Mars One Monday March 23

Mars One Monday rounds up the past week’s reports on the project to send people on a one-way journey to Mars.

A candidate’s resignation, the response, and the counter-response dominated the Mars One headlines last week. I spun my Rochegate review and commentary into a separate article.

Pros on Mars

This map presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference last week shows the aurora-emitted ultraviolet light that Nasa's Maven orbiter detected. Credit: University of Colorado

Martian science news emerged from last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Nasa’s Maven orbiter detected dust clouds at higher altitudes and aurorae at lower altitudes than scientists expected. The Mars Science Laboratory team revealed preliminary results from the Curiosity rover's SAM instrument that may show fatty acid and alcohol molecules in a mudstone.

The IAU approved names for two craters on Mars. Named after a town in Mongolia, Choyr is a 36 -kilometer crater. Named after an American scientist, Hunten is an 82-kilometer crater. Both are located in the Noachis Terra region of the southern highlands.

American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kormienko will begin their one-year tour on the International Space Station on Friday. Nasa pitches their long-duration exposure to microgravity as an important step to deep space exploration.

This flat patch of ground is actually an impact crater. In the foreground you can see the thin ring of stones that mark Spirit of St. Louis Crater's rim and off-center in the midground there's an unusual mound of stones. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech from USGS

Only a few of the world's missions to Mars had status updates last week. India is preparing for the Mars Orbiter Mission’s one-year anniversary, The Hindu reports. A year ago this Tuesday, Mom entered orbit around the red planet. Arizona State University’s Red Planet Report posted an image from Spirit of St. Louis crater. This is the Opportunity rover's latest waypoint en route to Marathon Valley.  More intense dust storms developed in the Acidalia region but both rover sites remained clear. Read the full weather report produced by the Marci team at Malin Space Science Systems.

And in the why-we-need-people on Mars category: USGS scientist Ken Herkenhoff reported that the Curiosity science team had to scrub its planned contact science operations because one of the rover’s wheels was standing on a small rock.

News from Mars One

During his video defense, the Bas Lansdorp revealed a two-year slip to Mars One’s schedule. Negotiations with financiers have taken longer than expected, but Lansdorp believes the negotiations “will be completed before the summer of this year.”

[Commentary] Typical of Mars One’s inattention to detail, Lansdorp doesn’t explain why a brief delay in contract negotiations becomes a two-year mission delay. 

The physics of both spaceflight and planetary orbits create brief launch windows every two years - miss a window and you have to wait two years for the next one. Nasa’s Maven mission, for example, almost missed its 2013 launch window when the US government’s self-inflicted budget crises shut down the space agency.

This is the kind of thing Mars One must spoon-feed to the press. Few journalists understand space exploration - or have the time for further research - which means most reports will do little more than paraphrase the press release. Had Mars One provided the extra context, those reports might not have sounded as negative.

Commentary about Mars One

Weather Network meteorologist Scott Sutherland wrote one of the few positive articles about Mars One during last week's Rochegate coverage. He writes that critics of Mars One’s technical flaws miss the point. With twelve years to develop the technology there’s plenty of time to ensure the settlers’ survival. If not, nobody leaves. Ethical problems solved. Sutherland concludes that, by driving technological innovation and public engagement, Mars One more than justifies its existence.

Michael Listner and Christopher Newman wrote a Space Review article with the not-so-subtle title “Failure to launch: the technical, ethical, and legal case against Mars One“. While most of the article retreads criticism made elsewhere, Listner and Newman apply their expertise in space law to raise some fresh issues. The Netherlands, as a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, is obligated to authorize and supervise Mars One’s activities on Mars. Relying on SpaceX to reach orbit also subjects Mars One to regulation and oversight by the US government. Listner and Newman conclude with a look at how divorce law and child custody issues could entangle Mars One’s settlers before they leave. A comment to the article raised another legal issue - the United States’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Under Itar, American citizens and businesses must have permission to share space technology with foreigners.

Popular Science raised another fresh issue in “More Bad News: Mars One is Almost Completely Uninsurable”. The head of aviation risk for insurance giant Allianz explained that insuring Mars One and its settlers would not be possible until the life support and other systems have years of proven operations on Mars.

America’s National Public Radio reviewed the prospect of human visits to the red planet. Lansdorp’s vague optimism is offset with space policy expert Mary Lynne Dittmar’s litany of technical challenges and space historian John Logsdon’s scepticism. Logsdon also questions Nasa’s cobbled together plans for reaching Mars by 2030 - plans Mars Society founder Bob Zubrin dismisses as “chatter”. Zubrin places his faith in Elon Musk’s “SpaceX initiative” - a vaporware program that hasn’t even appeared in Powerpoint yet.

Julie Payette is the second Canadian astronaut after Chris Hadfield to dismiss Mars One. The National Post reported comments she made during a keynote address. Payette doubts that a “marketing company and a TV selection” could accomplish what the world’s space agencies can’t. She also dismissed the Mars One candidates’ “bravery” because all they’ve done is “sign up on a website.”

While plenty of former astronauts have criticised Mars One, professionals working at Nasa and other space agencies have soft-pedalled their comments. The gloves may be coming off. Nasa’s Associate Administrator, and five-time Space Shuttle astronaut, John Grunsfeld blasted Mars One during an interview with Re/code, calling Mars One’s plans “beyond science fiction.” [FWIW: The interview concludes with Grusnfeld’s speculation about fusion-powered spacecraft.]

Mars One Candidates in the News

Laura Smith-Velazquez, an engineer who designs avionics interfaces for aerospace contractor Rockwell Collins, spoke at length with the Baltimore Sun. For balance the reporter spoke with local experts - space historian John Logsdon and Hubble Space Telescope outreach scientist Frank Summers - and cited media comments by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Chris Hadfield.

Several candidates discussed the spiritual and inspirational factors driving their participation in Mars One. British astrophysics graduate student Hannah Earshaw told the Northern Echo that her Christian faith will guide her approach to exploring and caring for Mars. Boston software engineer Peter Degen-Portnoy told Wicked Local. "We're eyes wide open, feet firmly on the ground, and head completely in the stars." German-Australian candidate Gunnar Prehl told Sachsische Zeitung that the technical and financial critics of Mars One don’t bother him as much as “the people who do not even bother to think about what it would actually mean as a mission for humanity.” (Google Translated from the original German)

Other candidates in the news: