Space

MIT team throws feasibility of Mars One mission into question

MIT team throws feasibility of...
The MIT assessment indicates that the Mars One mission needs revisiting if it's to succeed (Image: Mars One)
The MIT assessment indicates that the Mars One mission needs revisiting if it's to succeed (Image: Mars One)
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Artist's concept of the Mars On e colony (Image: Mars One)
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Artist's concept of the Mars On e colony (Image: Mars One)
The MIT assessment indicates that the Mars One mission needs revisiting if it's to succeed (Image: Mars One)
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The MIT assessment indicates that the Mars One mission needs revisiting if it's to succeed (Image: Mars One)
Unmanned pathfinder probe designed to precede the Mars One colonists (Image: Mars One)
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Unmanned pathfinder probe designed to precede the Mars One colonists (Image: Mars One)
The MIT team made its assessment based on Mars One's announced plans (Image: Mars One)
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The MIT team made its assessment based on Mars One's announced plans (Image: Mars One)

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.

Artist's concept of the Mars On e colony (Image: Mars One)
Artist's concept of the Mars On e colony (Image: Mars One)

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)
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 team made its assessment based on Mars One's announced plans (Image: Mars One)
The MIT team made its assessment based on Mars One's announced plans (Image: Mars One)

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 was presented at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto earlier this month.

Source: MIT

20 comments
christopher
Just gather a giant spaceship of goop form earth, pack it tight with as many different bacteria and viruses as we can scavenge from as many hostile places here as we can find, shoot the sucker at the planet, and wait a few million years. And, while waiting, we can giggle about the new peoples on that planet in years to come, as they explore the ruined mess of their nearby blue-green neighbor, theorize over what might have wiped them out, and try to come to terms with extra tricky new question of "where did we come from"?
Robert Walther
Really a cool idea, but the mission planners need to read Arthur C Clarkes' 'Rendezvous with Rama'. In this series Clarke outlines his alien's 'Rule of Three' concept. To ensure a space mission, the architects must send three times as many assets as required, in three different vehicles. Without this redundancy, the mission will fail. This does not even address the fact of repetitive precise landing factors. I go with MIT's analysis as a minimum requirement.
Brian M
Not sure about their oxygen problem? If they have a balanced eco system then the oxygen produced by the plants will be used by crew and they will produce CO2 which the plants will re-use. The carbon that gets fixed in faeces etc. could be burnt or microbes used to recycle back into CO2 etc. Just balance the system, its possible or we would not be alive here on earth! Adding insects might also be a solution, with the added bonus of a protein source! The only thing would be if the suns energy is strong enough to support the colony?
Mark Martin
Are they gonna take chickens and geese like they did in First Men in the Moon? Or at least take eggs
Wesley Bruce
Everyone's over thinking the problems. Some of us have been a this mars colony stuff for decades. Oxygen: Remove the excess O2 with a hydrogen fuel cell making water. Electrolyze the water to make more O2 if you run low. Farming in the habitat: small plastic pressure tents with elevated CO2. Plumb or tank transfer the gases before opening to harvest. Lots of spirulina early. NItrogen: Make all rigid disposable packaging from nitrogen rich amides, compressed soy meal/paper and frozen ham. All nitrogen rich, 10-20 % by weight, burn in a catalytic furnace. Eat the ham. Recycle the semiconductor of the diode lights and other electronics. Design them to be recycled easily. Include an edison incandescent light fabrication kit. You can make light globes from burned silk, wire and glass. Heat and light. Diodes are cold so is mars. Add an extra opaiq light pressure tent with the same volume as the other two; plumb any excess or contaminated air into it as storage. Leave it otherwise empty. Till an acre of ground leaving it uneven, and mix in some moss spores add plastic over the top. Pump Atmosphere though a solar heater and into the field. Add some steam. The moss will scavenge nitrogen. Send one lander to the icecaps were we know there is water. Fill a balloon with Hydrogen, another with oxygen. Add a dirigible gondola ballasted with more ice and head to the colony site. Both O2 and H2 are lifting gases on mars. Look for a nitrate/ nitrite deposit. Ammonia is also lighter than CO2. Live off the land.
James Oss
Send the colony supply ships packed full of MREs.
f8lee
@christopher - isn't that how we got here in the first place?
MattII
@Wesley Bruce: As far as I can grasp it, the team's major criticisms are of essential resupply, not immediate support.
ivan4
I would say the MIT assessment isn't really valid - Mars is a planet and the ISS is a space station, there is a big difference. Regarding the spare parts possible problem, I would assume those living on Mars would not be part of the 'throw away society' that we have on earth, I would also assume they would have a good general, hands on engineer that should be able to do more than do black box replacement and refurbish much of what fails. It appears the MIT people are not thinking or considering their history. If the pioneers that opened up the US thought as the MIT people are there would still only be cities on the coasts. Going to Mars is, initially, going to be like those pioneers and being able to make do and mend is going to have to be one of the foremost requirements of those going.
Bob
Wasn't there an article on gizmag about oxygen absorbing material just a few days ago? October 4th I think. Problem solved. Any other questions like radiation exposure? What about the volunteers that change their mind one second after blast off?