On Mars, the establishment will have to be autonomous

On Mars, the establishment will have to be autonomous

Posted June 27, 2022


Some of my friends, supporters like me of the exploration of Mars by manned flights, do not share my opinion about the indispensable and almost inevitable character of a permanent and autonomous establishment on the red planet (at least insofar as it is technically possible). . ). I answer them

There are several reasons for wanting to send humans to Mars. The first, or rather the most immediate, is its scientific exploration. It is clear that with the time lag derived from the finitude of the speed of light, robotic exploration is difficult since the distance of 56 to 400 million km between the two planets, added to the 300,000 km/s of light, imposes a minimum time of 5 to 45 minutes between the sending of an order and the return of information to Earth giving an account of its consequences.

As a result, no live action can be done on Mars, unlike on the Moon. Given that we can almost send men to Mars today and, above all, that we should be able to do it tomorrow, in particular thanks to Elon Musk’s Starship, the human presence would represent an advantage that is difficult to refute compared to the current situation, at least in this zone.

The difficulties of settling on Mars

But if we go to Mars, I am convinced that we will have more interest in establishing ourselves there and here is why.

1) The first trip will be risky and in any case dangerous because there will be no welcome committee on arrival. This will pose a particular problem in helping passengers perform the most basic tasks in the context of newfound gravity. A team that remains after this first will be more than welcome so that the arrival of the second mission occurs in better conditions.

2) Mission “n” will have to leave Mars before mission “n+1” arrives. In fact, departures to Mars from Earth can only take place in a window of one month every 26 months, the trip lasts 8 to 9 months in an ideal ratio mass transported / energy expended (Hohmann transfer orbit) but it can be reduced to 6 months by consuming more energy and transporting less mass, maintaining a free return path.

Then the stay on Mars cannot last less than 18 months (unless it leaves after only two or three weeks but at the cost of a stay in space much longer than the outward journey, of a dangerous passage through the environment of Venus and of a greater, dangerous speed when approaching the Earth). And again the return to Earth will take six months. We will therefore have a mission of 6 + 18 + 6 months = 30 months. Clearly mission “n” will leave Mars 24 months after its launch, but especially mission “n+1” will only be able to reach Mars after 32 months (26 + 6). So, don’t dream, there will be a significant time gap between the departure from Mars and the arrival of the next mission to Mars. This implies, in addition to the absence of the reception committee already mentioned, the absence of a presence to maintain the abandoned equipment (and the Martian environmental conditions are very harsh, according to terrestrial criteria).

3) Any import from Earth will be impossible between two launch windows. It will be necessary, therefore, to have stocks but above all to do the maximum with local resources to produce the resources that we are going to need. In fact, apart from the restriction of windows and the need for certain products not to be too old to be consumed, the transport of mass and volume from Earth will always be a problem because the payload capacity of our rockets is not. . unlimited and never will be.

I remind you that the Starship will only be able to transport one hundred tons to the surface of Mars; it is both a lot compared to today and very little compared to the needs of a community settled there. Therefore, it will be necessary to develop ISRU (In Situ Resources Utilization) as much as possible, including ISPP (In Situ Propellent Production), two principles highlighted by Robert Zubrin in the early 1990s and later taken up by NASA that are still essential.

establish a colony

The ISRU will be used to produce, from Martian materials, the maximum number of semi-finished products that we will need, such as metal beams and beams, glass plates, silicon plate (for solar panels) but also plastic materials, fabrics, food, powders for 3D printers (miscellaneous objects and spare parts) and, as far as possible, the machines to obtain these products or at least the most massive elements that will be needed to frame, support or protect them.

The ISPP will be the production from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, and the storage, of methane and oxygen that will be the propellants used by interplanetary (return to Earth!) or planetary (go anywhere) rockets. from Mars) . Methane burns very well in oxygen (good Isp) and the production of the two gases uses a proven and easy-to-implement technique (Sabatier reaction) with a little hydrogen (one part per eighteen) found in the ice of Martian water (electrolysis). ).

4) But it will not only be the products that we cannot bring from Earth whenever we want, it will also be the people. Indeed, it will be necessary to control the robots, to operate the machines, to monitor the crops (algae, fish, plants), to organize the constructions, to control their viability and their healthiness. Furthermore, the people living on Mars will obviously be the institution’s most valuable asset.

To keep them in good health, it will be necessary not only to have medicines and various medical instruments, but also doctors in all possible specialties. Il s’agira d’abord de chirurgiens car il est quand même délicat de confier son corps à des machines non contrôlées en direct par l’homme, mais aussi des infirmiers pour appliquer les directives de médecins examining depuis la Terre les diverse données biologiques recueillies in the place.

Finally, the scientists who come to Mars will need all kinds of technical services, including in particular those of telecommunications or computer specialists. And “everyone” will need to do it yourself, that is, engineers/mechanics/chemists capable of solving an apparently insoluble problem that we will not have foreseen, because they will have the intellectual and manual capacities to do so.

Finally, it will take services to serve all these people: food product conditioners (pasteurization, opening, freezing, inventory management), chefs-restorers, administrators, financial advisors, insurers, people capable of taking care of the education of children… or of the deceased .

In fact, we had calculated with Richard Heidmann (in a study published in 2018 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society), that an operational Martian base would have about 1000 people (including about 500 renewed visitors in each cycle and providers of income for the colony). This is probably what should be considered in order to shoot in acceptable safety conditions while generating enough profitability to continue.

All these people necessary for the maintenance of men and equipment, that is to say the operation of the base, will not be able to come at the same time as the clients and leave with them. This would not be rational given what was said above (equipment maintenance and reception of newcomers) and would require too many ships that could not carry anything else (the quest for autonomy does not mean that we reach it immediately or that exchanges will not take place).

5) One last factor to take into account, related to distance, space and Mars, is the fact that the men who will go to Mars will have to submit to the limitations of a long trip (in any case several months), a not the insignificant exposure to space radiation (the dose we can safely withstand for one or two trips, but certainly not for five or six), and the consequences of getting used to much weaker gravity than on Earth.

There will therefore be people who are specialists in Martian sciences, economically interested in living on Mars because they will have their activity and social ties there (the baker!) or simply in love with Mars, who after a first stay decide to come back and stay there. These people will want maximum comfort and convenience and will strive, in their own interest, to have all the necessary facilities.

Mars will be neither the International Space Station from which it is possible to return in less than 30 hours, nor Antarctica which, of course, can be isolated but whose isolation will only last a few weeks or, in the worst case, a few months of winter. . It is because of this isolation that autonomy will naturally become increasingly desirable or even essential for human settlement on Mars.

Reading: Robert Zubrin, The case of Marsin Free Press, latest edition, 2011 (Robert Zubrin, creator of the Mars Society in the United States, marssociety.org)

In the net

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