Mars One Monthly - March 2017

Mars One Monthly rounds up the past month’s reports about Mars and the people who want to go on a one-way journey to the red planet. Mars One’s technical and financial prospects remain controversial. Yet the candidates themselves are the most visible example of a global trend - the public’s increasing participation in space exploration. 

Some highlights for this month:

Mars One Candidates in the News

American candidates Yari and Daniel Golden-Castaños spoke with the Boys & Girls Club of Boston.

American actor Sue Ann Pien booked a role on a cable TV show and will direct the video for Secret Things’ cover of “Down By The Water”.

Swiss world recorder holder Steve Schild launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to support his science fiction novel Gefangene der Zukunft (Prisoners of the Future). The book is already scheduled for publication this spring.

British astrophysicist Ryan MacDonald joined YouTube gaming channel CamAndSeb to discuss Mars colonization and the game PlanetBase. During CamAndSeb’s Q&A session, MacDonald addressed the challenges of using potatoes as your primary source of nutrition and other questions from CamAndSeb’s fans. MacDonald’s monthly Mars Mission Update reviewed the implications on Mars plans of an American shift to lunar exploration. He also conducted a livestream discussion of exoplanets and atmospheres, his research focus.

American software engineer Peter Degen-Portnoy spoke about building high-performing teams and the one-way journey to Mars at PramatiConnect.

Egyptian Mohammed Salam continues to promote science and education on the Make Space Your roadshow. He will speak at schools in the Suez Canal region about the past, present, and future of space exploration.

Edwin le Grange spoke with the Pretoria East Rekord.

Australian high school teacher Natalie Lawler and risk assessor Rohan Lyall-Wilson were interviewed by the Courier Mail. Lawler explained how she deal with the critics who post to her Facebook page - and even turns some of them around. Lyall-Wilson described his family’s explorer tradition and how his career in the mining industry relates to Mars.  Astrobiologist Abigail Allwood, the principal science investigator for Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover mission, did not dismiss the one-way concept. “It’s an indication about how passionate so many people are about space exploration,” she said.

Czech writer Lucie Ferstova published her poetry collection Starstruck.

American astrophysics PhD candidate Ethan Dederick was lead author on a preprint exploring how starlight can drive oscillations in the atmospheres of hot Jupiter exoplanets (arXiv: 1702.07988).

Divashen Govender spoke about space governance on Carte Blanche TV.

Careers With Science included sustainability expert Dianne McGrath in an article about research and exploration as a career choice. The Australian sustainability consultant also wrote an article about diversity in space exploration and appeared at the Women in Leadership/Women in Business event where she spoke about the winding path to becoming a Mars One candidate.

Danish system administrator Christian Knudsen spoke to students at the Ålholm Skole and the Støvring Gymnasium.

South African quantum biologist Adriana Marais spoke at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s alumni forum and at the ABSA RBB showcase. Her media appearances included radio stations MFM 92.6 and Heart 1049FM.

Artists Inspired by Mars One

Queen of Mars premieres in March at the Theatre on Brunker. Written by Australian playwright John Wood, the play follows a candidate for a one-way mission to Mars. Alice must deal with the consequences as her friends and family gather for an early birthday party. Wood tells The Herald that the large Australian representation in Mars One’s candidate pool inspired him to write the play.

Mars One in the News

Mars One received proposals from ten media production companies to film the next selection round. The organization announced that it narrowed the list to three finalists and will make a final decision before April.

The desert environment (and wealthy potential backers) have made Middle Eastern countries candidates for hosting Mars One’s training program. Bas Lansdorp tweeted pictures of Wadi Rum after touring the desert location with Jordan’s Royal Film Commission. Inhabited for thousands of years, the Wadi Rum's bedouin tribes led the initial revolts against Turkey made famous in the West by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).

News from Mars

Mars Landers and Rovers

I don't know about you but I'm getting dizzy.... Credit: Nasa

Scientists have selected three possible landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission. An upgraded version of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, the rover will be tasked with studying Martian geology and searching for signs of life. This is the first Nasa mission since the Viking landers to make the search for life a formal mission objective. (Other missions have looked for conditions conducive to life.) The three candidate landing sites are:

  • Northeast Syrtis: Syrtis Major is a shield volcano that may have formed 3.7 billion years ago. This region was the original target for the Beagle 2. Geological diversity placed this site on the final list. Orbital scans show high concentrations of carbonates indicative of a watery past.
  • Jezero Crater: Water filled this crater several times more than 3.5 billion years ago. The “well-defined delta environment” provides clear targets and favorable geology for the rover’s search. Had life taken hold during these wet periods, evidence may be visible in the sediments on the crater floor.
  • Columbia Hills: The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit visited this part of Gusev Crater before becoming trapped in a sand dune. Data from its visit shows that a hot spring may have welled up from this outcropping. The warm, mineral-rich water could provide an environment in which life could survive. However, there is some debate over this interpretation of the data which placed Columbia Hills as a third choice.

The workshop participants had to balance two competing priorities when selecting these sites. First was the search for life. A landing site must have clear signs of warm, wet conditions at some point in its history - and that site must be accessible to the rover. Second was the collection of samples. The Mars 2020 rover will cache samples for a future mission to collect and another future mission to return to Earth. A landing site must have a geologically varied landscape to make sample collection worthwhile. Scientists will conduct more intensive studies of these regions using orbital data and make a final recommendation to Nasa.

Scientists with Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity highlighted the contradictory evidence for water on Mars. Evidence abounds that liquid water once filled Gale Crater. At the same time data indicates the ancient Martian atmosphere had too little carbon dioxide to keep the planet warm enough for water to remain a liquid. Rocks from the period in which the lake once formed show no signs of carbonates, minerals that form when carbon dioxide dissolves in water. Nasa scientist Thomas Bristow said in the report: 

We’ve been particularly struck with the absence of carbonate minerals in sedimentary rock the rover has examined. It would be really hard to get liquid water even if there were a hundred times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than what the mineral evidence in the rock tells us.

Curiosity also returned images of dust devils and shifting dunes moving across the floor of Gale Crater. The Martian atmosphere may be thin - less than 1% of Earth’s at sea level - but it still has enough power to shape the landscape. The mountain at the crater’s center (dubbed Mount Sharp by Nasa’s PR folks and Aeolis Mons by science) was actually carved by wind eroding the surrounding sediment deposits. Check out the link to learn more.

The Indian Space Research Organization described its hopes to land a spacecraft on Mars to Science Magazine. The Mars Orbiter Mission circling Mars right now was a technology demonstrator that taught ISRO engineers how to build and operate a deep space mission. The follow-on Mars Orbiter Mission II will carry a much more sophisticated science package and could release a small lander to advance the space agency’s skills.

Mars Orbiters

The background crater in Kasei Valles shows debris downstream from an ancient flood while the foreground crater shows signs of impact splashes. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Esa scientists also released images of the 3,000 kilometer long Kasei Valles channel system. Volcanism and tectonics from the nearby Tharsis volcano complex unleashed enormous floods that swept through the region around 3.5 billion years ago. The perspective image shows Worcester Crater in the upper left. The floods wrapped around the crater rim and deposited material on the downstream side. A post-flood impact created another crater which “splashed” into the soggy surface.

Images from the European Space Agency’s orbiter Mars Express show the spiral features carved into the red planet’s polar ice cap. A kilometers-thick layer of frozen water ice covers the Martian poles. Winds cascading from the poles have carved chasms into the ice over the course of billions of years. These reveal striated layers that let scientists study the history of the Martian climate. The spiral shape comes from Coriolis forces exerted on the winds by the rotating planet.

Esa scientists continue the setup process for the Trace Gas Orbiter. Still in an elliptical orbit around Mars, it is gradually shifting towards its final circular orbit. Scientists are using the extra time to calibrate instruments in preparation for studies of the Martian atmosphere.

In the we-don’t-have-any-news-so-lets-post-this category: Nasa did not crash the Maven orbiter into Phobos. Maven’s elliptical orbit crosses the orbit of Mars’ outer moon as well as those of other orbiting spacecraft. The mission team forecasts potential collisions and conducts course adjustments to ensure collisions do not happen. They did their job on Tuesday, February 28. The $670 million spacecraft did not smash into Phobos.

Humans to Mars

Uncertainty continues to swirl around Nasa’s direction during the Trump Administration. In the vacuum of space policy, space advocates continue to project their own agendas and wish-fulfillment. Politico reported on leaked documents that show the Trump Administration may favor a return to the Moon over an effort to reach Mars. There may be other agendas at work, however. The plans lean heavily on the new breed of startup space companies and overturn the space agency’s decades-old relationship with the incumbent aerospace industry. The leak may be an attempt by one side to set the terms of the debate rather than an indication of the Trump Administration’s true goals.

The only thing we do know is that Nasa is looking into the possibility of putting astronauts on the first-ever launch of the Space Launch System. Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) was supposed to be an engineering test of the SLS that would send the Orion capsule in a loop around the Moon. It would be the rocket’s first launch and the capsule’s first full-speed re-entry. Since the plan never included astronauts, some important technology has been left out. Like life support. The long-delayed launch will face even more delays in order to get the SLS certified and the capsule ready for astronauts. The open question is whether the politically-motivated initiative will trump solid engineering and risk assessments.

Reuters reported that Israeli company StemRad will send its prototype personal radiation shield on EM-1 (with or without astronauts). The design molds a solid plate to the contours of an astronaut’s upper body and shields internal organs from harmful radiation, significantly reducing the risk of cancer.

The United Arab Emirates announced the “Mars 2117 Project”, a long-term plan for settling Mars. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s vice president and the ruler of Dubai, described a century-long vision that will create a city on the deserts of Mars. “The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans,” Sheikh Mohammed said in the announcement. “Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.” The initiative will create a framework for improving the UAE’s educational system and developing food, transportation, energy and other technologies to improve life on Earth.

Nick Nielsen speculated on the nature of a Martian civilization in a post to Centauri Dreams. Specific scientific goals driving the original settlement will attract a self-selecting set of personalities with a common goal-focused perspective. The red planet’s unique physical environment will shape that into a unique “Martian perspective”. He goes on to explore the effect distance from Earth will have in the civilization’s evolution and its relationship with other civilizations in the Solar System.

Plenty of skepticism surrounds any talk about going to Mars - and not just about one-way settlement. The Christian Science Monitor looked at how little we know about living on Mars. It also looked at our limited understanding of growing food in space. FiveThirtyEight, a US political and sports blog, published several articles for its Earth to Mars series. One considered America’s inconsistent approach to space exploration as a sign that Mars missions may never happen. Another looked at the weak understanding of how exposure to reduced and zero gravity will change astronauts’ bodies.

Other news from Mars:

  • Researchers are trying to extract metals from simulated Martian regolith. (University of Central Florida)
  • A dozen graduate students at the University of Calgary’s architecture school are designing Mars habitats. (The Calgary Sun)
  • The Moenkopi Formation in the American desert southwest has superficial similarities to formations observed by Nasa’s rovers. (EOS)