You will die here...
By 1970 America had the Moon under its belt and the human exploration of other worlds was riding high in the imagination of the Earth-bound masses. Predictions of lunar colonies by the late 70s and Martian colonies by the 1980s were tossed around the media as if their planning and execution were no more troublesome than building a ring road around Milton Keynes.
By today, Mars was supposed to be a ‘New Earth’ where humans no longer tenuously inhabited Martian outposts, but thrived in autonomous cities where generations were born, lived and died having never known the blue skies of Mother Earth. Obviously this isn’t the case today, nor is it likely to be for a very long time.
But we might soon see the dispatch of those first Martian pioneers and the settlement of those first outposts – even if they are three decades too late. Earlier this month, Nasa announced an initiative to move space flight and exploration to the next level.
The plan, has been dubbed the ‘Hundred Year Starship’ – and that’s about it (as they have not been forthcoming with many details) – and has received funding from Nasa and its wacky research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).
The idea is to develop a new form of spacecraft that would cut the journey time to Mars (currently a prohibitive six to nine months) and, arguably more importantly, cut the cost also.
It is also possible that the 'Hundred Year Starship' moniker refers to an idea of of building a collosal starship capable of housing and sustaining a team of astronauts for... well, about a hundred years.
Under discussion is a propulsion system called ‘microwave thermal propulsion’. A craft powered in such a way would have its energy ‘beamed’ via microwaves, or laser, directly from Earth. Such beams would heat its propellant directly and push the craft forward – thus eliminating the massive amounts of fuel it would have to otherwise carry with it (which is heavy, and heavy stuff costs a lot to get off the ground).
Halving the distance that a manned craft might need to travel would also cut costs.
How? Well, by making it a one-way trip for the astronauts onboard.
The Nasa proposal, along with a separate study published this week in the ‘Journal of Cosmology’, suggests that the best way to conquer Mars might be to land the first pioneers on the Red Planet – or initially on its moon, Phobos (see next page) – and then leave them there – forever. That’s not to say that they would be dumped off and then left to fend for themselves. They would be periodically re-supplied from Earth with basic necessities but, otherwise, they would be encouraged to become increasingly self sufficient.
A few facts about Mars
- Surface temperature average -53˚C (-64˚F). It varies from -128˚CC (-199˚F) at the pole to 27˚C (80˚F) at the equator
- Mars revolves around the Sun once every 687 Earth days. A Martian day (sol) is 24hrs, 39min and 35sec
- Its atmosphere is composed chiefly of carbon dioxide (95.3 per cent), nitrogen (2.7 per cent) and argon (1.6 per cent)
- Its highest point is Olympus Mons, a huge volcano about 26km (16miles) high and 600km (370miles) across
- It has two moons named Phobos (fear) and the smaller Deimos (terror)
Phobos: A perfect frontier post?
Measuring just 28km wide with just two billionths of Earth’s mass, Mars’ largest moon is little more than an asteroid. It has no atmosphere at all and its gravity is infinitesimally small. It is also very close to Mars – at just 9,377km distance – all of which might make it a perfect Martian ‘jumping off’ point.
Because its gravitational field is so weak, landing is a doddle and taking off would require little more energy than literally ‘jumping off’. This would make it cheaper and easier to send spacecraft from Earth to Phobos (then ferry men and materials down to Mars) than to send them directly to the Martian surface.
Using Phobos as a base camp, scientists could explore the surface of Mars with telescopes and remote-controlled rovers. It would also allow astronauts to hone their skills before taking the final step down to the Martian surface.
In the next couple of years, Russia plans to send their experiment blunderbuss, Phobos-Grunt (meaning Phobos soil) to take samples from the moon and return them to Earth