By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
All eyes are not on Mars these days even though the recent news will buoy those interested in the red planet. Some significant events have taken place in space flight in the last two months.
Perhaps, one of the biggest is the entry into the commercial space race of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. His Blue Origin rocket engine has been successfully tested for the first time (NBC article). The November 20 test was a full simulation of blast off and entry into Earth orbit using his hydrogen-fueled rocket engine with 110,000 pounds of thrust. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a competitor.
Speaking of SpaceX, they have launched a big commercial satellite into a geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles (36,000 km) into space. The satellite is nearly 7,000 pounds (2,138 kg) and launched on December 3 at a cost that is tens of millions of dollars less than previous similar launches. The Falcon 9 rocket performed flawlessly and is the precursor for the soon-to-come Falcon Heavy rocket that will lift 116,850 pounds (53,000 kg) into Earth orbit and is likely to be the rocket used for the first manned Mars ventures.
NASA has announced the test date for its Orion manned space capsule, September 2014. Ultimately, this capsule is slated to carry humans back to the Moon. This is a larger capsule and with much more computer capability than previous manned capsules.
Another NASA announcement opens up a competition for the commercial International Space Station spaceships. These ships are due to begin transporting crews and supplies in 2017.
These sorts of competitions will lead to faster development of technologies that can make manned missions to Mars feasible. Mars One remains a long shot because of its desire to have people live out a “normal” life there. Despite Bas Lansdorp’s remark that returning people to Mars is more difficult that having them live there, the hurdles to long stays on Mars exceed those to landing and returning. Neither has been done, but the former has more unknowns; the latter mostly requires scaling some technologies and providing fuel for the return journey. While a few ideas for on-Mars fuel production have been made none have been tested outside of a laboratory.
For example, the Alan Bond concept of turning CO2 from the Mars air into CO and O2 has not been attempted with Mars air, which has 1/100th of the pressure of Earth air and some contaminants, such as omnipresent dust, that could cause problems in the real (Mars) world. The Mars Direct idea combining on-board hydrogen with atmospheric CO2 to make methane (CH4) and oxygen has the same issues. Finally, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen means extracting water from the Mars regolith (dirt). We don’t know exactly where to find water on Mars or how to deal with the many corrosive contaminants in the ground. Until someone tests these ideas on Mars or in a very well simulated Martian environment, we won’t be sure that any will work.
See the Mars One article and spirited discussion for more on the problems of living on Mars for more than a year or so. Even a year will be tough, but should be manageable.