of space politics and space law was about superpowers and how they might interact in the heavens. The future of space politics, in contrast, could involve more global coalitions, more small countries wielding surprising levels of influence, and more of a presence for countries outside Europe and the U.S.”
The United Arab Emirates, for instance. At Ars Technica, Eric Berger describes a UAE proposal that he thinks sets out a realistic timeline for actual Mars colonies: about a century from now. The UAE has released “artists’ impressions” of an elaborate city, to be built by robots, that will await the colonists’ arrival. The country’s fledgling space agency wants the project to be international, and has already formed partnerships with Britain and France.
FLY ME TO THE MOON, ELON
Commercial interests command much space news these days, with SpaceX, the Elon Musk project, the front runner. The company has just announced that it will be sending two tourists around the Moon next year. Nothing is publicly known about the prospective passengers–except that they must be rich, because the ticket for each of them is reportedly tens of millions of dollars.
Space X said the circumlunar flight will be “an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.”
A big difference between NASA and commercial missions is that the latter are designing their projects around reusable equipment. SpaceX equipment has a checkered history, but the company has recently tested both the rocket and the spacecraft intended for the Moon trip successfully on a mission to the Space Station, according to Chris D’Angelo at the Huffington Post.
In what The Verge’s Loren Grush describes as the first public-private space race, NASA has been thinking about a crew going ’round the moon too, at the behest of the new White House. That mission would be scheduled for 2019 aboard NASA’s Space Launch System, now under construction. The Moon shot would be a test of the giant rocket, which is destined eventually for Deep Space–and Mars.
But here’s reality again. In December I wrote here at On Science Blogs that what the TrumPets want to do about funding NASA was entirely unclear.
It still is.
Musk announced plans for establishing a self-sustaining Martian colony of (eventually) a million people last fall. For that SpaceX must build much bigger ships, capable of carrying 100 settlers plus cargo.
Ah yes. Plus cargo. In the FiveThirtyEight series, Rebecca Boyle points out that cargo for going to Mars is going to be quite a headache.