This is how we’re getting to Mars

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Red Talks

It’s shaping up to be one hell of a week for the solar system. Sunday saw the super blood moon, yesterday NASA announced the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars, and this Friday, Ridley Scott’s latest space opera, The Martian opens in theaters.

While the Matt Damon vehicle is still very much science fiction, NASA is planning for human missions to the red planet in the 2030s. So what’s it going to take to get us there?

Fake It Till You Make It
On August 29, NASA locked six people in 36′ by 20′ foot dome near a barren volcano on Mauna Loa in an effort to study the impact of long-term isolation on prospective Martian astronauts. A physicist, astro-biologist, architect, pilot, and journalist will spend the next year at HI-SEAS (the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) while researchers monitor their cognitive, social, and emotional health. Participant Sheyna Gifford is blogging from the inside – thankfully she has not reported on any fistfights just yet.

The simulation game hasn’t been all above-board, however. The Dutch non-profit Mars One created a media sensation when it launched a search for candidates willing to take a one-way ticket to the planet. But in March, one of the finalists accused the project of creating a pay-to-play system for prospective astronauts, as well as a flurry of other improprieties. And when CEO Bas Lansdorp debated MIT aerospace engineers about the project’s logistics in August, he didn’t manage to convince any skeptics that Mars One is much more than a pipe dream.

Catching a Flight
Before setting off for Mars, NASA plans to send a manned spacecraft, the Orion, to an asteroid in the 2020s. The flight will help test the Space Launch System rocket, promising the “most powerful launch vehicle ever flown”. Tests on the rockets have already begun.

And NASA is also in the process of testing deceleration devices around the Hawaiian islands. Low-density supersonic decelerators will be necessary to land a payload of up to 30 metric tons on the surface of Mars – the technology was partly inspired by the puffer fish, whose technique for inflating themselves could result in significantly lowering the spacecraft’s speed.

Getting to Mars is, of course, only part of the problem. There’s also the problem of the planet’s surface, which has been described as “a veritable hell for living things”.

In 2020 NASA will launch its next Mars Rover, carrying the Mars Oxygen ISRU experiment. Developed by MIT and JPL, MOXIE, as it is known, will consume electricity in order to produce oxygen from the abundant atmospheric carbon dioxide.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama is currently testing the use of 3D printing to create habitats out of regolith, the soil found on planets and moons. If successful, the project could allow for robots to construct living quarters before astronauts even arrive on Mars.

In August Buzz Aldrin inaugurated the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology – its stated mission is to colonize Mars. Aldrin has long advocated for setting up human colonies on the red planet (when he isn’t punching moon landing deniers, of course).

Keeping It Stylish
It’s not all science, of course. We’re going to need a flag to plant on the surface of the planet, for example. To that end, Swedish design student Oskar Pernefeldt designed the International Flag of Planet Earth, intended to celebrate the efforts of an international coalition of Earth people.

London designer Alexandra Lucas designed high-fashion space suits for Mars. If you think the prospect of travelling through deep space and landing on another planet is outlandish, wait until you see these outfits. And as an encomium to adventurous travelers, in May SpaceX created a series of Mars travel posters.

Past Is Present
Keep in mind, all of this Martian fever is nothing new. When some astronomers in the 19th century began training their newly-powerful telescopes at the planet, they became convinced that Martians had built an extensive network of canals. Highly respected astronomer Percival Lowell was perhaps the strongest proponent of the belief, which wasn’t definitively disproven until the sixty-inch Mount Wilson Observatory telescope was completed in 1909 and allowed for closer examination.

If you want a wild, fictional take on the era, Ken Kalfus’ new novel Equilateral concerns a group of scientists who intend to build a 900 mile long equilateral triangle in Egypt’s Western Desert before setting it aflame, as a means of communicating with the surely advanced Martian civilizations.

Finally, if you want to be a jerk this weekend, read up on the science errors in The Martian and loudly comment on them during the film.


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