Really? Mars?

February 28, 2007

Just as Director Griffin felt it necessary to outline in regards to our effort to The Moon, one must wonder why exactly we’re going to Mars, if for no other reason than to speculate as to the chances of actually getting there. The 2030s are a long way off, and the conditions that existed in the 1990s, making long-term funding difficult to maintain for any length of time is clearly reflected in the budget NASA’s been given to accomplish the task. Things won’t likely get better between now and then. We have yet to read his “Why go to Mars?” paper.

SuperCritical CO2When the project was announced as the ultimate goal of the 2004 Bush Administration edict for space exploration, it was realized that not only was the goal a very long way off, but that there ought to be compelling reasons. The occupant of an early post that coordinated with the Presidential Oversight Office told the BBC in 2004 that it was better to have a project when trying to secure funding for the agency than without a clear goal that con be articulated in a few sentences. But are we really going to the red planet? Are we really setting out to colonize the solar system?

Consider the folks working on the anti-matter drive at NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). They don’t quite have warp-technology yet, but this incredible source of power is capable of sending a craft to Mars in very short order without the burden of carrying heavy fuel around. It’s just a matter of using it without radiating everyone on board and finding some anti-matter to “burn” in a regulated environment. Even the relatively mass-efficient ion-drive systems that are currently being pioneered require an energy source, be they solar, as in the case of missions within the near solar system, or nuclear fission, as in the case of the recently cancelled Project Prometheus missions to Jupiter and beyond. That the fuel to weight ratio is proving to be a major obstacle in our ability to move beyond our own planet, the ability to procure anti-matter for less than $25 million per microgram would seem crucial. Can Mars help?

New Horizons on its wayIt is perhaps fitting that as New Horizons (perhaps NASA’s last probe headed to the outer solar system for awhile) circles around Jupiter to achieve the fastest velocity yet achieved by an Earth-made space craft on its way to Pluto and the Kupier belt, that we should consider how space travel progresses once we have a base on Mars. Mars could be our launching point for setting off to the moons of the large gaseous planets, such as Titan or Europa.

The most ardent supporters say a powerful motivation is simply, “because it’s there.” That’s the very same infectious optimism Mike Griffith says he’d like to foster among employees and contractors or NASA. That would have to, defacto, include the private companies that NASA will be purchasing services and materials from, rather than “house brand” contractors. Robert Zubrin threw his hat into the speculative ring when he published The Case for Mars in 1996. Those in the Mars Society have also gone to great lengths to make a case for Mars and even devote resources to lobbing the political process.

Some see a mission that has Mars as its end point takes money away from developing The Moon, though NASA has made some noise about readying the area for commercial projects and then letting them take the lead as the agency focuses its attentions further afield.

The possibility of life on Mars is also touted as being a powerful motivator, however schemes that would terrafrom the planet might destroy any potential life that resides beneath the Martian soil. Nonetheless, when you ask private citizens who already have an interest in the red planet, it is the answer that comes up again and again. Perhaps this is because the commonly held belief that Earth needs a break from the crush of humanity now occupying it.

Uniting the planet Earth in some sort of peaceful unity has been cited by some as a compelling reason. While the defense budget pales in comparison to yearly expenditures at NASA, the likelihood of it becoming obsolete is as unlikely as it is tempting. Some agencies are actively perusing the colonization model of Mars exploration, with a recent second phase of planning already in progress as of 2006.

People as influential as Lockheed Martin are very seriously considering Mars colonization from an economic standpoint. From a paper prepared as recently as 2005, essentially to use the challenge as a “pressure cooker” of ideas that would eventually lead to exploring other area of the solar system. They lay out the exploitation of Mars as a three step process of exploration (the phase we’re currently in), colonization and terraforming to bring a large swath of the population off “old home Terra.” The point to missions such as the ( ) Mars Direct program that is in the planning stages as the most likely embodiment of the second phase of that timeline.

Fact is, those who are within the agency have given guarded answers at best when asked any particulars about the plan for Mars as it pertains to Constellation. I wonder if they’re not just keeping an ace up NASA’s proverbial sleeve, though. Work has begun on Martian greenhouse structures, and this is a concrete step toward creating the sort of presence that is meant to be permanent. The public certainly is for it, making up for some of the lack of enthusiasm about going back to The Moon.

If the citizens of the US make it known that they really think it’s important to get off this rock in a meaningful way, and to lead innovation in aerospace innovation, then the issue becomes one of turning the public tide. As one official said, “Exploration is the byproduct of a healthy country.”

So, let’s explore, already!

Out there


The Goods on Mars, Part 2

February 28, 2007

See Part 1 for more information.

Sub-surface water
mars false-colour of water In 2002 Mars Odyssey reported hydrogen rich depots in the soil. It is believed that water ice might be easily extracted from such soils by simply scooping them up, heating them and filtering out all the bits. The super-critical CO2 can also be used to “dissolve” water right out of hydrogen-rich rocks. Of course, even with its brought to the surface or created, water can escape at much faster rates on Mars compared with Earth.

A whole new world – wow! That’s quite an asset, even if it isn’t even 2/3 as large as large as Earth. NASA has held forums as recently as 2004 on ideas for terraforming Mars. Though, it seems some people aren’t for it on ethical grounds, assuming there’s life there. That’s a big assumption, though. I’m pretty sure we’ll look for it first, but in the very real a blue mars after terraforminglikelihood that there isn’t a thing to disrupt with our presence, an idea to focus a giant orbital mirror over the poles has been proposed. In the plan the mirror would focus solar radiation on the frozen CO2 at the poles. It sublimates very readily compared with water (it’s super-fine dry ice on steroids). It is hoped the escaping gasses would form an atmosphere that could then be used by plant life and liberated water. Of course, there is the possibility of not doing it right the first time, so perhaps we ought to proceed, one pole at a time and, deploy slowly. If a terra forming operation did take hold in the 50 years some now think such a project could take for minimal human habitation (as opposed to the 10,000 years once speculated).

Space Base Sol-4
mars base 1The location and resources of Mars could be very useful in reaching out to the other potentially colonisable worlds in our solar system. While The Moon may someday be able to provide the H3 that will fuel fusion reactors, the moon is a rich source of both hydrogen and oxygen – handy things to have around if you’re mucking about with chemical rocketry. Escape velocities on Mars are lower than on Earth and it could one day become. And there’s always the transport of asteroid ore to processing facilities on the Martian surface (if they’re not ferried to the Moon first).

Other reasons are a bit more esoteric, but it helps to know that there are some actual, physical, tangible things those who would veto budget funds for the agency at this critical juncture can be persuaded with.

The Goods On Mars, Part 1

February 28, 2007

One must wonder if there are any tangible reasons to go to Mars if The Moon can be made so cozy and CO2 crystals as imaged by the USDAwith a travel time of only 3 days, as opposed to a few years for Mars.

Well, why do people go anywhere? To either escape something at home, to visit new and strange things and because there’s stuff. Mars could very well have some stuff to offer.

Oxygen production
There are many proposals afoot for the production of Oxygen (O2) from the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) that is present in very large amounts on the planet’s surface at the poles and in the rocks. One from the University of Arizonia calls for Solid Oxide Electrolysys.

Carbon Dioxide for Atmosphere and as a Solvent
Harvesting the resources of the red planet seem to start with the CO2 contained in the polar ice as well as the frozen water ice hoped to be found within the Martian soil itself. The ability to harvest carbon is seen as a crucial first step in using conventional liquid or solid fuel propulsion to the outer solar system, since solar power is so much less effective as craft speed away from our sun. The CO2 itself could be used in its super-critical (the Frozen CO2 crystals can be very densely packedtemperature and pressure that combine to create a type of CO2 that has the properties of both a fluid and liquid) to dissolve Magnesium (Mg) out of the soil. The Mg could then be used as a new type of rocket fuel.

Ore mining and Manufacturing
As far as mining ores or other useful materials from Mars goes, some of the critics that are speculating on the nuts and bolts of sending a manned mission to the planet say there isn’t nearly enough mineral wealth to justify a sustained mission. The asteroids are perhaps a more lucrative target for metals mining or delivery to Earth. They are rich in cobalt, nickel and platinum. Very rich, indeed. Rich enough to probably disrupt the market of those metals and make the mission less profitable than is claimed, but suffice to say, those metals would be accessible in great quantity.

See more in Part 2 of this story.

Baby’s First Space Colony, Part 2

February 27, 2007

See part 1 for cool stuff from the 70s

Sending large swaths of the population off into spinning space cities may have been abandoned by the space 1984 Lunar Colonyagencies for the time being, but private citizens, and some very clever ones at that, have been keeping the research alive. The National Space Society, for one, maintains several thousand pages of reference material on the subject.

Ideas for facilitating the more rapid expansion of humans throughout the solar system include parceling off pieces of the worlds colonized to the private companies who get there first — a sort of land rush. It is noted by proponents that the 1967 “Space Treaty” prohibits nationalization of extra-terrestrial bodies, just as Antarctica is off limits to nationalization — all the better for corporations to act, it is said, to acquire private property and invest in private space travel and settlements.

In the 1990s, NASA funded research that would create rather expensive but infinitely useful infrastructure on The Moon for any subsequent private ventures. One from 1993 would have brought pressurized and radio-controlled space-bulldozers to feed an oxygen production facility in the form of project LUNOX. With regard to a 1996 proposal (Human Lunar Return or HLR) to return a limited, “poor man’s Apollo” mission to The Moon, a reviewer of the project said, after it was shelved later that LUNOX - Lunar O2 productionyear, “… it seems increasingly clear that NASA’s post-ISS projects will have to be significantly less expensive and based on new commercial “paradigms” as well as international participation. In this respect, the groundwork provided by HLR may prove invaluable in the long term.” This seems likely, since funded studies are immortal in one form or another.

For now, NASA does at least plan on utilizing the talents and resources of the international community to put the first operational infrastructure. As they concentrate on sending a mission to Mars, it is possible that much of the initial construction will be funded by other nations. Though, perhaps, future generations of lunar citizens will choose which multi-national they’d like to be a citizen of. Will future lunar citizens choose between living in the Pepsi or Coca-Cola colony? They might, even if under different names.

Baby’s First Space Colony, Part 1

February 27, 2007

Large-scale space settlement has been a matter of great public speculation for as long as the nearly 50 years there’s been a space program and, before in fiction. A plethora of organizations and individuals have put plans together for the day such construction feats become possible and feasible, though they may end up waiting for the commercial enterprises to catch up.

A design for 1M + orbital colonyThese designs for large-scale orbital or extra-terrestrial colonies seem a little closer now that private citizens will soon be able to visit space for an almost moderate sum. This is, however, still a long way to go. At this time, none of these serious proposals for large-scale settlement, or colonies, are under current consideration by NASA. Colonizing enterprises may become the realm of multi-national corporations in the next 50 years.

The requirements for happy and safe large-scale human habitation of Mars or the Moon on a permanent basis vary greatly, depending upon how many people and what segment of the population is sent. Though generally speaking, the larger the population, more area seems to be set aside for aesthetics and habitability. Most make heavy use of solar power and horticulture. Designs, such as the one pictured here with room for over 1,000,000 people utilizes orbiting agricultural cylinders and internal areas so vast, they have independent atmosphere with weather.

Skylab While She FlewAs early as 1975, a now legendary several-week summer retreat brought engineers and professors together to address the feasability of an orbital space colony. The designs that resulted from those summer sessions call for artificial gravity by way of rotation (like In the movie 2001) of no more than 1 RPM and orchards that double as parks for the small cities of about 2,800 researchers and their families. Durations could be years-long and they envisioned this international effort could be completed well before the century was out.

This groundbreaking work came on the heels of a successful Skylab deployment and artwork associated with it reeks of promise and hope. So much, perhaps, that it was shit-canned by the powers that be or never really taken very seriously at all. The once-optimistic researchers and engineers can at least be content that they did foster 30 years of dreaming on the part of the public that yearns to be free. There might not be the sort of interest in space tourism as there apparently is today if it weren’t for such visionaries.

The concept was revisited on a smaller scale in 1984. Research from that planning session thought a permanent base to exploit mineral resources on The Moon might be operational by 2015, though it was noted at the time that there would be no funding for lunar missions while budgetary focus remained on low earth orbit (LEO). Ideas were conceptualized for orbiting lunar stations, and polar base stations, but the populist view of the earlier space station had been scaled down to mining operations and bases for small-scale scientific study. The ideas once for the general public had turned into ideas to house space agency pioneers. These plans would later turn into habitation schemes designed to lure businss ventures to the still worthless real estate as a “ground floor” investment opportunity.

See part 2 for more

Moon Gardens, Part 2

February 27, 2007

See part 1 for more information

The horticultural departments at other Universities are performing their own research under the agency’s Land Grant Hort Reserach - first stage podsdirection. While NASA does maintain a facility to perform horticultural research facility at Center for Space Agricultural Biotechnology Research and Education on the University of Florida campus, agricultural research for space as well as on Earth remains the realm of Land Grant Institutions. Other important research centers include Oregon State, University of Arizona, Purdue, Iowa State, University of Minnesota, Alaska Pacific, Harvard, University of Kentucky and several others.

Research has already begun in earnest on Space Shuttle missions from the 1980s and 1990s. Now, the International Space Station (ISS) is able to keep perpetual experiments going that track the effects if micro gravity and controlled, low-pressure atmosphere on a variety of horticultural food crops. While it is hoped that plant growth might even be accelerated as compared on earth because of the lower atmospheric pressure, allowing faster and broader cell expansion during growth and decreased “night” respiration, ISS research models thus far show a yet unknown trigger that causes the symptoms of drought stress.

Some have stressed the importance of meat-based (or as they call them, American) diets on the moon, calling legumes “unpalatable,” but one can imagine that it will be awhile before cows make it to the moon. Do they really intend upon building a slaughterhouse on The Moon. I suspect NASA’s first citizens of the solar system will be vegans for the same energy conservation reasons that many earthbound vegetarians choose to forgo meat.

It is curious that more literature doesn’t exist from NASA itself on the topic of agriculture on a proposed moon base or colony. While ideas for hydroponic systems, and more recently aeroponics for space flight, have been around since the 1960s little research has been done. Private entrepreneurs seem to be those proposing actual systems use on a moon base. Since NASA isn’t yet planning on leaving the base permanently staffed for many years, perhaps the focus now is on the rocketry. When NASA finally turns public and significant attention to horticulture on these worlds and on the way, we’ll know they’re ready for prime time, because plants are necessary, to fuel and power ourselves, no matter where we are.

Moon Gardens, Part 1

February 27, 2007

Before becoming the Roman god of war, Mars was the god of agriculture, perfectly happy to see a fine crop come up until he beat his ploughshare into a sword and went to war. That happened to a lot of people back in the day — it’s Greenhouses on Marseasy to see why he was such a popular mythical figure. But also, how appropriate that agriculture and horticulture could make the journey back to the Martian surface? To supply breathable oxygen (O2) and remove exhaled carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over such a long journey, astronauts will very likely have a horticulturalist on board to manage crops in micro gravity.

It has been determined, but not much ballyhooed, that any long distance mission in open space, open space being very big, that long-voyage horticulture technology will have to be worked out from here on out. Plants deemed of special use by NASA are those food crops that convert a lot of CO2 into biomass and quickly. That’s why research plants such as the mustard Arabadopsis (the fruit fly of horticulture) are used along with lettuce and even the odd tomato. These plants will also provide produce for the astronauts, cycle water and provide something green in a sterile ship or base atmosphere that will be greatly appreciated by the crew.

Systems are currently in development that could lead to the first garden plot on The Moon or Mars. At the University of Arizona, researchers are continuing to develop a system they used to grow an abundance of food at a South Pole station. NASA is most concerned about O2 production, so the haul may be mostly lettuce; though, I certainly hope human environment researchers impress the need for some range of fresh foods to eat.

Texas A&M University is working on the problem of low and micro gravity conditions that may reduce yields in open space. They have found the gaseous plant hormone ethylene (used on Earth to ripen green-picked tomatoes among other things) can build up in chambers and should be kept from building up to levels that could actually retard plant growth. It is not known whether they will use the material inside those produce keeper disks to do it.

See part 2 for more

Luna Observatory, Part 3

February 26, 2007

See parts previous entries for more information 

We really haven’t put much effort, thus far, into observing from the surface of the moon. A single instrument, the The moon's only observatoryFar Ultraviolet Camera and Spectrograph was deployed in 1972. The film was brought back to Earth for processing, and the instrument remains on The Moon where Apollo 16 left it. Essentially a souped-up pixie camera with a very big roll, it was brought back to earth with pictures of various stellar bodies, including The Earth, on the UV sensitive film. Now that NASA is sending human and robot teams there, it suddenly becomes a lot more feasible.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also looking to put robots and observational equipment on The Moon. A mission proposed in January of 2006 would have sent a very large telescope up in pieces on the relatively small (most things are compared to the Ares V) Vega rocket, to be assembled by robots on the lunar surface. The assembly process was to take about 15 years with the first assembly bots sent up as early as 2010. Officials at ESA have rejected the plan for being too costly, though the research facility at the Italian Space Agency (ASI) continues to work over the proposal. As we’ve seen from NASA, old space plans don’t die, they just get modified ’til the world is ready for them.
One of thousands of Hubble Images that have changed astronomy and cosmologyEven some proposed commercial ventures (of varying likelihood of actually happening) are being planned to integrate high-bandwidth communications between The Earth and the first research facilities or even a luxury lunar hotel. Here, too measures are being taken to minimize the amount of weight and power required. The laser communication system outlined by the Moon Society’s Artemis Project only draws one bit of power and should be delivering data in gigabit steams, allowing live, lunar HDTV. The US military seems to be taking advantage of the technology as its being developed on the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s STRV-2 satellite in near Earth orbit. Of course, it will be nice to have cable TV on The Moon as well as the next generation of Deep Field images.

Luna Observatory, Part 2

February 26, 2007

See part 1 for introduction and more info

The NASA home office optics division envisions sending up a 16m (~45 ft.) wide dish to the surface. The Large Lunar Telescope (LLT) would image in Ultra-violet (UV), visible and infrared wavelengths. The mirror would be large lunar telescope - artsits' designmade of composite hexagonal segments, such as is used in the design of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and would serve as a partner to the swiftly upcoming JWST mission. Instruments would be buried for protection, presumably to avoid interference from a electro-magnetic shielding system. This leaves the problem of moon dust compromising the imaging surface or the operational controls.

However, being more stable on the moon than its orbital counterparts, the LLT images would be far crisper than are currently available. It is suggested it could even look for signs of life on extra-solar planets. Another especially innovative design comes from the plans for a deep field infrared imaging NASA original design of LLTsystem using a spinning liquid mirror design. One of several proposal projects funded in 2002 would use the unique micro gravity of the lunar surface to allow a very large Liquid Mirror Telescope (LMT) to be used — several times larger than working models on Earth.

Constellation sounds more like a camping trip all the time. You don’t want to pack too much, but you need all the essentials covered by gear that will be as functional as possible. Perhaps its more like the proverbial “wagon train to the stars.” Using local materials appeals for that very reason, communications and observations, like any other part of Constellation’s mission on the moon, leaving room and weight on the rocket for other things.

Some have called for using metal-rich moon craters themselves as parabolic dishes for radio observations. The operation of such an observatory would be similar to the Aricebo radio-telescope that is also fixed with a moving focal point. The Very Large Array of radio telescopes in the Southwestern US, by way of comparison, move each dish synchronously with the others.

See part 3 for some novel commercial and military applications

Luna Observatory, Part 1

February 26, 2007

Several years before the introduction of what is now known as the Constellation project, there have been plans for some type of lunar-based observatory. The first president Bush called for a return to the moon in the late 1980s. In the late 1990s, proposals to put a visible range telescope lander on the moon were being discussed. Since the mandate to return a manned mission to The Moon, the race to come up with good ideas has been on.

Honkin' Huge TelescopeAt the end of 2005, a presentation outlining uniquie approaches to the prospects and challenges to building a significant and permanent observatory on the lunar surface was delivered to an audience of NASA engineers. Since then, some interesting alternatives have been proposed, each with its own merits.

In December of 2006, a proposal for a lunar observatory was presented to The American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Cal. that called for an array of antennas that would monitor low frequency FM (frequency modulated), which has yet to be explored by any orbital observatory. Lack of interference and a lack of a pesky ionosphere (such as the one on Earth that makes short wave AM [amplitude modulated] radio possible) make the moon a potentially ideal place for radio observations. With regular manned visits there, it would be easier to maintain than one requiring tricky docking and space walk operations. The architect of the proposal, Justin Kasper of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, also noted it’d be a lot easier and cheaper to deploy than a swarm of autonomous satellites. The very same array could also be pointed at Earth and used for communications. When pointed at the sun, it could detect solar storms and alert astronauts to take shelter.

The most interesting part of this proposal is that the antennas could be sent as rolled up antennae tape. The antennas, when fully stretched out would reach 500m (~1500 ft) long. When rolled up, they would only 10cm (~3 in.) across. This sort of cost, mass, and volume savings is especially suited to a mission that will have a lot of competition to send things along, now that all the research centers are being reassigned. The only major obstacle is a delicate deployment, so as to not tear the antennas.

Read more in part 2