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To Settle Mars

written by Frank Stratford on August 05, 2005 | forum profile | contact me
number of views: 76972 |   printable version (text) (PDF)

A habitat on Mars.
A habitat on Mars.
Credit: Jason Archer
Anyone who knows me knows that my main topic of interest lies in ways of gaining the funding we need for future missions, settlement and terraforming of Mars. It is a vital subject and without it there can be no future on Mars. I have been of the view that there is enough colonization and terraforming information out there so why focus on the end result when we can't even deal with the funding problems? But the simple fact is, based on pure science we have very few tested plans for the first mission and settlement of Mars. There are many theories but little actual hard data to go on, or so it seems. In this article I want to discuss some of the ideas and requirements for a successful settlement on Mars, especially in those first years after landing.

Getting to Mars will be a challenge in itself but as many in the Mars advocacy community have pointed out, we do have the technology right now to launch such a mission. Some of the launch vehicles mentioned could be- The Russian Energia is described as "the most powerful booster in the world" and could easily be used in a successful Mars mission. At first glance, it looks refreshingly similar to those familiar with the US Space Shuttle. That initial impression is where the similarities end, however. The Energia configuration consists of a large central core similar in appearance to the Space Shuttle's external tank. One important difference, however, is that this is a genuine rocket stage complete with four engines (comparable to the Space Shuttle Main Engines) and guidance system. Four booster stages are arranged in two pairs on either side of the central core. Although these look similar to the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters, they are, in fact, liquid-fuelled. In other applications these rockets actually form the first stage of another Russian launch vehicle called 'Zenit'. One interesting feature of the Energia rocket is the location of the payload. Rather than mounted axially on the top of the rocket, Energia mounts the payload on its back. In 1987 the Energia lifted the heaviest payload ever of 100,000 kg. A manned mission to Mars could easily be made to fit this requirement.

Other boosters considered have been Europe’s Ariane 5, the Lockheed Martin Atlas 5, Boeing’s Delta 4 and the Khrunichev Space Center’s Proton vehicles along with future launch concepts like the Saturn VI or the SpaceX Falcon series, a much lower cost launch vehicle that promises great things for the settlement of new worlds like the Moon and Mars. The new CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) is being designed as the passenger component of any future manned space flights and will be able to be modified for use in flights to the Moon and Mars. The design and planning for this is well under way. Any component that deals with life support and crew habitation will need several criteria met before going to Mars. Things like radiation protection, artificial gravity, food and water supplies, and life support systems will all need to be on the cutting edge of any developments to be a success. Fabrics like Demron can be considered as good for radiation shielding as do concepts like magnetic radiation shielding. Practical types of shield include the magnetic shield, in which a strong magnetic field diverts charged particles from the crew region, and the magnetic/electrostatic plasma shield, in which an electrostatic field shields the crew from positively charged particles, while a magnetic field confines electrons from the space plasma to provide charge neutrality. Advances in technology include high-strength composite materials, high temperature superconductors, numerical computational solutions to particle transport in electromagnetic fields, and a technology base for construction and operation of large superconducting magnets. These advances make electromagnetic shielding a practical alternative for near-term future missions.

Such shielding can also be used for protection of any surface settlements on Mars. As the main hab will most likely be already equipped with such devices and materials, it would seem prudent to continue using such systems once on Mars, at least for the first one or two missions. Going underground has been suggested also as a solution to radiation shielding and no doubt this will be utilised once the necessary equipment is brought to Mars on subsequent missions. What type of space suits could be used on Mars? I am happy to report that progressive work and research is being undertaken as we speak by groups like the Mars Society on solutions to this practical requirement. Projects like MarsSkin are aiming to produce counter pressure suits that are much more flexible than the current "pressure Ballon" design. They will also contain advanced sensors that will detect any number of dangers to the astronauts working on Mars from cuts to radiation levels and dust interferance. The sensors are created by what's called nanotechnology manufacturing. They involve microscopic liquid crystals tethered to a thin film of gold by just a few molecules of a chemically receptive substance. When the receptive substance is exposed to certain chemicals, it bonds to the targeted chemical and loosens its grip on the liquid crystal.

Some of the other major challenges to be dealt with in the first years on Mars will be the creation and successful maintenance of food production, water supplies, recycling efficiency and production of energy for the ongoing viability and growth of any first settlement. Most likely the first and most practical energy source could be nuclear and most definitely solar. Any greenhouse component to a future base will utilise the latest in genetically modified plants and will rely heavily on the valuable lessons learnt through years of experimentation with the growth of plants in Low Earth Orbit missions from the shuttle and I.S.S. Assurance of food quality and food safety is an essential component in the maintenance of crew health and well-being. Food quality and safety efforts should be focused on monitoring the shelf stability of processed food ingredients, on identification and control of microbial agents of food spoilage, including the development of countermeasures to ameliorate their effects.

At some point manufacturing of building materials and other needed supports systems will have to be set up for the future viability of any Mars base, and possibly could be started by utilising one of the habs as a first manufacturing centre. Products like fiberglass (locally produced), Metallurgy (all types of metals) Polymers (such as polyethylene made from ethylene from CO2) Brick Masonry (either for unpressurized shelter, or covered with regolith for a pressurized space) and plant products (especially if a byproduct of food growth.) will be just a few of the requirements of an ongoing settlement to be perfected. Once local material production is in full operation, successful expansion of any settlement can proceed. It will probably take several missions to establish a first base that can function fully independent from continuing earth resupply. Eventually even domed structures will start to be built but they will have to take care with the various pressure issues for construction of such buildings. I picture a first settlement as a cluster of a few permanent habs, some greenhouses, a manufacturing centre, some half or full underground structures and pressurized rovers to transport the settlers in their explorations around Mars.

People will need decent recreational pursuits also, even in the first few years, and I can see things like a swimming pool being a useful project to help keep the settlers fit while they are enjoying themselves. The first habs should contain not just the basics for survival but the basics for psychological survival as well. This will also be an important component of any successful settlement. It would be a worthwhile project for them to construct a communications hub where settlers can contact people back on earth and be entertained by new films, books and games sent from earth via systems like the future Mars Telecommunications Orbiter. I can forsee the need for some type of roads or transponder routes to be established also for the mobile explorations of Mars by the first settlers to be built as they expand outwards. Can we imagine bulldozers on Mars? This may be accomplished by robotic rover style vehicles as a solution to keeping radiation exposure down to a minimum and could easily be placed aboard any current proposed missions as a first step to larger machines. Those first years will be groundbreaking and exciting for all those who participate and all of those who will watch from earth.

The key in a successful settlement is to keep things fresh, to not be afraid of embarking upon non-scientific projects because after all, Mars will be a future home for many people and we should always remember that. I cannot tell what a first base will look like but one element that should not be ignored is the Human element. Scientific bases usually only have required personnel, but I think this exploration of a new world should include people from many walks of life so that we here on earth can gain a balanced and inspiring picture of what Mars really is. If it becomes a pure science project it will once again turn off the general public as later Moon missions did and we cannot afford that mistake this time round. Artists on Mars? Most definitely. Writers? Yes. Media professionals? For sure. All of these and more should be included in a first settlement. A settlement on Mars cannot be allowed to be just for science and engineering purposes. As Earth is made up of a whole variety of people, so should Mars be. These are some of the issues we need to consider if we are to settle Mars.

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