Mars One Delayed for Two Years

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

At a news conference today, the Mars One team announced contracts with two vendors for studies and a two-year delay in their schedule. The first launch now is scheduled for 2018 with the launch of the first manned mission in 2025. This puts Mars One closer to the schedules of other announced Mars landings in 2030 or later. This sort of very ambitious project almost always suffers delays, and this may not be the last. Given that much of the technology, although existing in some form, has not been created in the form necessary for the trip to Mars.

Bas Lansdorp on 19 April 2013. Image from video added to YouTube by Raitis Misa on 23 April 2013.

Bas Lansdorp on 19 April 2013. Image from video added to YouTube by Raitis Misa on 23 April 2013.

No one has ever landed as large a mass as planned for Mars One on Mars. Even lifting the materials into space may extend into areas not ever reached previously. Planned rockets may be capable, but without detailed plans, it’s hard to evaluate the likelihood of success.

The funding will come from sponsorships, partnerships, and crowdfunding through Indiegogo. The crowdfunding site is already up and has raised over $8,000 of its $400,000 goal in the first hour since the news conference. The crowdfunding will finance the initial studies by Lockheed-Martin and SSTL, who will produce the 2018 lander and communication satellite respectively. 

For just $10,000 you can have Bas Lansdorp speak at your event. At a more mundane level, $29 will get you a Mars One t-shirt if you’re one of the first 200 to subscribe. The cost of the study is $256,000 according to the Mars One estimate.

The tiny Mars One lander will not be mobile according to the artist’s drawing. It will sample soil and attempt to extract water from it. However, it cannot dig deeply or move around to try other spots for water. Given the desiccated nature of the surface of Mars, it’s not very likely that sufficient water will be obtained to prove that people can live there.

Another part of the Mars One plans makes little sense. The plans have nitrogen being extracted from Martian air. The pressure of the air on Mars is around 1% of that on Earth. Of that thin air, only about 2% is nitrogen, while 96% is carbon dioxide with about 2% argon and very small amounts of other gases. Using just solar energy, which will be quite limited, the amount of energy to extract nitrogen from Martian air would be wasted unless nitrogen is crucial to survival. However, nitrogen is an inert gas in our air with respect to breathing. Adding nitrogen will make a higher pressure in the habitats necessary and thus exacerbate all of the problems of EVAs (extravehicular activities) and the mass of the habitats.

The effects of 38% gravity are completely unknown and have been waved aside by the Mars One people as being just fine. They could range from fatal, as would be extended microgravity in space, to beneficial. The likelihood is some detrimental but not fatal effects. We simply do not know whether such low gravity will shorten or extend life expectancy.

They also wave aside the effects of cosmic radiation, although they do have plans to cover some of the habitable area with Mars regolith to help shield the colonists. Their comment about the Martian air providing shielding is utter nonsense.

This step, although important, is very small. Until the launch and landing of a true life support module, the entire project remains highly speculative.

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Also see:
Karl Tate, “How the Private Mars One Lander Will Explore the Red Planet (Infographic),” Space.com, 12/10/13.
Adi Robertson, “Mars One Plans Unmanned 2018 Mission in Deal with Lockheed Martin and Satellite Company,” The Verge, 12/10/13.
Tanya Lewis, “Private Mars Colony Project Unveils 1st Private Robotic Mission to Red Planet,” Yahoo! News, 12/10/13.

4 Responses

  1. The Mars One lander looks small and immobile. Two problems arise with this configuration if true. The first one is rocks. It could end up sitting in an unstable manner on some rocks. More importantly, rocks could block its scoop and prevent obtaining decent samples for water analysis. The scoop appears to be less robust than necessary to dig down to depths where water is most likely to be found.

    The Mars One people have given themselves just seven years to scale up from this small unit to a manned landing and less time to get the first full-scale modules on Mars in preparation for the manned landing. You have to start somewhere, I guess, but the learning curve seems excessively steep. Even if the 2018 launch takes place, I see another 2-year delay coming afterward.

  2. Here’s a remark by Lansdorp at his press conference.

    “The robotic mission will demonstrate some of the technologies that are required for permanent settlement on Mars. A power experiment will demonstrate the use of thin film solar panels on Mars and test them on the surface. A water experiment will demonstrate producing liquid water on Mars. Water will be evaporated from the soil and then liquefied.”

    These are large goals for a private enterprise funding in large part by crowdfunding and corporate sponsorship, but they are small goals in comparison with the goal of having a sustainable settlement on Mars just seven years later. I view such a steep learning curve as unscalable but am quite willing to be proven wrong.

    Perhaps, a more detailed, step-by-step plan for that seven-year period would allay concerns.

    Compared to the overall Mars One goal, the lander presented at the conference is a toy. The ability for a private enterprise to land anything on Mars is gigantic, but not nearly enough for the enterprise’s ultimate goal. The primary problem right now must be money. The two-year launch window intervals restrict what can be done on Mars itself. These two issues make the leap from lander to colony so large as to be ridiculous.

    For just one very difficult problem, consider how Mars One will find a site near the equator with sufficient water and assay the water quantity. A tiny scoop picking up dirt from a spot a few centimeters in extent will prove nothing valuable. If no water, it does not mean there’s none a few meters or kilometers away. If water, it does not mean that there’s enough in the area to sustain a colony. The experiment itself can be done on Earth in simulated conditions to prove the technology. The technology is not the problem here. There’s plenty of time to work that out thoroughly.

    The same goes for the thin-film solar panels. So what if they work? We can readily test them right here on Earth under very similar conditions, except for the cosmic rays. How will this test show that thin-film solar cells will last for years on Mars? How will it analyze different approaches to removing dust from their surfaces? Comparing different makes of solar cells is easy and relative cheap right here at home.

    We must have wide-ranging surveys of Mars that find out how much water is in each area, how deeply we must dig to get it, how deep the regolith is above bedrock, and whether regolith composition varies substantially from area to area. Water availability must be the number one priority for any precursor missions to Mars settlement.

    The number of parallel engineering efforts to get people to Mars is staggering. It runs from landing large masses on Mars to bioengineering plants for growing in Martian greenhouses with artificial lighting. Lansdorp mentioned eating insects. Letting insects loose in a cramped Martian habitat is a dangerous idea. Has this been tested in simulated actual habitats on Earth? Will the settlers be up with eating bugs? I feel distinctly non-insectivorous myself.

  3. If Bas was not a white guy, he’d be under investigation for fraud by now..

    • I’m not sure that skin color is that significant in white collar crime. Don’t have statistics.

      This certainly is a grand con with only modest contributions from lots of people — if it’s a con. I give Bas an A on boldness and a D on technical details.

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