Monday 18 June 2012

Dutch team plan colony on Mars.

On 31 May 2012 the Netherlands-based startup-company Mars One announced plans to place the first settlers on Mars as part of a permanent colony in 2023, just eleven years time. The company plans to use off-the-shelf technology to send a number of unmanned cargo-bearing landers to the Red Planet before this date, when the first batch of four colonists will arrive, followed by successive batches of colonists every two years (the company plans to use Hohmann Transfer Orbit's, which take advantage of the movement of Earth and Mars to plot the shortest, most fuel efficient, route between Earth and Mars, but which are only available every other year). This would be a one-way trip for the colonists, Mars One have no plans for a return journey; once they have left Earth the colonists will in effect be citizens of Mars.

Artist's impression of a colony on Mars. Mars One.

The company is led by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, whose former projects include the novel wind energy generation company Ampyx Power, Arno Wielders of the European Space Technology and Research Centre, where he is a payload study manager for missions like the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, Bryan Versteeg, a conceptual artist in the architectural and engineering field, specializing in conceptual visualizations for space exploration, and Suzanne Flinkenflögel, a marketing manager, formerly with internet provider Byte Internet. It also has the support of, amongst others, Nobel Prize winning physicist Gerard 't Hooft of Utrecht University.

The company plans to use off-the-shelf technology to reach Mars, which saves on the cost of research and development, and suggests that the mission is in theory possible. This still leaves them with a formidable sum of money to raise, they estimate that they will need to raise US$6 billion to reach the manned-launch-to-Mars stage. Most of this money is likely to need to come from space enthusiasts rather than commercial investors, who are unlikely to appear until a mission is fairly certain. The companies plans for making money are largely based upon advertising revenue, on the basis that a manned mission to Mars likely to attract a great deal of public interest. As a science writer I am not completely convinced by this, as I am aware that the public's appetite for science related news can be a bit fickle, and that earning even a limited income from promoting science can be pretty tough.

Once on the ground a potential colony could be more profitable if other missions to Mars are likely, since it would have the potential to produce things that other expeditions might want, and which would otherwise have to be brought from Earth, such as oxygen, water, food and metals. Mars One do not appear to have developed an extensive plan for a future Martian economy, perhaps wisely since plans so far ahead would need to be somewhat flexible. They do talk of a need to grow food on Mars, and of also growing wood and bamboo as building materials; this is an important issue for any potential colony, and one that needs to be investigated thoroughly before anyone leaves for Mars. Earth Plants would be unlikely to grow in quite the same way on Mars, where there is less light, and the gravity is lower. The Dutch are, in fairness, word leaders in growing plants in artificial environments, but this is an energy intensive process and energy budgets are likely to be tight in any new colony. The effect of low gravity on wood producing plants will probably not be understood till it is attempted. They also talk of the possibility of plastic production on Mars. which seems unduly optimistic, since there are highly unlikely to be any naturals sources of hydrocarbons on Mars.

The company are realistic about the dangers of a trip to Mars, and of life in a colony there, and are frank about the one-way nature of the trip and the limited medical support likely to be available on Mars (though possibly a little naïve about the problems a colonist with a long-term debilitating condition might cause in a small colony), but the prospect of even such a trip is still likely to be an attractive one to many people (as a geoscientist the idea of moving to Mars is very attractive, though I suspect I might be a little to old & unfit).

Mars One plan to improve safety through the sending of a number of unmanned vessels prior to the arrival of colonists, so that their landing method will be well tested before any human lives are risked. Nevertheless the colony does appear to dependent on the materials carried in these unmanned vessels, so the loss of any of them could potentially set back their timetable, and Mars has historically taken quite a toll on probes sent there.

Mars One plan to start recruiting potential colonists in 2013, and to pay salaries to them once they are in training. They plan to recruit globally, being more interested in people's skills and aptitude than their nationality. The first colonists will be chosen from the trainees for a balance of skills and ability to work well together. They plan to send mixed-sex crews, which they feel work better on long voyages, but do not foresee the colonists being able to raise children for quite some time. On Mars they intend to have a good ratio of space to colonists (though any colonists would still have to deal with spending the rest of their lives indoors with the entire population of the planet).

Once on the Red Planet, Mars One plan to encourage colonists to pursue their own research interests (they do not actually state they are looking specifically for scientists, but this seems likely to be the case). They also plan to give colonists unlimited communications from Mars; the distance between Mars and Earth makes the potential for phone calls rather limited, but internet based communication, such as e-mail, has good potential (I could be writing this on Mars and no reader would be any the wiser), though internet connections could clearly be a problem; scientists have become used to being able to access information over the net quite rapidly, so Martian access times would probably be quite frustrating, and the colony would be unlikely to take much of a library with them.

Mars One promotional video. 

See also Martian Dust DevilsFragments of Mars found in MoroccoFobos-Grunt crashes into the Pacific OceanNASA sets its sights on Gale Crater, Mars and Mars on Sciency Thoughts YouTube.

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