The Mars One project created a great deal of fanfare when it was first announced in 2012. The project, based in Holland, aspires to build a colony on Mars with the first uncrewed flight taking place in 2018 and the first colonists setting forth around 2024. The idea is that the colonists would go to Mars to stay, slowly building up the colony in four-person increments every 26-month launch window. However, Space Policy Online on Tuesday reported that an independent study conducted by MIT has poured cold water on the Mars colony idea.
The MIT team consisting of engineering students had to make a number of assumptions based on public sources since the Mars One concept lacks a great many technical details. The study made the bottom line conclusion that the Mars One project is overly optimistic at best and unworkable at worst. The concept is “unsustainable” given the current state of technology and the aggressive schedule that the Mars One project has presented.
Yes, and that’s only the good news. The project is extremely expensive and uses technologies that don’t exist yet, putting the whole idea solidly in the realms of hard science fiction.
The actual report (link here) makes clear how far Mars One is from reality:
Our assessment revealed a number of insights into architecture decisions for establishing a colony on the Martian surface. If crops are used as the sole food source, they will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. Furthermore, the ISRU [in-situ resource utilisation] system mass estimate is 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low Technology Readiness Level (TRL), so such findings are preliminary at best.
Translation: the technology needed to keep people alive on Mars for extended periods starting in 10 years’ time hasn’t even demonstrated here on Earth.
A spare parts analysis revealed that spare parts quickly come to dominate resupply mass as the settlement grows: after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass brought from Earth to the Martian surface. The space logistics analysis revealed that, for the best scenario considered, establishing the first crew for a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launchers and require $4.5 billion in funding, and these numbers will grow with additional crews.
Translation: This will be at least very expensive, far beyond the costs of any television reality series or any Hollywood franchise ever envisioned.
Our integrated Mars settlement simulation revealed a number of significant insights into architecture decisions for establishing a Martian colony. First, our habitation simulations revealed that crop growth, iflarge enough to provide 100% of the settlement’s food, will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. As a result, some form of oxygen removal system is required – a technology that has not yet been developed for spaceflight.
The technology needed to do this one critical function does not exist as of today
Second, the ISRU system sizing module generated a system mass estimate that was approximately 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period, even with a generous margin on the ISRU system mass estimate. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low TRL, so such findings are preliminary at best. A spare parts analysis revealed that the mass of spare parts to support the ISRU and ECLS systems increases significantly as the settlement grows – after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass transported to the Martian surface.
The logistics of keeping the Mars colony from collapsing for lack of spares will be a massive drain and require constant re-supply from Earth.
Finally, the space logistics analysis revealed that for the most optimist scenario considered, establishing the first crew of a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launches costing $4.5billion, and these values will grow with additional crews. It is important to note that these numbers are derived considering only the ECLS and ISRU systems with spare parts. Future work will have to integrate other analyses, such as communications and power systems, to capture a more realistic estimate of mission cost.
It will be extremely expensive, so much so that even a first world economy like the United States would balk at the cost.
My suggestions for getting to Mars
Rather than this be seen solely as a blog of space negativity, I would like to suggest how Mars could be conquered.
It is clear from the outset that getting humans to Mars, landing them safely (something not mentioned in the above report but a very hard problem that hasn’t been answered yet) and keeping them alive on Mars is a problem which demands political and economic will from the United States, Russia and China, together with India and France to produce an international consortium to solve the technological issues of the human exploration of Mars.
And they should set a hard target of getting to Mars in 20 years, not 10.
I believe that the technological problems of Mars exploration by humans can be solved with human ingenuity, but it will require economic and political will by countries who are currently at war (Russia in the Ukraine, the United States in Syria/Iraq) and on opposing sides.
I also believe that it would be far less expensive and get better technological result to explore Mars by robot, using such technologies as dirigibles and ground penetrating radar as well as solar and especially nuclear technologies for power.
But Mars One isn’t going anywhere. It really is hard science fiction.
Reference: AN INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT OF THE TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY OF THE MARS ONE MISSION PLAN, Sydney Do et al, paper presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Toronto, Canada IAC-14-A5.2.7 Link to paper (PDF)