MIT team throws feasibility of Mars One mission into question

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The MIT assessment indicates that the Mars One mission needs revisiting if it's to succeed (Image: Mars One)

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A team of MIT researchers has completed an analysis of the Mars One mission to colonize the Red Planet that throws the feasibility of the non-profit project into question. By analyzing the mission’s details, the team found that as the plan stands, there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome if the colonists aren't to end up dead within 10 weeks of landing.

Announced in 2012, The Mars One project aims at landing four colonists on Mars in 2025, where they would remain for the rest of their lives with additional colonists sent as Earth and Mars come back into the right launch position every 18 months or so. Living in habitats set up previously by unmanned rovers, the colonists would live off the land for their raw materials while being the focus of a reality television show beamed back to Earth.

Even though Mars One’s call for volunteers resulted in replies from 200,000 applicants, the feasibility of the mission remains an open question. In search of an answer, an MIT team developed a detailed settlement-analysis tool, which they used to carry out an assessment of the colonization plans. They used the plans, mission architecture, logistics, and assumptions proposed by Mars One, as well as the mission timeline and the intended use of existing technology. For comparison, the assessment used the International Space Station’s (ISS) systems and operations as a model.

The end result is like a dash of cold water after the party for Mars One. According to MIT, the plans for the colony as outlined presents previously unforeseen shortcomings, will require technologies that don’t yet exist, and will be much more expensive than previously thought.

For example, growing food for the colony is, in terms of space technology, like jumping from a window box to a commercial greenhouse in one go. The Mars One plan calls for 50 sq/m (538 sq/ft) of space for growing food. However, based on ISS data, MIT calculated that at least 200 sq/m (2,153 sq/ft) would be needed to grow a balanced diet of enough beans, lettuce, peanuts, potatoes, and rice at 3,040 calories per person per day to sustain four people.

By carefully packing crops in growing racks, MIT reckoned that this could be crammed into the planned habitat modules, but as the module used to grow food is also the living quarters for the colonists, that created other, potentially fatal, problems.

Unmanned pathfinder probe designed to precede the Mars One colonists (Image: Mars One)

Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, which is a good thing, but having so many plants in such a small, confined space means that it soon becomes too much of a good thing. According to the MIT report, the oxygen produced would soon reach toxic levels and pose a massive fire hazard. To prevent this, air would need to be bled off and replaced with nitrogen gas to restore the balance, but that would soon use up the entire store of nitrogen allocated for the colony.

Worse than this, the habitat pods aren't perfectly airtight. They inevitably leak air, and without nitrogen to maintain pressure, the modules would soon lose so much air that the crew would suffocate in 68 days after arrival on Mars.

Though tanking oxygen from Earth is a possibility, that still leaves the problem of air leakage, which would make the habitat pod uninhabitable in about a year and a half. MIT says that this could be offset by collecting nitrogen on Mars and separating out the oxygen from the habitat for storage, but such a system would be extremely heavy and none are space rated.

The MIT assessment brings even the idea of growing food under the Mars One plan into question. “We found carrying food is always cheaper than growing it locally,” says team member Sydney Do. “On Mars, you need lighting and watering systems, and for lighting, we found it requires 875 LED systems, which fail over time. So you need to provide spare parts for that, making the initial system heavier.”

That may be a good thing because even if 100 percent of the food could be grown cheaply, there’s still won’t be anything to eat until the crops come in. So in the meantime the crops are eating up water and nitrogen as they grow, meaning all the food must still come from home – a common problem in new colonies on Earth, and one which has often been overlooked with tragic results.

Another problem is in the mundane area of spares. MIT used mathematical models of random repairs and scheduled maintenance based on the systems planned for Mars One and compared them against the ISS. The results were very unfavorable compared to the station. The ISS is resupplied at short, regular intervals and can even receive spares at short notice – not to mention that the station can be abandoned almost instantly, if the need arises.

In contrast, Mars One will need to carry large numbers of spares during each launch window because they can’t go up on demand. Also, to save space, these would be in the form of individual parts, rather than modules, which increases work loads and down time for vital systems.

MIT estimates that by the time the Mars One colony is 10-years old, the fifth crew will be carrying along 100 tonnes (110 tons) of freight, of which 64 percent will be spare parts. In addition, MIT says that though 3D printing may be an alternative, the technology is nowhere near at a level to be practical for use on Mars, and presents its own challenges.

These numbers also highlight the transport problems. Mars One envisions using an enlarged SpaceX Dragon, but no such craft is planned. In addition, MIT calculated exactly how many launches would be needed to bring supplies and the inflatable habitat to Mars, and the figures aren't encouraging. Where Mars One estimated a need for six Falcon Heavy rockets, MIT puts the number at 15 launches costing US$4.5 billion – and that’s just for the first phase of colonization.

Though the MIT assessment may seem nit-picking and overly harsh, the team did suggest a number of fixes, such as dedicated farming modules instead of sticking the crops in the habitat, and areas earmarked for improvement, as well as those that may need a fundamental rethink. For example, the team says that given the economics, it may be cheaper to rotate crews back to Earth rather than leaving them there for life.

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible,” says Olivier de Weck, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering. “But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they've made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.”

The MIT analysis (PDF) was presented at the International Astronautical Congress

in Toronto earlier this month.

Source: MIT

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