Space

EPFL plan outlines how to build a Mars colony

EPFL plan outlines how to buil...
The central part of the base that would form the foundations of a Mars colony is an ice-covered dome
The central part of the base that would form the foundations of a Mars colony is an ice-covered dome
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The Mars colony sky crane
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The Mars colony sky crane
A sky crane delivering cargo to Mars
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A sky crane delivering cargo to Mars
A sky crane dropping a tower module at the Mars base
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A sky crane dropping a tower module at the Mars base
The central part of the base that would form the foundations of a Mars colony is an ice-covered dome
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The central part of the base that would form the foundations of a Mars colony is an ice-covered dome
The sky crane lifting off
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The sky crane lifting off
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If you're going to set up a colony on Mars, it's a good idea to have a plan, and scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have put one together. The team's step-by-step strategy involves setting up a long-term manned outpost at one of the Martian poles that could later be expanded into a permanent colony.

Over the past half century, there have been any number of ideas for setting up some sort of base on Mars in the near future, but these visions have often been rather restricted in scope. Many of these tended to be a bit piecemeal and short term when it came to establishing and growing a settlement on the Red Planet.

To help future mission planners, the EPFL team looked at the most likely place to set up a Mars base. Taking into consideration that the primary objective of a manned Mars mission will be to seek out evidence of present or past life, as well as the need for a reliable water supply for the base, the planners selected the Martian poles as the most likely site for a base that can be expanded over several generations.

A sky crane dropping a tower module at the Mars base
A sky crane dropping a tower module at the Mars base

"The poles may pose more challenges in the beginning, but they are the best location for the long term since they harbor natural resources that we may be able to use," says Anne-Marlene Rüede, lead author of the study. "We wanted to develop a strategy based on technologies that have been selected accordingly and outline a test scenario so that 20 years from now, astronauts will be able to carry out this kind of space mission."

Anticipating future technologies, the team envisions a base for a mission to the Martian north pole with a crew of six astronauts. This would land during the northern summer to allow for the crew to work during 288 days of continuous daylight and complete the preliminary work before returning to Earth.

However, humans would not be the pioneers for the project. Instead, robots would form the vanguard to build the first living quarters and to survey the local natural resources. In this way, the mission payloads could be kept to a minimum, though each landing would need to handle 110 tonnes of cargo.

The Mars colony sky crane
The Mars colony sky crane

According to the team, the first base would consist of three types of modules, made up of a central core, capsules, and a dome. The 12.5-meter-tall (41-ft), 5-meter-wide (16-ft) core would provide minimal living space, with the capsules acting as airlocks. But the most important part would be the dome, which would be made of polyethylene fabric covered with 3 m (10 ft) of ice to provide insulation as well as protection from radiation and micrometeors.

One particular innovation is a rocket crane similar to the one used to set down the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. To be sent on the second mission, this would be parked in orbit and be used to offload equipment from the interplanetary spacecraft and transfer it to the surface. This could used for up to six missions, with the fuel for surface launches being processed on Mars itself.

A sky crane delivering cargo to Mars
A sky crane delivering cargo to Mars

When set up, the first mission would last for nine months, but the team says that if resources like water, carbon dioxide, silicon, iron, aluminum, and sulfur can be extracted from the icecap, air, and soil, then the base could become self-sustaining in the long run. But first, the technology will need testing.

"We would need to conduct an initial mission to try everything out for the first time," says Rüede. "And the better that initial mission is thought out, the faster we will be able to get things going and move on to colonization. In reality, the scientists have not taken a stance on the prospect of colonizing Mars. But one of the key benefits of this research is that the systems it envisions could be used for robotic missions in general, whether Martian, lunar, terrestrial or otherwise."

The results will be published in the journal Acta Astronautica and were presented last week at the Entretiens Internationaux du Tourisme du Futur conference in Vixouze, France.

Source: EPFL

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6 comments
Chris Coles
With the very greatest of respects to the team behind this announcement, their choice of location for such a base is entirely wrong; they should be looking at a base located at the bottom of the deepest ravine where temperatures may be much closer to those experienced on Earth.
Why? They all need to go read South with Scott by Mountevans. Why would I say that; because they need to get to grips with life in very low temperatures. Such a base at a Martian Pole will bring them into direct contact with temperatures far, far, below any experienced by those gallant explorers a century ago. Perhaps they have been to see the movie Martian. If they have they have been conned, for want of a better word; into the belief that you can survive such low temperatures without much to worry about.
They need to build a realistic chamber re-creating the conditions at such a Martian Polar location and then have people work within it for long periods; particularly where their equipment breaks down. Always remembering that if the equipment breaks down lives will be lost. Period!
The best location is a deep below the surface as possible within a ravine, where temperatures will be at their highest and conditions will allow the exploration with minimum risk.
Nik
At -153 deg. C, the polar temperature on Mars, many materials that are fine on Earth will be unusable, as their characteristics will change drastically. They may become extremely brittle, and certainly, polyethylene fabric will be one of them that does. I'm glad the intention is to use robots, because sending Humans to Mars is likely to be a short, one way trip. Even they may have problems with the cold, as they will need lubrication, and at that extreme cold, most lubricants will be solid. Calculating clearances, and tolerances, for those temperatures is also likely to be a nightmare. Any structure on the surface is going to need enormous energy reserves to keep it at a habitable temperature. Far better to burrow underground, where things can be relatively stable.
Doug Selsam
Most ideas for colonizing Mars are completely unrealistic. Seems totally clueless. Sending crews to their deaths. If they were serious, they'd be testing their plans in remote sites such as high-altitude plateaus near the Himalayas. In such thin and cold air, they could test their procedures, spacesuits, shelters, airlocks, need for tools, food supply, etc, etc, etc. in a safer place, where emergency supplies or outright rescue can be brought to bear. Only after they can successfully land and survive comfortably in such an inhospitable (yet extremely mild by comparison) site on THIS planet should anyone even THINK of sending people to a place where when things go wrong, nobody can help them. Long term, with its half-gravity and "24 hour" day, Mars will become a haven for retirees and obese people. Before we get too many people established there though, we ought to consider sending comets in to crash on the surface to bring surface water and a breathable atmosphere. Once people are established there, such geo-engineering would become difficult due to protests from existing Martian residents. As the world's leading authority, I've got this stuff all worked out. ;) check out martianlife.com and developmars.com
chinamike
I love these pipe dream ideas of colonizing Mars, I really do! BUT...(sinister music) it is completely unattainable, unrealistic, and ultimately fatal to all.
There is absolutely nothing to be gained by sending smart people to die. Robotic missions keep improving. My suggestions over the last two years has been to send two or three large 'support' robotic vehicles, that release a dozen (or more) smaller robots. Some fly, some crawl, some sail on the wind, who knows? Then turn the smaller ones over to universities to control.
Jose Gros
I'd say both a Mars colony and a Trip to Mars is impossible, as there is no way to block the deadly Cosmic rays from damaging the crew. International Space Station, where stages have been or could be so long as a return trip to Mars, do not have this problem in such a huge way, as ISS turns inside the Earth magnetic field, that controls part of this extremely harmful radiation, coming from deep space. Somebody seems kidding all of us, or being a bit ignorant
The Creator
Jose Gros, You're wrong. There are many ways to block radiation... Martian soil, water (liquid or ice), a magnetic field. An artificial magnetic field could be small only protecting a single outpost/base/colony. However, thinking longer term, You could have a larger one that protects the whole planet. A group at NASA has been studying positioning a magnetic dipole shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange point that would provide shielding for the whole planet. This would aid in terraforming, stopping any solar winds from blowing away, newly generated atmosphere. It may be difficult, expensive, time consuming, but FAR from impossible.