Artist conception of the Mars One settlement in the mid 2020s. Image credit: Mars One

Feb 26, 2015 What next for Mars One?

Sen—Mars One, a private organisation with the ambition of sending the first humans to the Red Planet, recently announced it had narrowed down the selection of those dreaming of life on Mars to just 100. It also emerged that negotiations with Endemol to produce a reality TV series about the mission had ended. Where does this leave Mars One?

Mars is red and dead, so far as we know. Though it had surface water in its distant past it has long since gone. So has most of the atmosphere. Its also cold. It may look like a desert in the stunning pictures the robots send back but its temperature can be as cold as -153°C (its maximum temperature according to NASA is +20°C). So if humans are to live on this inhospitable world they will need to create a sustainable environment, which means transporting tools and technologies from Earth to sustain life. As well as building such an infrastructure, you also have to get there. We've sent plenty of robots to study the planet, but humans have not been further than a round trip of about 500,000 miles in a spaceship, and a journey to Mars would be tens of millions of miles.

So what is the Mars One plan? The organisation, founded by Bas Lansdorp, the CEO, and Arno Wielders, says it will launch the first crew of four to Mars in 2024, arriving in 2025. Lansdorp believes cash from investors and sponsors, and the rights to a reality television show following the project all the way to Mars will generate sufficient funds to fulfil the mission. Given the logistical and financial challenges of such a project, it's not surprising that doubts have been voiced as to whether the mission has got any chance of happening. Let's examine a few of the fundamentals.

Firstly, how do you get to Mars? It will need a rocket capable of launching a transport ship into deep space. The spacecraft needs to be suitable for a journey that will take many months (210 days according to the mission planners). Just getting there will push spaceflight technologies further than ever, whilst the crew itself will journey into the unknown, facing psychological and physiological challenges way beyond anything experienced in the first 50 or so years of human spaceflight. Space agencies are still evaluating the effects on the body and mind of being in space for a year. For example, a future crew (Expedition 47) will spend a year on the International Space Station, providing valuable data on the physical effects of a long duration stay in space which could help prepare for the long journey to Mars. But what cannot be tested effectively is the psychological effects of such a journey—a one way trip, never to return to Earth. Without the constant sight of home below, knowing you will never see Earth again, never see your friends and family again. Never to take a breath of cold fresh air again, and so many other things that we often take for granted, so lucky are we that stay behind on the most beautiful planet. Its not for me, but I chose not to put myself forward. I am going into space but only to look back at Earth. But the applicants who put themselves forward have different views to me, and they would no doubt focus on positive thoughts, of being pioneers for the human species, of setting up a new home, a sense of great achievement and bravery. I am not a pyschologist and other than the sweeping observations I have made this blog is no place to cover such a complex topic. Suffice to say that preparing those going to Mars to cope with the mental challenges of the mission would need to be addressed.

Although the boundaries of spaceflight will need to be pushed further than ever, getting people to Mars seems feasible in the next ten to twenty years. Technologies are being developed that could do the job. NASA are developing the Space Launch System designed to launch the Orion spacecraft to Mars one day, and SpaceX is building the Falcon Heavy to launch deep space missions. Both NASA and private companies are building new crewships too. Its not hard to envisage that the technologies to transport people to Mars will be available in the next decade or so.

A major potential hazard on the long journey to Mars is radiation from a solar storm. The timing of such events is unpredictable and one that erupted in August 1972, between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions of April and December, could have killed astronauts had they been in space at the time. Mars One say that their spacecraft will shield effectively against cosmic radiation from deep space, and contain a dedicated shelter where their crew can retreat in the event of a solar flare.

Although the technology to get to Mars is being developed, it is not owned by Mars One, so it will have to pay a company or government to provide transportation. Mars One hopes it can sell the rights to a television show following the mission to help fund it. Although the negotiations with Endemol have ended without a deal, Mars One has signed a contract with another production company for a documentary series, and Lansdorp told Sen in an email that they are in negotiations for the sale of TV rights. The key challenge in respect of selling the TV rights in my view will be confidence—confidence in whether the mission will get off the ground. If a broadcaster didn't think the launch would ever happen, the value of filming the crew selection and training is diminished. Mars One need to convince TV producers that the mission will happen if they commit to a long term rights deal. To help convince TV producers one can imagine they need to show the project is progressing well, and that gives rise to another hurdle—funding the robotic phase of the mission prior to the sale of TV rights.

The robotic aspects of the mission are another fundamental. The crew can't just land and kick around in the dust, they need to land and have a life supporting infrastructure in place that can protect them from solar radiation and provide oxygen, food and water.

According to the current mission plan, a communications satellite would need to launch in 2018 and a lander in 2020 to keep the current timeline on track. These unmanned missions are to be funded from investors, with donations a welcome addition that are growing every month and expected to become a significant source of revenue, Lansdorp told me. The suppliers of the first lander and communications satellite, Lockheed Martin and SSTL respectively, have submitted their proposals to Mars One and are awaiting the go ahead to build them. This phase needs to go ahead to keep the mission going, and I believe to show any potential purchaser of TV rights that the project has a chance of happening.

If the first robotic missions get funded, building the infratructure is still a major challenge. A number of additional landers and rovers are meant to prepare the way for the crew, not just the initial satellite and lander. So these will require further funds to build and launch them. 

On reaching Mars, what will it be like? How will the lower gravity affect the physicality of their existence? How will they eat, breathe, relax, survive? Mars One is having to think of everything that would be needed for humans to survive.

The surface of Mars is more exposed to radiation than Earth, but the Mars One mission designers say that the colonists’ habitat will be covered by five metres of martian soil to protect them.

According to the mission planners, oxygen production would be derived from the water in Martian soil which would be extracted by evaporation, and the constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen would be distilled from the water. Oxygen would also be generated from the plant systems. These seem like complex systems, and the technology would need to be tested and proven on Earth before being shipped to Mars. Concerns were raised on some of the plans by researchers at MIT who did some analysis last year on Mars One, noting that the crew could suffocate within 68 days unless they built into their habitat a system to remove excess oxygen. According to the MIT analysis, locally grown vegetation could produce unsafe levels of oxygen which would trigger a series of events that would eventually cause the humans to suffocate. They suggested a system to remove excess oxygen would need to be developed. You couldn't risk launching crew without proving the life support technology.

Its clearly a massive challenge to colonise Mars, and more so to fund the colonisation primarily through a television reality show. Impossible in many eyes. If it doesn't get the necessary funding, where will that leave Mars One? Could they provide their project management and experience to date with other organisations who share the goal of sending people to Mars? NASA have stated they intend to send humans to Mars, for example, and that's one of the reasons they are building the SLS and Orion. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, wants to see Mars colonised in the future too. Could or should Mars One be trying to work with the likes of NASA and SpaceX rather than independently? At the present time, Lansdorp told me by email, they want to stay independent of suppliers. But perhaps Mars One could bring what it has learnt so far, and is still learning, to the table; such as the experience they are gaining at selecting the future astronauts (the 100 candidates are to be narrowed down to six teams of four by the end of this year, with the focus now being on finding team players amongst the candidates).

NASA and SpaceX not only have credibility but also are building the technologies to make the journey to Mars possible. In ten years (2002 to 2012) SpaceX went from an empty warehouse to delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The journey involved buiding a rocket, including engines, and a cargo ship. Musk seems to make things happen. When the experimental Grasshopper began testing the concept of a rocket landing on its legs back on its launch pad, people thought it was a great idea, but few could have believed that within a couple of years they would have almost nailed it. SpaceX have clearly made huge strides, and the path from imagination to reality seems very short in the corridors of Musk's company. Developing technologies to get to Mars is already well underway. The Falcon Heavy, which has its first test flight later this year, is being designed to launch vehicles into deep space. Meanwhile Dragon V2 is being built as a crewship, albeit for short trips to low Earth orbit, its certainly a step towards building a crew vehicle capable of reaching further into space. So his talk about one day colonising Mars should be taken very seriously. 

Mars One looks like a difficult ask, but the idea of colonising Mars is not, and the idea seems ever more real. Mars One are playing a role in that. The important thing about exploration is pushing the boundaries of knowledge and capabilities. Trying to inhabit a new world will push the boundaries and Mars One have raised awareness of the challenges involved. Its mission plan has been covered by the world's media and got people talking and analysing. Even if the crew set for Mars doesn't get off the ground, the idea certainly has, and the knowledge gained from the project could be useful for another properly funded and supported long term mission to send humans to our neighbouring world. In that sense, Mars One deserves some credit.