Mars One or Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

October 23, 2015

Women Of Wonder (credit: Michael Koelsch)

On December 3 2013, I attended a meeting held by Bas Lansdorp, the founder of Mars One. I was looking forward for a constructive discussion and was hoping to get the answers to some of my questions. A sermon was the last thing I needed — after all, space enthusiasts who underestimate technical difficulties, with excessive trust in their own strength are not rogues.

Unfortunately there was no discussion at all. The whole idea was "I'm a manager, and all the details will be solved by the engineers".

The problem is that anyone who is even slightly versed in space exploration can see not just problems, but lots of flaws in the fairy tale of Mars One. Or, in other words, the whole enterprise is just a one big flaw. It's quite disappointing when a reasonable idea of colonizing the Solar System turns into a farce.

Actually if one wants to be a brave Marsonaut it’s not a bad thing at all, especially if the cost is just $15. Humans often make mistakes and have misbelieves, so in some sense it’s better to make a mistake on the path to Mars rather than going to a fortune teller.

Well, returning to the Mars One mission, in fact even the concept of this project is full of drawbacks.

The project is mainly aimed to be the first one of its kind, and to shock, and to inspire the public, rather than to focus on the process and details of developing and settling on another planet.

For a start, apologists of the Mars missions completely ignore the issue of contamination of the Red planet with the terrestrial forms of life during the planet exploration – that in turn wouldn’t allow us to answer the rhetoric question “is there life on Mars?” I do not think that astrobiologists would be grateful for such a “favor” (by the way this issue is not limited to just Mars One, it’s also shared by other projects including much more elaborated "Mars Society" founded by American Robert Zubrin)

Of course, there is a theory of the long-term matter exchange between the terrestrial planets through the collisions of meteoroids etc. that had existed for millenniums, so “planetary quarantine” can be something to think about.

Much bigger problem with the Mars One project is that it suggests founding of a Martian colony totally depending on supplies from Earth, and in turn returning to the home planet only... a TV reality show! Furthermore, there is no option to return home so if funding is cut (where it will come from in the first place? It’s billions of dollars every year) the colony would be doomed.

The colony could, maybe, serve scientific needs? Nope. There are few people, arriving to Mars and the most they will be able to research is a five kilometre radius and that is absolutely not enough for such expensive project. So what’s the point?

And the main question is: why Mars rather than the Moon? The main argument of Bas Lansdorp is that he just likes (!) Mars, which in general is incredibly hilarious and a weak argument.

Might be conditions on Mars are better than on the Moon? Well, a human working on the Martian surface is possible only in a spacesuit and the level of radiation there is extremely high. And unlike the Moon (2-5 day travel), the flight there takes way more amount of time and a real-time communication is impossible.

Moreover, generally there are only trace quantities of water ice in the Martian soil. Still there might be zones like polar caps, or recently found craters within what possibly (only possibly) could be ice lenses. BTW one can equally assume that there is ice in the circumpolar lunar craters. Anyway, is the Mars One colony going to be set on a Martian pole or in an ice crater? Important things like that (water supply method, proposed landing areas, etc) are expected to be mentioned in the presentation at this point (not far from the proposed launch), but all one can see in there are the “happy pictures”.

Let’s elaborate comparison with the Moon. Of course, Mars has an atmosphere, but it is still too sparse for a simple aerobraking and parachute-only landing. Planes and aerostats too can’t fly in such an atmosphere. There were several projects of this matter, but their state-of-the-art design is still under question.

Gravity. There is no evidence proving that it is impossible for a man to live in the lunar gravity, but possible in the Martian one. Problems would exist in any case when the acceleration differs from the normal G-force. The lunar superficial gravity and closeness to the Earth provide a large range of various methods of exploration and gaining money, and it is far more difficult with Mars. Moreover, it’s much easier to construct a lunar flying vehicle ("rocket hopper") than anything like that for Mars.

Moon is not such a deep "gravity well" and of course, the Moon gives an advantage of real time communication. It’s easier to return from the Moon to Earth and — believe it or not — there are lots of resources on the Moon. Even if we don’t take the notorious Helium-3 into account (which anyway just wouldn’t be need for another few of decades — there are no reactors for that yet), there is oxygen on the Moon and the sunlight there is two times more intense than on Mars.

Actually, such agitation for wanting to settle on Mars, makes me think that we can easily settle on Titan. Why not? There is water ice underneath the surface, the atmosphere is quite dense, which is perfect for plane flying and landing, you can walk without a space-suit just in a heating suit and oxygen mask and it is also possible to set up wind turbines there. It is a bit cooler there though — the temperature is around -290 °F (-180 °C) and on Mars it is -160 °F (-70 °C) — but is it really such a big practical difference?

I don’t even want to start describing technical mistakes of the Mars One project, because there are thousands of them, but let’s continue anyway.
Setting up the colony would require life maintaining equipment — a lot of “little details” — like power stations, physical training facilities (a kind of gym — I have to mention once again, that none knows how Martian gravity would affect a human body), greenhouses for plants, etc, etc.

Also the energy sources used must supply the power to the colony even during Martian nights. Some may suggest batteries. Then they should consider their weight, safety and the amount of cycles they could last. Hydrogen fuel cells? Then the complexity level of using them and the amount of hydrogen and oxygen required should be estimated. Experiments and characteristics of the Mars rovers riding there have shown that the problems with these factors really exist.

Don’t forget that to live on Mars people will need accommodations of a regular Earth size, maintenance depots and service rooms for the colony’s support. Everything of this should be built only in space-suits. Are there many people among those who invested their assets into Mr. Lansdorp’s project, have ever built a farm house on the Earth with their own hands?

By the way, what are the colonists going to eat? How big do the greenhouses need to be? Where do they get light for the greenhouses? Solar panels? In this case let’s estimate the efficiency factor of conversion and its mass if we switch to concentrating mirror dishes.

Next, should all the Martian colonists become vegetarians or will someone send them preserved meat from the home planet at a billion dollars cost? Or maybe we should speak about meat synthesis?

Any greenhouse would require some time to start working properly, so at the beginning colonists will just have to live on supplies that are needed to be delivered there. And this once again raises the questions of the project financing on its starter phase and how long this starter phase will last. By the way, will the apple trees grow on hydroponics or on a layer of soil? No answer.

Water again. Yes, there are traces (just traces) of water in the Martian ground, but how will colonists extract it? They will need power, tons of the ground, and time. Should we place a bucket on a rover on those pictures? But will there be enough power? The designers should think about the solar battery and the mass of its accumulator, and ask themselves this: “Why are there no solar powered bulldozers on Earth?” The solar constant on Mars is twice less than on Earth.

OK, let’s assume that Martian bulldozers are charged by solar batteries, but has anyone estimated their masses considering the weight of motors, batteries and other stuff like that? Well, surprisingly it doesn’t look like any kind of a rover is represented on Mars One pictures.

The terraforming of the Red planet by strength of ten colonists with shovels, it’s not even funny.

Problem is that the Mars One project managers don’t even try to find the answers, though on the other hand, many enthusiasts have thought of thousands of possible solutions. For instance, using methane (by getting it from the atmosphere with the addition of hydrogen) as a fuel for engines (according to Mr. Zubrin) or hydrogen with oxygen (from the same generators). But it doesn’t seem that Mars One managers consider such options at all.

Our team (MDRS-129 Team Russia) tried to extract water from the ground in Utah, USA, which contains twice as much water as the ground on Mars. I must say it’s an incredibly boring and exhausting way of spending time. So if Mars One managers don’t get a reactor to the Red Planet, there won’t be enough energy for this vital process.

Next, how colonists are planning to get oxygen? Should it be by electrolysis or from greenhouse? And are there estimations of necessary input and output volumes and power inputs? There was nothing about that in the Mars One presentation. And meanwhile such calculations were made in 60-s, and they are not promising. Just google it or spend a couple of evenings doing such calculations by yourself. But instead of that they are rendering tons of 3D pictures and collecting cash from gullible romantics.

And what about the Martian dust? Should the Martian colonists sweep it off the batteries or will they hope a wind will blow it off? The way the solar batteries will work beyond equator line and during the Martian winter is a matter of interest as well. Will Marsonauts set poles, driving gears (in a dusty atmosphere) and turn batteries? Along with this and ways of delivery I’d like to know what kind of a back-up power source will they choose for the colony? Certainly, they can melt ice using the direct heat from the settlement and find million ways of using solar energy, but none of them is mentioned in Mars One project.

Undoubtedly, today with the modern science and technology it is possible to create a Martian colony, but not in the way that is suggested by Mars One managers.

The radiation hazard is ignored as well. The Curiosity rover data shows that the radiations much higher there than a human could find comfortable, and of course the lack of Martian magnetic field is being ignored as well in the project. If you are interested in this subject, you can google " Перепелиные эмбрионы в безмагнитном пространстве" (“Quail embryo in nonmagnetic space”) and find an interesting research of IMBP (Institute of Biomedical Problems, Russian Academy of Sciences). Yes, the Moon expeditions back in the 60’s had passed without serious accidents while they were out of magnetic field, but did anyone tried to develop a pregnancy there? Or is Mars One going to be a colony that lasts only a few of years and then everyone dies (with us watching that on TV)? Or is it supposed to be going on and on with more and more colonists arriving from Earth? If so, again, what happens if financing is cut?

Next, it would be great if the colonists got on Mars alive and kicking. Today the Mars One project proposes modular space capsule. It is comprised of four parts which are docked in the Earth orbit: two propellant stages, a Transit Habitat and a Lander. Some time ago Mars One «developers» planned to do this with one rocket launch, and at least they gave up on that idea. There is just no such option in reality.

So if there are going to be the multiple launches - how do they plan to assemble it on low-earth orbit? Do they want to use self-propelled modules or space rendezvous systems? There is no robotic arm on the shuttles any more (to be precise, there are no shuttles any more). Only Russia has a long-term orbital station with self-moving modules (maybe China as well) — are they going to contact them? European ATV is partly based on the Russian space rendezvous system, and the Dragon is captured by station crewmembers. Assembling in the open space is not a Lego game, it is a complicated engineering task. But in the Mars One project a problem of the orbital assembling is completely ignored.

Who will develop and build all modules of the colony? Who will provide navigation and connection on the way to Mars? Does the DeepSpace Network (DSN) have enough resources to provide all needs on the planet?

Landing. The project implies using the Mars atmosphere for slowing down. But people are not space probes; they cannot withstand months of imponderability and subsequent overloading (more than 10G). And the «developers» seem to have forgotten to figure out a necessary breaking device.

Why 10G? One can learn that from the landing of Curiosity. If you want less, then get a big (and heavy) shield, and start figuring out new ways of breaking.

And yes, 10G is slightly more than an emergency ballistic reentry of Soyuz spacecraft and two times harder compared to its “normal” reentry. Of course, we can recall Soyuz-18-1, but in that case the accident occurred during the launch and not after six months in weightlessness.

By the way, nobody knows how to land a craft on Mars with the mass and dimensions mentioned in the Landsdorp’s “project”. Moreover, accurate landing (and landing must be extremely accurate because there should be many landings) is a much more difficult task. It’s certainly possible, but requires many, many, many years of research and billions of dollars.

Elon Musk promised to build the Red Dragon? But the “Red Dragon” still doesn’t exist and NASA had refused to fund the project. Its development requires time and money. The weight of the Mars One descent module that was mentioned by Bas is approximately from 8 tons to 16 tons. By the way, the “Red Dragon” is closer to the lower limit, but the engineering history shows that masses of spacecrafts have a trend to grow during the construction.

Anyway, has Musk always kept his word? Are you sure? Did he save the first stages of the rockets as it was promised? Did he launch Falcon Heavy in 2013? Nope. He is a great entrepreneur with awesome and undeniable achievements , but his words are not a guarantee.

For questions to start popping up, it’s enough to compare Red Dragon with other Mars proposed landers: in the projects of RSC “Energia” and Zubrin’s Mars Direct project. Mars has a very problematic atmosphere (enough to worry about, but too thin for a proper braking). So it wouldn’t be just a regular spacecraft for the Earth landing, while on the pictures of the “Red Dragon” an ordinary capsule is presented. It just wouldn’t work like that.

Also they have to figure out how to make it from interplanetary trajectory without orbiting. Moreover, they have to make it using not the small probe “Phoenix”, but a huge manned spacecraft with a low aerodynamic coefficient, which makes it difficult to maneuver even in the Earth atmosphere. By the way, NASA usually lands probes in valleys because of the atmosphere density.

Last but definitely not least, the required funding. The minimal cost of Mars Direct (again, it’s a much more elaborated project) comes to 30 billion. Let’s assume that the cost of the Mars One project is the same (in fact it would be much more expensive). Note that only 3000 members have paid up to date, so a single contribution should be not $15 but rather $15 million.

Mars One declares that they can get an income from the broadcasting. But every country that organized Olympic Games first spent a lot of money on infrastructure, advertisement etc and only after that got the profit from the broadcasting. Looks like Mars One doesn’t even have enough funds for the start.

Note also the recent agreement between Mars One and Lockheed Martin to make a probe. Ironically, now they are trying to get enough money just for a probe development, and even for that research they need three (!) times more investment than they have now, while making a prototype will require even more.

Just too much money needed for Mars One to happen. Even Ponzi schemes don’t get such money while promising prosperity rather than death on a desert planet.

Alexander Ilin, Lin Industrial CTO

13 december 2013