CS272 – Tech A

How we might go to Mars

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Terraforming Mars

It is difficult to imagine long stays on Mars, with its uninhabitable climate, unbreathable atmosphere composition, and lack of anything living (as far as we know). Instead of requiring residents to keep their space-suits on at all times, perhaps it would be better to convert the planet into a more comfortable place. If it were possible, terraforming Mars would make it a place suitable for life.

Reengineering the Martian atmosphere is not a new idea. It has been proposed in science fiction on numerous occasions. There are some pages on the NASA website, which were apparently last modified 9 years ago which roughly explain the process, however, they explain only one potential way of converting the atmosphere, which is creating chlorofluorocarbons using resources from the air and soil, which act as greenhouse gases to heat up the planet.

Three years ago, IEEE published an article in their Spectrum Magazine. They also make the assumption that inducing global warming is necessary to make the planet livable, which is probably true, as the temperature is very much below freezing, even to the point where a lot of its CO2 is solid.

If we could start the global warming process, some of the dry ice could sublimate, thus increasing the density of the atmosphere and causing a more potent greenhouse effect. Some scientists predict, depending on the method, that the process of raising the temperature of Mars could take five to ten decades.

One of the methods suggested is similar to that of the old NASA web page, creating heavy halocarbons to act as a greenhouse gases. It still remains to be known though if we can generate enough to effect the change of a whole planet’s atmosphere in a significant enough way.

Another idea, proposed back in 1981 by James Oberg is to use huge mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the dry ice-covered poles. It may be possible, but it sounds less likely than the first option. Can we even fabricate mirrors big enough, and if so, how easily could we transport them to Mars?

Another idea, that is even more “out there”, is to use nuclear-powered rockets to direct astroids to crash into Mars. This sounds like science fiction, but who knows?

Once the planet is warmer and the atmosphere has more carbon dioxide, we can potentially start to grow plants there. Another issue is that the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere is very low compared to Earth (2.7% vs. 78%). Some scientists believe the ground there may contain enough nitrates to support future plant life, but it is yet to be known.

If we ever figure out a good method of terraforming, it definitely seems like a good idea. The benefits of having another place for humans to live are immense, and the study of warming the Martian atmosphere may help us find how to slow the warming of our own.

posted by PlanetaryEngineer at 11:07 PM  

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Exploiting the Resources: Water

One of the biggest issues in habiting Mars is obtaining a supply of water.  In his book titled Mars: A Warmer, Wetter Planet, Jeffrey Kargel outlines the human need of water.  He states that any single human might require up to 4kg of water per day for drinking.  So theoretically, a 14-day mission on Mars might require over 600 kg of water for the health of the astronauts alone.  However, hydration is not the only use for water in space.  In an atmosphere mainly filled with carbon dioxide, electrolysis could provide a means to obtain oxygen.  (Electrolysis is a process by which water is transformed into oxygen and hydrogen gas through the use of an electrical current; read more about it here).  According to Kargel, a 10-person base would require about 100 kg/day of water to use for this function.

Long-term, self-sufficient settling of Mars would also require a steady production of agricultural elements (such as food, medicines, etc).  Kargel estimates that the same base would require another 100 kg/day of water to account for the vegetation.

Overall, a short, 14-day mission on Mars would then require approximately 2 tons of water for the support of the astronauts on board.  Keep in mind, however, that this water is only to be used on the planet; the astronauts will need additional water for the months of travel to and from Mars.

Where will the astronauts obtain water?  Well, there are two main options:

1.  Bring it with them – The ships will need to have enough room and power to carry this payload out of Earth’s atmosphere and into Mars.  There is a narrow margin of error, and water will become a limiting factor to the length and completion of the mission.

2.  Find it in somewhere space – Asteroids have been known to commonly carry ice and could potentially be mined to provide large quantities of water.  Naturally, such an operation carries controversial risks which may outweigh the sought outcome.  The logical choice would be to find water where the mission will take place: on Mars.

We know from both satellite images and rover exploration that Mars, like Earth, has polar icecaps which are made of frozen water, and there exists evidence that water used to flow on the surface in liquid form.  Due its temperature and pressure, the surface of Mars no longer hosts flowing water.  However, scientists believe that because of the way the ice caps were formed, there still exists liquid water under the surface.

I propose that we exploit this resource and find all of the water we need at the polar icecaps.  Mining ice there would require rather simple technology and could be done autonomously.  This would allow operation to continue without human presence in the planet.  Once liquid water is reached, it could be pumped to the surface and used as needed.  The biggest advantage is that ice, which would be a byproduct from mining, could be melted and used as water, too!

I pose the following question to the reader: It is clear that mining the icecaps would provide the resources needed to complete a mission of indefinite length on the surface of Mars, but what are the implications to the well-being of the astronauts? To the resources on Mars?

Resources (In-text included):

posted by OnceThere2010 at 9:48 PM  

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