Mars One Monthly - April 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.

Mars One Candidates in the News

Engineering News interviewed South African quantum biologist Adriana Marais about the technical aspects of Mars settlement. She also explained how Mars One offers people who are not citizens of the great space power an opportunity to become astronauts. Marais joined a discussion “Mars: How are we going to get there?” at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. Marias, retired Nasa Deputy Chief Technologist James Adams, and University of the Witwatersrand computer science professor David Block discussed the prospects for human exploration of Mars. News24 caught up with Marais backstage before the event. She explained the coming selection round and the human imperative to explore.

Angel Jane interviewed José Mariano López-Urdiales the founder of Zero2Infinity. The company will use balloons to carry tourists and scientists into the stratosphere thirty kilometers above the Earth’s surface, and above 99.99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. From that vantage Earth’s blue-and-white surface lies beneath the blackness of outer space and a thin blue ribbon stretches along the horizon. The atmospheric pressure and radiation environment also happen to be similar to conditions at the surface of Mars. You can watch part one and part two of the interview (in Spanish) on Jane’s YouTube Channel.

NewsCorp spoke with Australian sustainability consultant Dianne McGrath prior to here appearance at Cisco Live. McGrath discussed the selection process and how she is preparing to compete for a spot in Mars One’s astronaut training program. McGrath's media appearances include the morning show Sunrise and the Harcourt Victoria podcast. McGrath also spoke with students at Barker College

Carte Blanche interviewed South African software engineer Divashen Govender.

Combat engineer/comedian/physicist/educator/etc/etc Josh Richards tried to speak with every student in Australia last month. He appeared on the Australia Science Channel broadcast for its Make Me A Martian trivia contest. He competed with Hi-Seas Mars analog crew commander Carmel Johnson to prove who knows more about settling the red planet. Richards told more than 4,000 students about Mars at the Halogen Foundation’s National Young Leaders Day. He also visited Southern River College, Halidon Primary School, Dalmain Primary School, Como Secondary College, and Copperfield College (and probably others I did not catch). Richards’ media appearances include The Daily Edition and Perth Now.

Peter Degen-Portnoy will discuss high-performance teamwork within the context of a Mars settlement at the open source convention Oscon.

Robert Schröder spoke at the New Work Experience conference in Zurich.

BBC Radio 4 interviewed British astrophysicist Ryan MacDonald.

Swiss candidate Steve Schild has written his first science fiction novel “The Prisoner of the Times”. He launched his second Indiegogo campaign to fund the book’s marketing campaign. Schild appeared in interviews with both Züriost and 20 Minuten.

Mars One in the News

Mars One is worth $389.3 million. An independent review of the company’s finances by a Swiss auditor led to a revaluation of the firm by the Swiss Commercial Register. "We're pleased that the capital increase… and actually thrilled with the valuation of our company,” CEO Bas Lansdorp said in the press release.

We don’t need tourists on Mars,” Lansdorp told an audience at tech trade show CeBit. ”Permanent settlement is a much smarter way of exploring a planet like Mars.” Oddly scheduled amongst presentations on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and mobile commerce, Lansdorp’s keynote recycled many of his earlier speeches. 

Lansdorp made the case for the one-way business model and repeated his claims that no new discoveries or inventions are needed for people to survive on Mars. He elaborated on his efforts to enlist the world’s wealthiest people. In exchange for a sizable donation, Mars One will sell the naming rights for its settlements.

CNBC interviewed Lansdorp from the CeBit show floor. He compared the Mars One business model to Disney’s. “Buying into Mars One is buying into content,” Lansdorp said, adding that the recent round of financing would take its business to the next level. Sales of infotainment content will provide a return to the company’s investors. The accompanying article, however, focused on the litany of criticism Lansdorp’s vision has attracted. It chose to end with this unfortunate comment from Lansdorp: “by going to Mars and showing Earth how bad the second best planet is, [we] will change the way humans look after this planet."

An op-ed in the Fiji Sun drew parallels between the one-way settlement of Mars and Polynesians’ settlement of the Pacific.

Dr. David Koepsell of the Mexican National Commission of Bioethics published the paper “Mars One: Human Subjects Concern” in the International Journal of Space Politics & Policy (paywall DOI: 10.1080/14777622.2017.1288512). In it he argues that the Mars One settlers will be, in effect, subjects of an experiment on the long-term effect of the Martian environment on human psychology and physiology. Koepsell recommends the establishment of a permanent ethics committee to oversee the Mars One project.

Yale history grad student Vincent Kimel writes in Futurism that he wants to “seriously problematize the prospective colonization.” He argues that journeys to Mars should be taken only for exploration - and even then only by machines or cyborgs who would leave a minimal footprint on the pristine Martian environment. If long-term settlement happens, Kimel says, it would be by enhanced humans genetically engineered and technologically augmented to live in the existing conditions on the red planet.

News from Mars

Sometimes it’s hard to know which story to lead with, but… The International Potato Center announced the results of its space potato research. Last year the Peruvian organization launched a CubeSat into orbit. On board was an experiment that tested a potato’s ability to grow in conditions similar to Mars. “Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” says former Nasa/Ames scientist Julio Valdivia-Silva who heads the Potatoes on Mars program. “If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars.”

Less light-hearted news over the past month as America’s rudderless space policy continues drifting. The Trump Administration has not nominated replacements for Nasa’s leadership. That indifference may not be a bad thing given what happens when the White House does focus on a science agency. Cuts in discretionary spending are hitting science agencies, especially any studying the climate or environment, especially hard. The White House may not replace the head of its Office of Science and Technology Policy - and has asked its OSTP staffers on loan from other agencies to clear out their desks.

President Trump did sign the Nasa Authorization Act, but that does not give any money to the space agency. Even worse, President Trump shot down an attendee at the signing ceremony who started talking about Trump as “the father of the interplanetary highway system”. The President cut in and said “First, we want to fix our highways.”

The lack of a White House space policy has set all of the fiefdoms in the American space community against each other. Lunar advocates see a chance to restore the Bush Administration’s return-to-the-Moon policy. Mars advocates want footprints on the red planet now, not decades from now. And a small clique of politically-connected insiders want Nasa to keep paying for the International Space Station to support their “private” space station plans.

The debate even echoed through the annual Lunar & Planetary Science Conference where scientists discussed the tradeoffs of human missions to the Moon or Mars. Scientific American’s coverage focused on the case for the Moon. It limited the case for Mars to comments from a SpaceX engineer about the company’s Red Dragon.

Later in the month Nasa officials addressed the Nasa Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations committee about the space agency’s plans for Mars. As reported on Space Policy Online, the plans call for a “lunar gateway” at the Earth-Moon lagrange point, but no excursion to the lunar surface. The first trip to the vicinity of Mars would be sometime in the 2030s. Landing humans on Mars would not happen until sometime later. You can read the full presentation “Progress in Defining the Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan” on the NAC HEO website.

As frustratingly slow as Nasa’s planning can be, that does not stop its scientists from dreaming big. The space agency’s Director of Planetary Science, Jim Green, described a concept study in which a giant magnet could terraform Mars. The plan calls for placing a powerful electromagnet at the first Sun-Mars Lagrange point. It would deflect the solar wind away from Mars, stopping the erosion of the red planet’s atmosphere. Eventually the atmosphere would be thick enough - and warm enough - to melt water at the ice caps and beneath the Martian surface. The Christian Science Monitor spoke with Mars 2020 Rover scientist Luther Beegle who was skeptical that the technique would create a warm, wet Mars in less than a billion years. Green’s presentation was part of the Planetary Science Vision 2050 workshop. Video from the workshop sessions have been posted online.

The New Space Age Conference was another far out space event held in March. Spacedotcom contributor Tracy Staedter reported from the conference where Nasa Skunk Works director Phil Metzger spoke about using appropriate technology in space exploration. Metzger argued that Martian MacGyvers will adapt high and low tech to survive. The less human explorers rely on supplies from Earth, the argument goes, the more likely they will survive. Check out the article for more about welded tuff and mongrel alloys.

Columbia University astrobiologist Caleb Scharf wrote about the realities of space colonization for Scientific American. He is optimistic despite the “terrifying” effects of microgravity, radiation, and other threats to human life. A future colony on Mars “could provide radically new examples of what our species can do…. If they survive, we can all survive.” Well worth the read.

Of course, Elon Musk continued to generate headlines. SpaceNews reported that Nasa is helping SpaceX identify potential Red Dragon landing sites. The leading candidate is Arcadia Planitia. The smooth volcanic terrain offers a safe landing site while the potential sub-surface glaciers make it a promising region for in-situ resource processing. Twitter went a-flutter when Elon Musk said the Nasa authorization bill “changes almost nothing” with “no additional funding for Mars”. At the end of the month SpaceX used a pre-flown first stage to launch a satellite into orbit. Many in the media reported it as the first reusable rocket, conveniently ignoring the Space Shuttle. SpaceNews later reported that SpaceX will use two pre-flown first stages to launch its Falcon Heavy later this year.

Amid all the talk about Mars, there is still a lot of science being done.

The Silicon Republic and other Irish publications featured Italian scientist Ilaria Cinelli, a PhD candidate at Ireland’s NUI Galway. Cinelli led the 172nd expedition at the Mars Desert Research Station last December. Set in the deserts of the southwestern United States, the MDRS has a simulated habitat, greenhouse, and observatory where crews live for two weeks at a time. Cinelli’s research focused on the crew dynamics during their period of confinement.

Nasa scientists published research that used Earth’s stratosphere as an analog for Mars. The study found that bacteria quickly died in the harsh environment. The E-mist experiment placed bacteria in the near-vacuum and intense ultraviolet radiation that is similar to conditions on the Martian surface. 99.999% of the bacteria died within a day. Project scientist David Smith concluded “Follow on studies will be needed”.

The Hi-Seas analog project is testing a food production system. Perched on a dormant Hawaiian volcano, a simulated Mars habitat hosts six volunteers to test how they respond to the isolation and closed-quarters. One of the volunteers, a former Nasa intern, brought two plant growth systems. Nasa scientists provided one of the systems. Miami, Florida, high schools provided the other. “Calling south Florida home for more than 20 years now,” Joshua Ehrlich said, “it was nice to bridge that connection with students from there who are just as interested in space as I was at that age.”

Aquaponics could support astronauts on Mars. That’s the hope, anyway, of researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Their approach uses aquaculture to raise fish, such as koi or tilapia, and hydroponics to grow plants. The waste from each system acts as the food stock for the other, making it an efficient way to produce food. “I think about the triple bottom line — environmentally sustainable, socially beneficial and economically viable,” ERAU professor Peter Merkle said in the announcment.

The 50,000 orbit history of snapshots from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The 50,000 orbit history of snapshots from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its 50,000 orbit of the red planet. Its medium resolution CTX camera has collected 90,000 images that capture of 99.1% of the planet’s surface, the equivalent of Earth’s entire landmass. The MRO’s HiRise camera takes higher resolution pictures, but of much smaller areas. That limits its coverage to only 3% of the Martian surface.

MRO-based science threw a softball to conspiracy theorists as scientists announced that the giant Arsia Mons volcano peaked at the same time dinosaurs went extinct.

The MRO’s third camera, Marci, collects images of the entire Martian surface every day. The mission released a timelapse showing the evolution of a Martian sandstorm. "We've had orbiters watching weather patterns on Mars continuously for nearly two decades now,” explained Mars meteorologist Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, “and many patterns are getting predictable, but just when we think we have Mars figured out, it throws us another surprise."

Nasa’s Maven orbiter team closed the month with new research about the disappearance of Mars’ atmosphere. “We’ve determined that most of the gas ever present in the Mars atmosphere has been lost to space,” said Maven principal investigator Bruce Jakosky. Over the past two Earth-years (one Mars-year) circling Mars, Maven has collected enough data for scientists to estimate the rate at which the solar wind strips gas from the Martian atmosphere.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter orbiter began aerobraking after completing its science checkout. Over the remainder of the year, TGO will use the thin Martian atmosphere to lower and alter its current 200x33,000 kilometer orbit to a circular 400 kilometer orbit. In addition to its science mission, TGO will serve as a crucial communications relay for other orbiters and landers. 

Mawrth Vallis, a potential landing site for Europe's ExoMars 2020 rover. Credit: Esa/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Mawrth Vallis, a potential landing site for Europe's ExoMars 2020 rover. Credit: Esa/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Landers and Rovers

Only a little news from Nasa’s rover teams. These images show fresh breaks in the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity’s wheels. They formed sometime between late January and the middle of March. "While not unexpected,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson, “this damage is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone." A brief post on the Planetary Society blog describes the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s latest progress around Endeavour Crater.

Esa narrowed to two the possible landing sites for its ExoMars 2020 rover. The sites required a low elevation to support the descent and relatively crater-free conditions for the landing. Oxia Planum was first picked in 2015. The latest announcement adds Mawrth Vallis to consideration. The distribution of minerals in Oxia Planum would let scientists make Mars-wide inferences from the rover’s findings. Mawrth Vallis, on the other hand, was an outflow channel for ancient Martian rivers. Combined with possible hydrothermal vents, it could be a good place to search for signs of ancient life. Planetary scientist Joel Davis wrote an extended piece for the Planetary Society about Arabia Terra, the region that hosts both candidate sites.

Personally, I hope Esa chooses Mawrth Vallis. I just like the word Mawrth. It’s the Welsh word for “Mars” and everyone knows that the Welsh are descended from cats. You can imagine the catpeople of Wales gathered in a field with some unpronounceable 25-consonant name pointing at the red dot in the sky saying “Mawrth. Mawrth. Mawrth.”

(Just wanted to see if you read this far)