Water on (shakes Magic 8 ball) Mars this time

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2009 3:00 pm

Hard on the heels of the water-on-the-Moon announcement comes news of water on Mars (there’s also a press release). Now, we already know there’s water ice on Mars; it’s been seen in a zillion places. What’s cool about this is that there’s a lot of it, and the water is incredibly pure: less than 1% of it is made up of dirt mixed in. That’s probably better than I get out of my tap at home.

Well, not really. But still. Here’s a shot of the ice:

hirise_icecrater

This picture, taken in November 2008, is by the awesomely awesome HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has seen several of these patches, where ice just beneath the surface is excavated and ejected by an impact event. They all appear to be craters formed from recent impacts, and by "recent" I mean recent: the one shown above was not there in early 2008.

At these latitudes (40° – 60° north), ice can’t last long, so more images taken should show the ice sublimating (going from a solid right to a gas, just like the hallway ice skating rink in "Real Genius"). By the way, the crater you see there is just 8 meters (26 feet) across. The whole image is only 50 meters across!

What this means is that Mars has ice, nearly pure ice, too (other instruments on board MRO can measure the chemical composition of the surface), just under the surface in many places, possibly even in a broad sheet hundreds of kilometers across. The ice ranges in depth from 1 cm to 10 meters deep.

That’s a lot of water. Far more than on the Moon, and it looks like it’s easier to get to as well.

Well, easier once you’re there. At best, Mars is a hundred times farther away from the Moon. That’s why I think we need to wait a while before we go back to Mars; the Moon is easier to go to (heck, some near-Earth asteroids are easier to get to) and what we learn doing that on a regular basis will help us go to Mars.

In the long run I’m all for colonizing Mars, but I’d like to make sure we have the engineering, the guts, and above all the funding to do it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

Comments (67)

  1. amstrad

    Smart People On Ice! (now if we could just keep it from exploding…)

  2. lyontamer73

    But they still have not found martians. (shakes fist) Where are my martians!?

  3. Karina Wright

    Not that I want to seem selfish or anything, but I grew up reading science fiction. I am fifty-something. I damn well want to see mars colonized in my lifetime

  4. Max Fagin

    “the Moon is easier to go to”

    From the perspective of time? Sure. But time isn’t what’s important here. We know how to keep people alive in space long enough to get them to Mars. We’ve been doing it on the ISS for the last decade.

    What is more important is actually building a rocket that can get to the moon/Mars. And from that perspective, Mars is a MUCH easier target than the moon:

    1) You can aerobrake into Martian orbit and parachute down to the surface (Unlike the moon, which requires retro rockets and a powered decent).

    1) You can manufacture both your return propellant and oxidizer on Mars (as compared to the moon, where there is plenty of oxidizer, but no fuel to burn in it).

    So from a perspective of things that actually matter in space travel (i.e mass, delta-v) the moon’s proximity to Earth in time and space is really not very important. From the perspective of what counts, it’s easier to land on Mars than it is to land on the moon.

  5. Brian T.

    Max: “We know how to keep people alive long enough to get them to Mars. We’ve been doing it on the ISS for the last decade.”

    The ISS is still close enough to Earth’s magnetic field that solar wind isn’t a problem. A ship traveling to Mars would be bombarded with ionizing radiation that would kill any astronauts we send unless we figure out how to shield them.

    One possibility for said shielding is having a craft with a thick outer layer of water. And assuming we can mine the Moon for it, it would be easier to launch a Mars mission from the Moon’s surface (lower gravity and all). My money is on a rudimentary Moon base before we go to Mars.

  6. Helioprogenus

    The delicate ecological issue, as far as colonizing Mars, is that we must be careful to identify life, and therefore not disrupt it. Should life, in even the simplest microbial form exist, who are we to disrupt it? It’s a tough issue, because it would be the greatest find in the history of humanity. To identify life, on another planet, would silence many religious egoists, as well as critics of exploration. Yet, it’s important to not disrupt the ecological balance of another planet. It may be our bacteria that outcompete native martian life. It’s a delicate balance of knowledge and disruption. As usual, there are no easy answers, but the excitement of colonizing Mars must be kept in check. If we don’t find an ecology, then by all means, we can run rampant all over the planet, exploiting any and all known reserves for our own benefits. My early prediction is that we will find some form of microbial life on Mars. It’s better to start with this conclusion because we can really destroy something special if we’re not cautious.

  7. Mike Mullen

    I have to say what worries me most about a two year round trip to Mars isn’t Radiation, there are systems being worked, or the rockets, or the human endurance, its the simple mechanical things like the plumbing. Yes people have stayed on the ISS for extended periods, and how often has the plumbing broken down? Imagine that on a ship that has to recycle all its water and waste for years in space, how many spares can you carry? How much redundancy can you build in to something that can’t be minaturized?
    The answer is a shorter flight time, meaning ion/nuclear propulsion, too many things can wrong in two years.

  8. Elmar_M

    Best solution for making the trip to Mars more survivable:
    Make it shorter!
    How? Nuclear power (as in nuclear fission which is readily available) or better fusion power (if/when it becomes available).
    Of course it would be really cool if this here worked (one has to be sceptical, but one may dream):
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/09/mach-effect-interview-with-paul-march.html

    Mars in less than a week, now that sounds good to me :)

  9. Cairnos

    I agree with Helioprogenus that we need to be sure about any life before we go in boots and all. The last thing we want at the end of the day is to be able to say “Well, it turns out there WAS life on mars…..oops,our bad.”

    For this and other reasons my vote would be to keep lobbing robots at it , some of which could start preparing supplies and such for later human follow up once we’re really ready.

    I mean I really want to see a human walk on mars but if we don’t get it just right and anything goes wrong it could totally kill public support for more exploration. This is a case where “Houston, we have a problem” would translate to “Hi guys, we’re all gonna die with the entire world watching and there ain’t nothing anybody can do about it.”

  10. Haymaker

    Just curious Phil, will the Opportunity rover have the chance to look into this further anywhere near its location?

  11. “That’s why I think we need to wait a while before we go back to Mars;”

    Send people BACK to Mars…did I miss something :)

  12. Max Fagin

    Brian: Radiation isn’t a serious concern on a manned mission to Mars. As you correctly said, spacecraft are exposed to ionizing radiation from the sun when they travel through interplanetary space, but such radiation is incredibly easy to shield against. A regular ISS module (with about ~5 g/cm^3) would do a more than adequate job shielding against ionizing radiation. It’s just not very penetrating stuff. Cosmic rays are a slightly different question, but the dose they deliver is low and predictable, and not a serious issue.

    The radiation levels which Martian astronauts will take will be elevated for sure, but they can be brought well into safe levels with shielding just slightly more robust than we currently use on manned spacecraft. The grand plans for meters of water shielding are excessive, given the actual radiation environment in interplanetary space.

    But even if we grant that radiation is at the moment a show stopper for a manned mission to Mars, I still don’t see how landing on the Moon first will help us surmount the problem.

    I say again, from the relevant perspectives, it is MUCH easier to get to Mars than to the Moon. Water on the moon is a wonderful discovery, but it’s doesn’t make the moon an easier target than Mars.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Next you’ll tell us there’s water on Earth?! I mean, what are the odds?

    if NASA’s Viking Lander 2 had been able to dig slightly deeper than the 10-to-15-centimeter deep (4-to-6-inch deep) trench that it excavated in 1976, it would have hit water ice.

    Bummer. Another 3 % miss. (Apollo 14 returned with 30 m left out of 1100 m to Cone crater.) Again, what are the odds?

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Mars is a MUCH easier target than the moon

    Not true:

    There’s no comfort in the statistics for missions to Mars. To date over 60% of the missions have failed. The scientists and engineers of these undertakings use phrases like “Six Minutes of Terror,” and “The Great Galactic Ghoul” to illustrate their experiences, evidence of the anxiety that’s evoked by sending a robotic spacecraft to Mars — even among those who have devoted their careers to the task. But mention sending a human mission to land on the Red Planet, with payloads several factors larger than an unmanned spacecraft and the trepidation among that same group grows even larger. Why?

    Nobody knows how to do it.

    Surprised? Most people are, says Rob Manning the Chief Engineer for the Mars Exploration Directorate and presently the only person who has led teams to land three robotic spacecraft successfully on the surface of Mars.

    “It turns out that most people aren’t aware of this problem and very few have worried about the details of how you get something very heavy safely to the surface of Mars,” said Manning.

    [...]

    The real problem is the combination of Mars’ atmosphere and the size of spacecraft needed for human missions. So far, our robotic spacecraft have been small enough to enable at least some success in reaching the surface safely. But while the Apollo lunar lander weighed approximately 10 metric tons, a human mission to Mars will require three to six times that mass, given the restraints of staying on the planet for a year. Landing a payload that heavy on Mars is currently impossible, using our existing capabilities. “There’s too much atmosphere on Mars to land heavy vehicles like we do on the moon, using propulsive technology completely,” said Manning, “and there’s too little atmosphere to land like we do on Earth. So, it’s in this ugly, grey zone.”

    But what about airbags, parachutes, or thrusters that have been used on the previous successful robotic Mars missions, or a lifting body vehicle similar to the space shuttle?

    None of those will work, either on their own or in combination, to land payloads of one metric ton and beyond on Mars. [Curiosity weighs in at 900 kg.] This problem affects not only human missions to the Red Planet, but also larger robotic missions such as a sample return. “Unfortunately, that’s where we are,” said Manning. “Until we come up with a whole new trick, a whole new system, landing humans on Mars will be an ugly and scary proposition.”

    [...]

    Despite these known obstacles, there are few at NASA currently spending any quality time working on any of the issues of landing humans on Mars.

    Manning explained, “NASA does not yet have the resources to solve this problem and also develop the CEV, complete the International Space Station and do the lunar landing systems development at the same time. But NASA knows that this is on its plate of things to do in the future and is just beginning to get a handle on the needed technology developments. I try to go out of my way to tell this story because I’m encouraging young aeronautical engineering students, particularly graduate students, to start working on this problem on their own. There is no doubt in my mind that with their help, we can figure out how to make reliable human-scale landing systems work on Mars.” [My bold, my note.]

    HT: Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today. That article, “The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet” [2007], runs through all of the proposed techniques and their current problems. It’s a good read for all Marstronauts out there.

  15. justcorbly

    A simplistic explanation of the fate of Mars’ ancient oceans is that they just froze. Do we know if there are salts in this ice?

  16. Cory

    I think that, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last decade of observation of astronomical bodies, is that there’s actually a LOT of water in our Solar System, and thus presumably in other systems.

    The implications are enormous — the compound in which Earth life was born exists to some extent nearly everywhere.

  17. Radiation is still a concern. It isn’t the “ambient” space radiation that needs the extra shielding. It is the occasional solar flare that will fry any astronauts not in a specially shielded bunker.

    As far as landing problems go. It has been years since I read it but Bob Zubrin’s The Case For Mars spells out how a Mars mission could be done and reasonably cheaply too.

  18. gopher65

    Phil:

    They did take followup pictures, and the ice did sublimate quite quickly. One of the articles I read said that if they’d taken the initial images 3 months later they’d have seen nothing unusual (no ice).

  19. jf

    @Torbjörn Larsson, OM:
    TNX for the highlights from Atkinson’s article on the problems to land on Mars!

    Some comments there suggest to use Phobos or Deimos as “natural Space Stations” on the way to Mars. Given their probably difficult surfaces, I propose to build and park an ISS2 as staging platform at a Lagrangian point near Mars. At L2, Mars might shield it from the solar ionizing radiation.

  20. Crudely Wrott

    “All day I’ve faced
    the barren waste
    without the taste
    of water.
    Cool, clear water.

    “Old Dan and I
    with troats burned dry
    and songs that cry
    for water.
    Cool, clear water.”

    Yup. Tempting. A virtual swimming pool. Of course, getting there is half the fun.

    We are beginning to get fairly good at putting robots in predetermined places and getting a lot of useful information from them. The assumed (I assume) usefulness of the information is how humanity can benefit in a material way. Just like the push across the Atlantic and the North American continent was a search for opportunity and fortune, the push into space is a quest for similar goals.

    What we are not demonstrably good at is putting people on Mars. We are familiar with putting people on the moon.

    In order to make human presence on Mars practical, profitable and survivable we need to understand as much as possible about human physiology and psychology is space. Not to mention how to live off the land, so to speak. After all, we can’t carry everything with us and there are those pesky gravity wells. We need to learn how to approach, land, find and use resources, survive and be able to return to Earth. At will.

    To learn and hone these skills on the moon would be cheaper, faster, and more realistic in terms of current budget concerns. Consider that Apollo got to the moon in three days while the best time to Mars is measured in months. Consider also that when Apollo 13 ran into serious trouble it was able to slingshot back home lickity split. Try that when your twenty million miles from home.

    For the same reason that I learned to drive in a hay field before I was allowed on the road, to learn the basics, we should exploit our present abilities adapting to lunar life in order that we might later adapt to Martian life.

    There is so much to learn. And lots of time.

  21. JoeSmithCA

    That does NOT look like water. That looks like a closeup of a graham cracker with a spot of mold on it :)

  22. Petrolonfire

    Hang on – haven’t we known there’s water on Mars for ages?

    Not to mention Phoenix finding & confirming water ice the other year, haven’t we known about mars polar caps with their mix of water ice as well as CO2 ice since, well, pretty much since we started observed the planet?

    I guess its cool & all but I’m not sure this is such big news or really anything new.

  23. Ray Burleigh

    Manned space exploration is more romantic fantasy than science. We have learned far more about space from unmanned missions than we have from manned missions. That said, I know that the manned missions inspire people and accept that we will, one day, send men to Mars. But a continuously occupied colony is unlikely. It can not be self-sustaining, and the cost to subsidize it will be enormous. Even a relatively short stay of one to two years will cost trillions of dollars. Furthermore there are serious ethical considerations that must be addressed in any plan to send people that far from Earth.

    Radiation exposure is one concern. Use of water and polyethylene, and maybe even electro-magnets, to shield the occupants during transit is part of the solution. Another tactic is to reduce the transit time as much as possible. It can be done in 6 months, but to do that the travel to Mars must be in the lightest possible craft, which means that everything they will need when they get there should be sent ahead of time. Habitat and laboratory modules, nuclear power plants, fuel and oxygen generators and feed stocks, rovers, and other supplies, even the landing craft, can all be sent ahead of time. These heavy payloads can be sent on trajectories that take 2 or 3 years, or more, to reach Mars.

    One thing we have learned from near Earth manned missions is that confinement in tight quarters for long periods is extremely stressful. A realistic mission plan would take a minimum of 3 years. By sending habitat modules ahead we could provide sufficient space, once they reach Mars, to mitigate this problem. A robust infrastructure would also mean that the base could be used by different crews for many years.

    An Apollo 13 type disaster shortly after insertion into the Martian trajectory would be a disaster because there is no turning back. Therefore we should send the people in two or three separate craft a day or so apart. In the event of a catastrophic failure the occupants could transfer to the other vehicles. Plus, use of multiple craft means lighter vehicles and faster transit times. These craft would be parked in orbit around Mars and used for the return trip. The explorers would transfer to landers, already in orbit, for the descent to the surface.

    The thin Martian atmosphere presents unique challenges for landing. It will provide only a small amount of braking. If parachutes are used they must work at supersonic speeds, which limits their size. The air is too thin to use a winged type lander. These are significant problems, and the ability to land reliably must be proven before even considering sending men.

    Note that none of this requires a stop at the moon. That would unnecessarily add to the complexity and cost. Manned missions to Mars would be a gigantically huge undertaking. To be done safely it would require a well developed infrastructure. If we are going to commit to it then we should develop a full and ambitious plan and not be distracted by side trips to the moon.

  24. Joe

    WHAT!?!?!?! Do not even get me started on the reasons that Mars is so much more interesting than the moon. There’s absolutely no point in going back there. Leave that to fledgling space agency’s or international efforts. The moon is a weekend geology trip. Mars is for real exploration. All the materials we require are in abundance on Mars, water included.

    There’s nothing we can learn on the moon relevant to the exploration of Mars that we haven’t already learned during Apollo, or that we learn here on earth. Mars is more similar to the Atacama desert or the valleys of Antarctica than anything on the moon.

  25. CR

    “You were kidding about it exploding, right?”

    (First post on this topic beat me to the better Real Genius stuff, so sorry that’s all I’ve got… sigh.)

  26. Nomen Publicus

    Mars is almost next door. A 0.1G constant boost journey to mars would take only a few days. The trick is to avoid having to carry the reaction mass :-)

  27. Pieter Kok

    To identify life, on another planet, would silence many religious egoists, as well as critics of exploration.

    How wonderfully naive. :)

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Brian T (5) said:

    The ISS is still close enough to Earth’s magnetic field that solar wind isn’t a problem. A ship traveling to Mars would be bombarded with ionizing radiation that would kill any astronauts we send unless we figure out how to shield them.

    One possibility for said shielding is having a craft with a thick outer layer of water. And assuming we can mine the Moon for it, it would be easier to launch a Mars mission from the Moon’s surface (lower gravity and all). My money is on a rudimentary Moon base before we go to Mars.

    The solar wind is not the major problem for a trip to Mars – shielding agains that is easy enough with a few cms of perspex or a few mm of Al. The real challenge is high-energy cosmic rays. Shielding against these is not practicable with current propulsion technologies, and a trip to Mars would be long enough that each astronaut would receive a hefty dose both on the way there and on the way back.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Max Fagin (12) said:

    The radiation levels which Martian astronauts will take will be elevated for sure, but they can be brought well into safe levels with shielding just slightly more robust than we currently use on manned spacecraft. The grand plans for meters of water shielding are excessive, given the actual radiation environment in interplanetary space.

    Apparently, the dose from cosmic rays would be high enough to reach NASA’s current occupational exposure limit for astronauts in a mere 200 days once free of the Earth’s magnetosphere. Shielding against this is impractical because it would require extremely massive shielding.

    There’s a report in last week’s New Scientist about this, and it references a paper to be published in Radiation Measurements (DOI: 10.1016/j.radmeas.2006.03.011)

    Since the trip to Mars (with current propulsion technology) will take at least 6 months each way, that’s pretty much twice the limit. I’m assuming here that the crew will protect themselves from radiation while on Mars by digging into the Martian soil (Mars does not have a strong enough magnetic field to provide significant protection). But they will have only limited time they can spend outside this shelter, because they will be getting dosed from the solar wind unless their EVA suits are thick enough to protect them.

    The other radiation issue is coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun. The astronauts will be able to recieve warning of these because we already monitor space weather. They will need a part of their craft that is more heavily shielded to retreat to to avoid getting a hefty dose from a CME if it happens to head in their direction.

  30. Nigel Depledge

    Torbjorn Larsson OM (14) said:

    … HT: Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today. That article, “The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet” [2007], runs through all of the proposed techniques and their current problems. It’s a good read for all Marstronauts out there.

    Yup, but IIUC, Phobos and Deimos are the real targets for the first manned mission to the Martian system, for precisely the reason that you highlight.

  31. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Are you sure that’s not sugar on a chocolate chip cookie?

  32. Somewhere here someone argued that trip to Mars would be easier than to Moon. Wow. Just wow. It was long time that I have read something that stupid and not being woo.

    “From the perspective of time? Sure. But time isn’t what’s important here.”
    First error. Time is VERY important. Needed resources (fuel, food, water, equipment, spare parts etc), exposure to radiation, morale of crew, chance of success – all this depends on time.

    “We know how to keep people alive in space long enough to get them to Mars. We’ve been doing it on the ISS for the last decade.”
    Second error. Totally invalid comparsion. Enviroment at low earth orbit is different than enviroment in deep space between planets.

    “What is more important is actually building a rocket that can get to the moon/Mars.”
    Your claim that is easier to build Mars-bound rocket than Moon-bound rocket is ludicrous.

    “You can aerobrake into Martian orbit and parachute down to the surface (Unlike the moon, which requires retro rockets and a powered decent).”
    No, you can’t. Others already mentioned that.

    “You can manufacture both your return propellant and oxidizer on Mars (as compared to the moon, where there is plenty of oxidizer, but no fuel to burn in it).”
    One little thing will not change whole problem. When you are three day away from resupplement, this does not matter.

    “So from a perspective of things that actually matter in space travel (i.e mass, delta-v) the moon’s proximity to Earth in time and space is really not very important.”
    Contradiction. Do you claim that flying to Mars requires less dleta-v or less mass than flying to Moon?

    “From the perspective of what counts, it’s easier to land on Mars than it is to land on the moon.”
    Cherry-picking what “really” counts will not help you.

    Summary: bunch of erroneous, contradictory and plainly stupid claims.

  33. Gamercow

    @Max Fagin:

    You are forgetting possibly the biggest, most important factor of all with a manned trip to Mars: COST. The cost of a manned mission would be factors higher than another manned trip to the moon.

    I’m with Phil on this one. Get to the moon, get a base set up, find and conquer some of the hurdles that will crop up with setting a base up, and then go from there. We’ve never created a base anywhere other than Earth, and no matter what the anyone says, there are going to be unseen problems and issues that crop up. Having Earth only a few days away would be much better for receiving aid than several months. It just makes sense for so many reasons.

    Additionally, I think it would take several years, if not more than a decade, of throwing things at Mars to get ready for a manned landing.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    In addition to the arguments mentioned so far (cost, reaction mass, supplies, reliability of space toilets, difficulty of landing a large mass safely through Mars’s atmosphere, radiation, ethics of shutting up a handful of people in a tin can for at least half a year), there is another issue with a manned Mars mission: medical care.

    For the Apollo missions, if someone had been exposed to a disease in the few days prior to lift-off, they were not allowed to fly. Apparently, Fred Haise did suffer some kind of illness during Apollo 13 anyway, but those astronauts were as fit and healthy a bunch of people as it was possible to select.

    On a mission to Mars, even if you have minimised the chance of carrying some pathogenic microbes on board, there is still a risk of disease, and you need to be able to deal with this en route. Also, there is a risk of injury. Although none of the Apollo astronauts suffered injuries during the flights to the moon and back, this is something you need to be able to deal with. Ideally, at least two of your crew should be medical professionals (two so that there is someone to treat the doctor if he gets sick or injured).

    Due to the orbital mechanics, your mission to Mars either has to be very very short (flags, photos, footprints, then fly off back home) or quite protracted (about a year IIUC). To be worth the effort, the longer trip seems the better option. That’s a long time in which one or more crew members could be injured. Again, you’d have to deal with it there and then.

    There’s also the biological effects of microgravity – osteoporosis and muscle atrophy. This could be addressed by having part of your space vehicle rotating (or, better, two parts that counter-rotate to avoid a gyroscopic effect on its trajectory) to simulate gravity, but that presents a major engineering challenge in itself.

    On such a long trip, (unless your crew is composed entirely of same-sex homosexuals) there’s also the possible need to deal with a pregnancy. Sure, you would hope all crew members would use protection, but things can go wrong.

    These issues are not insurmountable (although no-one has yet proposed a solution to how to land a large mass safely on Mars) but they all need to be considered. Sending humans to Mars and bringing them back to Earth safely is hard.

  35. Ray Burleigh

    You are absolutely right, Nigel, about the need for trained medical personnel. A Mars mission would be for so long, and so far from Earth, that it would require, in my opinion, at least a dozen people. Technicians would also be vital to operating and maintaining all the equipment, especially once on the surface. They would probably out number the geologists. The major problem with manned missions, from a science perspective, is that 99% of the effort is devoted to keeping the people alive, not doing science.

    Gamercow: Yes, it would take a decade of “throwing things at Mars to get ready for a manned landing.” We’d have to send at least two of everything. And we couldn’t even begin until we solve the problem of landing heavy payloads at a precise location. It would be a huge and expensive project. We should recognize that from the beginning and not try to cut corners, especially with human lives at stake. As for learning how to deal with unforeseen issues: a common justification for sending people rather than robots is precisely because men can (supposedly) deal better with unexpected problems. The moon is an unnecessary step that will only delay going to Mars.

    The only possible scientific justification I can see for going to the moon would be to build a ginormous radio telescope on the far side of the moon, where it would be shielded from radio noise from the Earth…

  36. I can’t even begin to describe how entirely bored I am getting with this manned vs. unmanned debate. This is getting beyond silly. We aren’t sending people (who apparently would need to be homosexual if I read one of the above posts right. Wow. Really?!) to Mars for about 2 trillion different reasons. We could send people back to the Moon but that is an obscenely ridiculous exercise with no benefit.

    The ISS is an embarrassment if we can be honest about it. It’s done virtually nothing and has cost billions of dollars. Can we please, for the love of science, exploration, human discovery, and achievement – kill off the idiotic and inept manned program so we can fully fund all of the other programs that actually achieve results?

    How many amazing articles has the BA written about science and what we have discovered about our universe over the past few years? How many of those had anything to do with putting people into the floating white elephant? Yeah, ’bout none of ‘em. I will admit that the ISS is the best place to test new Japanese underwear designs and do Zero G clown shows – but I’m not entirely sold on the idea that either of those things is worth the cost of what we have done up there.

    Click my name for Easterbrook’s latest column on NASA in The Atlantic Monthly. How frighteningly stupid is our current aim and spend at NASA today? But to be a glass half full guy – imagine what new extraordinary things this agency (and its associated ones) could achieve with a new mandate, funding, and killing off its old way of thinking (i.e.- that putting mustached people in Rugby shirts into a space station is ideal).

  37. Ray Burleigh

    I agree with you completely Cheyenne. I would prefer to concentrate on robotic exploration. We can send a hundred robots to Mars for the price of a single manned mission. The Mars rovers and the Cassini mission to Saturn have been hugely successful and returned an enormous amount of data. My posts are an attempt to get people to understand what a huge undertaking a manned mission would be.

    OTOH, it is fun to speculate about how a manned mission could be accomplished assuming an unlimited budget. But it is more science fiction than real science. Unfortunately too many people, some in influential positions, don’t see the difference.

  38. gss_000

    These arguments about how manned spaceflight isn’t science are just completely silly. They ignore so many things its just mindboggling.

    1) You limit science by ignoring all the engineering needed to conduct manned spaceflight. Why is designing a rocket not science? Why is learning how things react in space not science? Why is building things in space and learning these techniques not science. Opening whole new avenues of thought and investigation not science, even if it is simply how do I do this more cheaply?

    2) Now I don’t really believe this myself, but tell me what has Cassini done for my life other than give me pretty pictures? I can go down the street to a museum and see pretty images for $10, rather than $1 billion for a spacecraft. How can I apply what I learn from Hubble or the discovery of another exoplanet now? Can I do it in 5 years? 10? 20? Compare that to manned spaceflight where the stuff we learn is being applied today. A lot of it is adapted into everyday uses, like the water system, ceramics, etc. Not to mention the ISS is starting to pay dividends, with a salmonella vaccine applying for human testing right now and research on a possible MRSA (resistant staph) vaccine now underway.

    3) The two areas help each other. The systems developed for manned spaceflight help unmanned systems and vice versa. The new interplanetary internet (Delay tolerant network) protocol is a prime example. Being refined on the ISS and developed to help future manned exploration, it will also make space missions better because there is less chance data will be lost.

    By ignoring either manned spaceflight or unmanned spaceflight all you do limit yourself and what can be discovered.

  39. Gamercow

    Cheyenne,
    I see what you’re saying, and I agree that robotics and computer technology has given us incredible boosts in the ability to get things done remotely. And I agree that I’d rather send 100 more unmanned missions to Mars rather than 1 manned mission. But if we set up a permanent base on the Moon, then I believe that will provide a GREAT launch area for missions to other locations, as the fuel cost of hauling things up out of orbit would be far far less. The big problem will be the manufacturing aspect on the Moon. That still stymies me and may be the proverbial fly in the ointment.

  40. Ray Burleigh

    Gamercow: I fail to see how lifting objects to the moon, landing them on the moon, then lifting them off the moon takes less energy than simply shooting them to the desired trajectory directly from earth orbit. Even at the distance of the moon Earth’s gravity is still in play. To get to Mars is an uphill climb against the sun’s gravity whether you start at the Earth or the moon. It may be easier to assemble things on the moon rather than in weightless orbit, but then you have to worry about dust contamination. To build a dust free building large enough to assemble a rocket would be rediculously expensive. Building safe, reliable rockets is not easy here on Earth. To build an entire rocket from scratch on the moon is hardly feasable. At most they would be assembling modules constructed on Earth and then transported to the moon at great cost ($ and energy). That could be done for far less energy in orbit. The idea of mining fuel and oxidizer on the moon is pure fantasy.

    The idea of assembling giant rockets in space is a carry over from the 1960′s. It is far easier, and more economical, to use multiple smaller rockets, although there may be some value in refueling once in earth orbit. Using the moon as a launch pad adds an unnecessary layer of complexity and cost.

    Most engineering spin-offs do not depend on manned flight. The challenges, except for life support, are the same whether the payload is man or machine. In manned flight up to 99% of the mission cost and complexity is for life support. Although failures are unwelcome, they are not tragic in unmanned missions.

    Meanwhile, important projects, such as climate monitoring satelites, have been postponed or canceled because so much of our space budget is consumed by the ISS.

  41. llewelly

    We know how to keep people alive in space long enough to get them to Mars.

    Except for that pesky ionizing radiation. Don’t fool yourself: If the weather gets bad, NASA can’t keep people alive in space long enough to get to the Moon.

  42. Elmar_M

    Letting Robots do everything for us is decadent. That is at least my personal opinion.
    It makes us look degenerated.

  43. danthemanhan

    I want to get off this rock before I die. That is the one thing on my bucket list.

  44. Jess Tauber

    Aw, shucks- you can keep that dustball. I wan’t CERES. Plenty of water there, and not terribly colder than Mars. Maybe even a subsurface ocean, and who knows then? Life?

    Put a big old giant fresnel lens in front of it and warm it up, and you get a nice vacation spot in a couple of hundred years. Mars would take a bit more effort.

  45. Asimov fan

    @ 47 Jess Tauber : Ceres – yes! I agree with you there. Lower gravity well, more easily accesible water and a remarkable little planet (or at least world) in its own right.

    ***

    “… he had left out a planet. It was not his fault; everyone leaves it out. I leave it out myself when I list the nine planets, because it is the four-and-a-halfth planet. I’m referring to Ceres; a small but respectable world that doesn’t deserve the neglect it receives.”
    - Page 63, chapter 5 “The World Ceres” in ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’ by Isaac Asimov, Mercury Press, 1973.

    “I consider it quite conceivable that the day may come when Ceres will be the astronomical centre of the solar system.”
    - Page 66, chapter 5 “The World Ceres” in ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’ by Isaac Asimov, Mercury Press, 1973.

    Once thought to be rocky, we now believe Ceres may contain 200 million cubic kilometres of water in its mantle. This is more than the amount of fresh water on the Earth.
    - Page 10, “Ceres may be a failed miniplanet” by Jeff Foust in Astronomy Now magazine, November, 2005.

  46. Jar Jya Binks Killer

    @ 46. danthemanhan Says:

    I want to get off this rock before I die. That is the one thing on my bucket list.

    You keep your list in a bucket? Really? Won’t it get all soggy? ;-)

    I keep mine on the pinboard.

  47. intercoastal

    The time spent on a Mars trip shouldn’t be a psychological problem. Polar exploration voyages, up until about 90 years ago, regularly took 2-3 years in a far more physically uncomfortable environment (the ships weren’t even close to temperature-tight or airtight, unlike spacecraft.)

  48. Nigel Depledge

    Ray Burleigh (36) said:

    The only possible scientific justification I can see for going to the moon would be to build a ginormous radio telescope on the far side of the moon, where it would be shielded from radio noise from the Earth…

    Yeah, but wouldn’t that be the best and most sensitive radio telescope ever?

  49. Nigel Depledge

    Cheyenne (37) said:

    We aren’t sending people (who apparently would need to be homosexual if I read one of the above posts right. Wow. Really?!)

    No, you didn’t read it aright.

    I said that you need to have the capability to deal with a pregnancy during the trip, unless you sent a crew that was entirely same-sex and homosexual. Or, I guess, a crew that had all been sterilised (but who would volunteer for that?).

  50. Nigel Depledge

    Cheyenne (37) said:

    The ISS is an embarrassment if we can be honest about it. It’s done virtually nothing and has cost billions of dollars. Can we please, for the love of science, exploration, human discovery, and achievement – kill off the idiotic and inept manned program so we can fully fund all of the other programs that actually achieve results?

    The Apollo programme achieved something wonderful:- it inspired a generation. What robotic explorer has done the same?

    I agree, BTW, that the ISS really has not achieved what was promised for it. And that we would probably be better off putting the money for it into other programmes. But what other programmes?

    Shuttle was an even bigger white elephant than ISS. NASA was hamstrung by the budget cuts of the Nixon era. So many plans for exploration fell flat because there was no money for them. So, they came up with the concept of Shuttle – let’s make access to space cheaper and routine.

    Well, the various military requirements of Shuttle made it far larger than originally conceived, so it needed an external fuel tank, and then it needed SRBs to get off the launch pad, and these alterations made it far more costly than the original conception would have been. And Challenger and Columbia showed that it was anything but routine.

    So, the only real objectives for a manned space programme would be establishing a moon base (e.g. to run a radio telescope on the far side) or to go to Mars. This latter goal would be truly inspirational, but it is a very difficult thing to do – far harder than landing men on the moon.

  51. Nigel Depledge

    gss_ooo (40) said:

    Compare that to manned spaceflight where the stuff we learn is being applied today. A lot of it is adapted into everyday uses, like the water system, ceramics, etc. Not to mention the ISS is starting to pay dividends, with a salmonella vaccine applying for human testing right now and research on a possible MRSA (resistant staph) vaccine now underway.

    Well, I don’t think that the vaccine research you mention benefits specifically from microgravity, but I agree with some of your other points.

    You may also be interested to know that the Apollo programme kick-started the microprocessor industry. Without Apollo, microprocessor technology would be decades behind its present state. NASA needed a lightweight microcomputer for the LEM, but microprocessor technology at the time was clunky and bespoke and unreliable. NASA’s order for 1,000,000 microprocessors enabled the companies involved to develop their fabrication technology to a point where it was reliable.

  52. Nigel Depledge

    Ray Burleigh (43) said:

    Most engineering spin-offs do not depend on manned flight. The challenges, except for life support, are the same whether the payload is man or machine. In manned flight up to 99% of the mission cost and complexity is for life support.

    I’d be interested in seeing your source for this information. I had no idea that putting a man into the equation made it 100x more difficult.

  53. Nigel Depledge

    Llewelly (44) said:

    Except for that pesky ionizing radiation. Don’t fool yourself: If the weather gets bad, NASA can’t keep people alive in space long enough to get to the Moon.

    Well, if a CME had happened to hit during one of the Apollo missions, the astronauts would certainly have received a hefty dose of radiation, but this probably would not have been enough to kill them outright. It certainly would have exceeded occupational exposure limits, and would have elevated their risk of cancer.

    On a mission to Mars, the problem is compounded by the duration of the journey. In 6 months, you are perhaps 20 or 25 times as likely to be hit by a CME as you would be in a 8-day voyage. And there are two 6-month trips to make (out and back). However, various solutions have been proposed, and it would probably be possible for the astronauts to have a section of their vessel that is more heavily shielded for them to retreat to in the event of a CME.

    That does not get around the issue of high-energy cosmic rays, against which adequate shielding would be impractically heavy.

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Intercoastal (51) said:

    The time spent on a Mars trip shouldn’t be a psychological problem. Polar exploration voyages, up until about 90 years ago, regularly took 2-3 years in a far more physically uncomfortable environment (the ships weren’t even close to temperature-tight or airtight, unlike spacecraft.)

    But those ships were substantially larger than anything inside which we could send people to Mars is likely to be (assuming current propulsion technology). And you could go outside for a time to get away from your companions if you felt the need.

    I recognise the point you make, but I’m not sure it is a close enough parallel.

  55. Ray Burleigh

    A trip to Mars and back would take 2 – 3 years. But that’s where the similarity to polar explorations ends. To get there in 6 months requires the smallest, lightest craft possible, which means very cramped quarters. And, as Nigel points out, no strolls along the deck … Sending several craft at once, with 3 or 4 people each, would help a little and provide for rescue in case of catastrophic failure. Parking landing craft in Mars orbit would also reduce the weight of the transit craft and allow more room. And sending multiple habitat and laboratory modules ahead of time would allow for more space and privacy once on the surface. My point was that these are real problems but there are workable solutions.

  56. An easy low cost way to start terraforming Mars is to seed it’s water carrying polar caps and nooks and crannies with Earth’s polar photosynthetic bacteria. Hey presto, photosynthesis!

  57. Build large enough bacterial enclosures around water pockets on Mars, thus obtaining an oxygen supply and possibly harvestable food. So aim to build first settlements on Mars at present water sources, including polar

  58. Certainly,on the short term, greenhouse type enclosures on Mars will be the only means of living in a relatively open ecology based on the photosynthetic properties of plants and bacteria.

  59. Any geological thermal sources cropping up on the surface of Mars could be used as power sources so try and combine first settlements with those of water source locations

  60. As from you I can derive any near surface or extractable water on Mars can be biologically harnessed with Earth bacteria , to sustain humans.

  61. AndresMinas

    Hey Phil, your article and comments #1-60 were dated September 24-30, 2009! Or it’s just my computer playing tricks on me?

  62. AndresMinas

    Just curious since comment #14 seems to imply that Curiosity has landed on Mars.

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