Next Stop: The Red Planet?


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Given the state of the country as at now, you can safely say that when we celebrate the year 2020, this country would not have achieved the status of a “developed country”. So Dr M’s Vision 2020 will remain a vision and will not become a reality, at least in 2020.

For one, religion had taken precedent in key areas of the country and have caused a mismatch of priorities. Instead of us busy with human resource development and preparing the country for a “developed” status, we are busy on which law to use and how holy or religious one must be. And I saw this in play when I went to a shopping complex one fine day and decided to drop by a bookstore as my son wanted to buy a science book. We walked around and realised that there was more books on religion than on science and mathematics. I was hardly surprised – there were more people at the religion book section than at the science & mathematics book section.

Vision 2020 is also doomed to be nothing but fancy slogan because we still place high importance on racial based policies (we still calling ourselves as Malay, Chinese, Indian, etc instead of Malaysian) and on cheap politics. But come year 2020, all is not all lost though. Year 2020 would mark the start of activities that would eventually place humans on the planet Mars by year 2026.

Imagine a human colony on another planet and we don’t have to look another 100 – 200 years for that. We will see that in the next 10 years and it is very exciting news indeed. The company that is taking the exploration one step ahead is Mars One – is a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands that has put forward plans to land the first humans on Mars and establish a permanent human colony there by 2027.

NA_384397_MADD_mars

(It may not look much now but imagine a lot more people on the surface and with high end technology which allows them to come back to the Earth and back to Mars again? Image source: Mars One)

It may sound far fetching at first and Mars One have been on the receiving end of many as nothing but a scam. Some even question the USD6 billion budget of sending humans to Mars but remember India sent its spacecraft to Mars for mere USD73 million. But think of the feasibility. Think of the possibility.

Mars One lists out the mission feasibility of a human colony in Mars in the following manner:-

Permanent settlement

The Mars One crews consist of people that want to settle on Mars. Absence of a return mission reduces the mission infrastructure radically. No return vehicle, return propellant or the systems to produce the propellant locally are required. Permanent settlement also reduces the required technology development; vehicles that can take off from Mars and return to Earth are currently unavailable and untested. Since the vehicle returning to Earth and the accompanying systems are mission critical for a return mission, they will also require backups adding to the infrastructure that needs to be delivered to Mars. More importantly, to attain a somewhat acceptable risk level, the return mission would need to be tested in a complete unmanned return trip before the first crew even departs the Earth. Even after a full test of the return system is successfully performed, the risk for a crew that will ride the first return rocket would be very high: 126 rockets launched from Earth since 1990 failed to deliver their payloads in the correct orbit.

Permanent settlement also solved the challenge of the astronauts entering into Earth’s atmosphere after having spent about two years in reduced or zero gravity environments.

Use of In-Situ resources

Mars has resources that can be used for a sustainable settlement. Water is present in the soil and can be made available to the settlement for hygiene, drinking, and farming. It is also the source of oxygen generated through electrolysis. Nitrogen and Argon in the Martian atmosphere can be mined to be the inert part of the atmosphere inside the habitat. Martian soil will cover the outpost to block cosmic radiation. Carbon dioxide can be taken from the atmosphere if the plants take in more than the humans expel.
The systems to mine water from the soil and to mine Nitrogen, Argon, and Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere have never been tested in space. Mars is however not space because there is gravity and a thin atmosphere. Additionally, the processes are all more than 100 years old. The water can be collected from the soil by breaking up the soil with a drill and harvesting the resulting debris. Argon and Nitrogen can be collected from the atmosphere by removing the Carbon dioxide through a phase change.

Solar panels

The Sun is a reliable, robust, and plentiful energy source. Using solar panels is the best choice for Mars One since it takes away the requirement to develop and launch a nuclear reactor, thereby saving time and money while avoiding the risks and concerns of the use of a nuclear power source.
Thin film solar (photovoltaic) panels will power the Mars One settlement. These are less efficient than those more commonly used in aerospace, but have the advantage of being extremely light, and are thus easily transportable. The first settlement will install approximately 3000 square meters of power generating surface area.

Existing technology

No new major developments or inventions are needed to make the mission plan a reality. Established suppliers can build each stage of Mars One mission plan. While most of the components required are not immediately available with the exact specifications, there is no need for radical modifications to the current component designs.

Every effort was made to design the mission with as little complexity as possible. The choice to send permanent settlers removes the need for a heavy lift launch vehicle, which does not currently exist. Permanent settlement makes the landing module small enough to land with current technology. A pressurized rover will not be sent to Mars until large enough rockets exists. No water recycling in the transit habitat will be present because the trip to Mars takes only 210 days. Instead, all required water is stored in tanks that also function as radiation shielding. Storage of waste that is not easily recycled is available in the settlement until more technology is available.

(Source)

And just look at the number of people who shown interest in the Mars One project:-

Mars One applicants come from over 140 countries; the largest numbers are from the United States (24%), India (10%), China (6%), Brazil (5%), Great Britain (4%), Canada (4%), Russia (4%), Mexico (4%), Philippines (2%), Spain (2%), Colombia (2%), Argentina (2%), Australia (1%), France (1%), Turkey (1%), Chile (1%), Ukraine (1%), Peru (1%), Germany (1%), Italy (1%) and Poland (1%).

(Source)

The first 3 nations are well known for their eagerness and competition in space exploration. Out of the three, US and India already have rovers and space crafts orbiting Mars. And I am pretty sure the Chinese will do so soon as well although these guys are busy exploring the moon (hmmm, they know something we don’t?). And Malaysia is involved in Mars One in 2 areas – our own Angkasawan, Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is an ambassador for Mars One and three brave explorers from Malaysia including a woman.

SPACE: India Mars mission

(It’s only cost USD70 million to launch a space craft to the Red Planet. Trim down the money spent on wars, religion conflict and corruption and you can send hundreds of the space craft to many part of the solar system. Image source: engtechmag.wordpress.com)

Mars One is an one way trip as there is no way (presently) to bring the space explorer back. The environment is harsh and there is no guarantee, despite the mission feasibility, that the colony will succeed, especially when the next human civilization is million kilometers away (230,000,000 km to be exact) and in case of emergency, one cannot simply dial up 999 and ask for help. Rescue mission if it is to be done, will take months to prepare and execute and by then, any rescue mission would have been redundant.

Mars One itself can go bankrupt and may not be able to bring the next set of explorers to add to the colony. Anything can happen. After all, it took a lot of research, time, risk and money to send man to the moon, so what more another planet and that too for one way trip. But there are good reasons to make this trio to Mars, namely:-

To give our kids new Hope, careers and Dreams — beyond merely surviving in a world of growing terrorism, more “police state” responses, with increasing resource and energy scarcity ultimately leading to endless global wars

By finally opening up unlimited solar system resources — be it exotic fuels, new planetary minerals or endless solar energy – dramatically alter the “have not” competition between the First and Third Worlds here on Earth … the ultimate source of increasing global terrorism

By greatly accelerating these radical technologies — from “black” energy systems and propulsion to autonomous robotics, from desktop “super computers” to their ultra-broad band communications (essential to conducting “routine operations” on the Moon and Beyond) – dramatically accelerate overall national and global productivity, with startling increases in GNP and GWP

By federally subsidizing the creation of a whole new generation of consumer industries — through pioneering a literal “Second age of Space” — dramatically increase the historical “return on investment” from past NASA spending … from 23 to one to more than 100-to-one; thus, for every billion dollars invested in this New Space Program, over a hundred billion will return to the national and world economy

By finally providing accessible new sources of raw materials and energy “off planet,” processed in lunar and orbital industrial facilities, naturally reverse over a century of planetary degradation and pollution … including global warming

By accelerating fundamental solar system exploration with human beings, return equally fundamental, radical scientific information – ranging from comparative planetary data which will assist preservation of the Earth’s environment through new space installations, to answers to the origin of the human race itself

(Source)

Yes, money and human resource is important but aren’t we been busy wasting them on wars, corruption and wastage as well. Save up on those and you will plenty for the science exploration, I am sure.

Many of us, including myself are from the generation that grew with science fiction movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. Still remember ” to boldly go where no man has gone before”? It is in our nature to explore and find new worlds and the more we explore, the more we will push the boundaries of technology, science and human endeavor. And there is the prospect of rich natural resources that could be mined for humans (there was even plan to start a mining colony in the moon).

For those reasons alone, Mars One mission should succeed.

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Real Mission to Mars


In case you have missed this important event last week…

(Photo note: An image taken by the Mars rover Opportunity, shown by NASA during a press conference Thursday, Oct 7, 2004, shows a bizarre, lumpy rock informally named Wopmay on the lower slopes of Endurance Crater. Scientists believe the lumps in Wopmay were formed by one of two processes. Either they were caused by the impact that created the football field-sized crater, or they arose when water soaking the rock dried up, said the scientists)

(Photo note: The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), a camera on board the Curiosity designed to take photos during the descent to Mars, took this image of the heat shield plummeting to the Martian surface)

(Photo note: A close-up of one of the rover’s wheels. Curiosity is currently driving around the Gale Crater, a place NASA scientists believe could harbor signs of microbial life, from the past or present)

(All text and images sources and for more images, click here and here. Copyright NASA)

NASA successfully landed the latest of its Mars Rover called Curiosity in Mars last week. With this, they have 3 rovers (Spirit and Opportunity which landed back in 2004) on the planet exploring the surface and geology. The mission’s scientific objective was to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars.

The much-celebrated Mars rover Curiosity is headed for Mount Sharp, where it will help scientists explore the question of life on Mars as it climbs up and up. Meanwhile, however, NASA’s budget for planetary exploration is slated to go down, down, down.

Scientists are basking in the success of Curiosity’s stunning landing earlier this week, proving that a complicated system involving a parachute and a sky crane can safely deliver a 2,000-pound vehicle to Mars. The $2.6 billion Curiosity will spend years roaming the planet, snapping photos and gathering scientific data.

Given the budget constraints facing the space agency, however, there are limits on what the rover, and NASA, will be able to do on the surface of the Red Planet. Although astronauts brought back thousands of moon rocks during the Apollo Mission, there’s never been a sample of Martian material returned to Earth. Such a mission is considered a priority, so scientists can do more detailed chemical analyses.

(Source)

After the Moon, we have been eyeing Mars as the next frontier and a place where humans may be able to adapt as their next home. Who knows what lays thereafter – new mining colonies perhaps or as a “jumping stone” to explore other planets? And inspire future generation of space explorers and scientists to think beyond and ahead. And with 2 rovers on the planet, why we need another rover on the planet?

From Associated Press:-

NASA’s new robot rover named Curiosity landed safely early Monday in a huge crater near the equator of Mars and will soon begin its scientific studies. This marks NASA’s seventh landing on the red planet and is its 19th Mars mission, including those by orbiters and other spacecraft.

Why Mars Again?

The big unknown remains. Scientists want to know if any form of life ever existed there, and that means microscopic organisms. Curiosity is the most ambitious effort ever to burrow into that question, though it is not equipped to look for actual microbes. During its two-year exploration, it will try to answer whether the giant crater had the right conditions to support that type of life.

What will Curiosity do?

Curiosity carries a toolbox of 10 instruments, including a rock-zapping laser and a mobile organic chemistry lab. It also has a long robotic arm that can jackhammer into rocks and soil. It will hunt for the basic ingredients of life, including carbon-based compounds, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen, as well as minerals that might provide clues about possible energy sources.

And talking about the mission to Mars, if you recalled in 2010, President Obama talked about a manned mission to Mars by year 2030 whilst at the same time, cancelled the project to return to the Moon citing that the project was too costly, “behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”. With the latest successful landing of the Curiosity Rover, it will be interest how this mission to take man to the Red Planet going to take place in the next few years. It is also going to be very interesting how we are going to push the current innovation to make space exploration cheaper, safer and longer lasting.

(Our very own Planetarium Space Theater – it is a good platform to generate keen deep interest on space exploration and science. The other is the Langkawi National Observatory which has good stellar and solar telescopes. Image source: National Planetarium)

Looking back at Malaysia, no doubt we started with the wrong foot with teaching of Science and Mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia instead of the more “universal” language of English (we still have a chance to correct this mistake) but it is good that we have also started to expose Malaysians (especially the young ones) on the science of astronomy, mechanical, robotics, computing and others that is crucial for future space explorations. The sight on a greater exploration of the space should be there for all and we should start with the right language of science and mathematics.

P.s. Have a nice weekend and happy holidays to all. Hope that you will miss the madness at the highway and arrive safely at your destination.