This past summer (June 14th to June 16th), representatives from the public space sector, the commercial space industry, and academic institutions convened at George Washington University in Washington D.C. for The Ninth Community Workshop for Achievability and Sustainability of Human Exploration of Mars. The invitation-only event was hosted by Explore Mars, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering international collaboration and cooperation between government and industry to achieve the human exploration of Mars by the 2030s.
The purpose of this workshop is to identify activities that will help prepare for missions to Mars by the 2030s. In particular, the workshop sought to address how a sustainable program of human Martian exploration can be achieved. The highlights of this event were recently shared with the release of the Achieve Mars (AM) IX Report, which established priorities and science objectives for future missions to Mars. The authors also made several recommendations for how cutting-edge technologies could play a role, how the health and safety of astronauts can be assured, and how Mars and Earth can be protected from possible contamination.
The Report emphasizes that a plan is needed to implement a cohesive campaign of robotic and human explorers on Mars. This campaign must leverage near-term activities in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – i.e., aboard the International Space Station (ISS) – and the cis-lunar system to develop the necessary expertise and validate key systems. This is consistent with the objectives of NASA’s Artemis Program, which aims to establish a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” This includes the Lunar Gateway in orbit and the Artemis Base Camp on the surface to facilitate lunar exploration in this decade and crewed missions to Mars in the next.
The authors also call for preparatory work to be done that will address the issues of human health and performance, science priorities, transit, surface operations strategies, proposed technological solutions, timelines for development and deployment, and eventual missions. As expected, there were many interesting takeaways from this four-day workshop and its many sessions. Janet Ivey, creator and CEO of the educational program Janet’s Planet and the President of Explore Mars, shared her thoughts on AM IX with Universe Today via phone:
“Most profound to me is the talent and the genius that is behind creating these systems, having these conversations, thinking about these long poles of architecture, how we get humans from Earth to Mars safely so that research could be done. How we could see long-term, working, living, and thriving on Mars in our future. They present some profound and stunning arguments for doing things the way they see them happening.
“For me, it’s the fact that you have people together attempting to discern what is something that is still unknowable. We have rockets, we have spacecraft, and we have landers. But how do we do this safely and sustainably to protect our most precious resource, which is humans? To sit in a room with specialists who can come up with actionable solutions for these challenges, how do we live and work on Mars – that is amazing to me.”
The four-day workshop saw many experts across multiple disciplines address the most pressing issues of Martian exploration and made some interesting recommendations. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the AM IX, according to the Report:
A major focus was on how the first crewed missions to Mars would make the transit there and back. This is a major challenge considering that missions to Mars must launch every 26 months to coincide with a Mars Opposition (when Earth and Mars are closest). Using conventional methods and propellants, the estimated transit time could be anywhere from six to nine months. This presents numerous challenges for astronaut health due to long-term exposure to radiation, microgravity, and the need for adequate supplies. For this reason, the Report stresses the need for a “Mars Campaign” rather than individual non-defined missions:
“This means a program (cadence) of robotic and human missions, starting with better-defined links between Artemis and future Mars missions. It was agreed that the opportunities offered by the 2033 launch window are not to be dismissed lightly (assuming crew readiness), but no consensus was reached as to the value of an initial orbital mission, and no consensus was reached on an initial conjunction vs. opposition mission.”
As expected, Nuclear-Thermal and Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) was suggested as a solution. This technology is currently being investigated by NASA’s Advanced Innovation Concepts (NAIC) program, and the agency has partnered with DARPA to test an NTP concept in space by early 2027. However, these recommendations (according to the Report) “were met with both enthusiasm and skepticism.” On the enthusiastic side, the advantages of power density, specific impulse, reduced mass, and reduced transit times (45 to 100 days) were undoubtedly cited as reasons for adoption.
On the skeptical side, the Report indicates that some attendees “cited studies that suggested neither NTP nor NEP would be available in the human exploration time horizon of interest.” Therefore, the Report recommended that NASA should not commit to NTP/NEP methods for crewed missions to Mars without further study. As Joe Cassady, the Executive V.P. of Explore Mars and the Executive Director of Space Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, told Universe Today via email:
“I think our workshop supported NASA’s continued work on space nuclear propulsion. Our only caveat was that we thought some missions could be done without the need to have a fully developed NTP/NEP system. In other words, we don’t have to wait until those are done to start sending human missions to Mars.”
The role of SpaceX’s future workhorse, the Starship and Super-Heavy launch vehicle, was also the subject of discussion. As the attendees noted, the launch system’s main benefit is that it promises a major reduction in the cost per pound of sending payloads to orbit, the Moon, and ultimately to Mars. However, there are some caveats and addendums regarding certain “engineering demonstrations” that are yet to be performed. These included “on-orbit refueling and ISRU [in-situ resource utilization] at a scale required by the Starship.”
Health and Safety
The Report acknowledges that ISS Expeditions lasting between six months and a year have yielded valuable data and insight into how time in space affects human physiology. However, this information is limited regarding missions that are longer in duration and involve traveling to locations in deep space. As a result, they emphasize how new human health performance system guidelines need to be established that include methods for maintaining astronaut health for missions lasting up to three years – including transits and while operating in the hostile environment of Mars.
First, there’s the need for a certifiable system that can store (and/or produce) food and maintain its freshness and nutritional value for up to three years. The wording of this suggests that either a robust supply cache is needed or am amply of greens and vegetable proteins can be grown aboard the spacecraft (similar to what is done aboard the ISS). In addition, they made several recommendations to ensure the psychological well-being of astronauts, including:
“[A]dequate downtime for the crew, family support communications from Earth, and a well-conceived wellness plan that provides both physical and psychological support. This includes refresher training, privacy in sleep quarters, entertainment opportunities, etc., to build crew cohesion and ensuring that the crew has meaningful work to perform during transit.”
The Report emphasizes the need for mobility systems that can extend exploration, achieve scientific objectives, and allow the crew to transfer between landed elements (i.e., between the lander and the habitat, between surface stations, etc.) without difficulty. These include pressurized and unpressurized vehicles and external robotics that would reduce the need for extravehicular activities (EVAs), thus limiting astronaut exposure to radiation. Robotic systems are also lauded for their ability to conduct surface reconnaissance before crew arrival, scout potentially dangerous areas, and provide logistical support.
They also emphasize that future missions will require improvements in communications infrastructure since the current bandwidth is insufficient for human-rated missions. This is especially important for maintaining communications between astronauts and their families back on Earth and keeping up with the cadence of regular scientific reports. The authors advise that new satellites, antennas, the potential use of laser communications, and upgrades to the Deep Space Network (DSN) all be made.
Another priority, as predicted, involves the location and utilization of Martian resources to accomplish mission objectives. Officially known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), this method is crucial to NASA’s plans for Lunar and Martian exploration. This includes locating sources of water ice for astronaut use but extends to the possibility of harvesting Martian regolith for base construction, all for the sake of lessening dependence on Earth. For missions sent to Mars, the opportunities for resupply will be few and far between, and it is impractical for missions to try and bring enough supplies for the full three years.
In any case, the authors recommend that precursor missions be tested to assess the challenges of ISRU on Mars. They acknowledge that the Artemis Program will test surface robotic and crewed infrastructure elements that will serve as pathfinders and prototypes for operations on Mars. They also point out that ISRU on the Moon has different challenges, including the fact that the Moon is an airless body, surface gravity is significantly less on the Moon (0.165 g) than on Mars (0.38 g), and temperature variations are significantly greater.
However, they stress that these tests should continue as planned, and commonalities between Lunar and Martian conditions should be identified:
“Among the most critical data sets will be orbital characterization and ground-truthing of subsurface ice deposits. Understanding the location, extent, and accessibility of these deposits will inform not only science planning but also ISRU strategies. Planetary protection Treaty obligations may require data sets demonstrating these missions would be safe for the return to Earth.”
The authors of the Report stress that a cross-disciplinary consultation process is needed to ensure that scientific priorities (and the necessary tools to realize them) are set by NASA and its partners. While they acknowledge the work of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) and the Science Objectives for Human Exploration of Mars Workshop, they state that the priorities established by both were limited in scope to engineering and robotics. Therefore, they recommended the creation of a joint effort between the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) and MEPAG to review these priorities.
They also recommend that these priorities reflect a multidisciplinary approach that includes human research, biological and physical science, and Lunar and Mars science. With this in mind, they made the following recommendations:
- Locating water ice (vertical and horizontal extents) and taking samples to determine its composition
- Accessing ice in a way that minimally impacts the samples/cores
- Assessment of crew safety issues (operating on ice)
- Research the effects on the human body and psyche (microgravity, transition to 1/3 G, radiation, etc.).
- Robotic precursor missions to establish baseline measurements for human landing sites
- HiRISE-class resolution imaging, ice mapping, and weather measurements (surface and orbit)
- Robotically accessing the ice before humans arrive
- Reducing the cost and increasing the cadence of robotic missions to Mars
- An exploration workshop to accomplish these and other critical science objectives
Another recurring item in the Report is the issue of ensuring that human missions do not contaminate the Martian environment. This is crucial, considering that all of humanity’s astrobiological research efforts are currently focused on Mars, and crewed missions will considerably expand the search for evidence of past and present life. In particular, special care is recommended when extracting ice core samples to look for biosignatures. Therefore, the technology and methods developed must weigh the potential impact of extracting biological samples against scientific returns.
Similar recommendations are made about the possibility of humans contaminating Mars through their mere presence. “Human explorers might not be detrimental to any specific scientific investigation,” they write. “Persistent human microbial environments, such as in and around habitats, would likely change the local environmental conditions and the scope of possible science.”
Last, but not least, the authors express that care should be taken to ensure that Martian organisms are not accidentally brought back to Earth. Therefore, the Report recommends that human health and planetary protection are part of a common “critical technology challenge” that NASA should investigate ASAP. Chris Carberry, CEO and co-founder of Explore Mars and Executive Director of The Mars Society, summarized the importance of the issue:
“While participants of AMIX discussed numerous critical mission architecture, science, and human health topics, planetary protection was also included as a topic that is growing in urgency. While humans are not likely to walk on the surface of Mars until the 2030s, decisions need to be made soon regarding our planetary protection protocols. Under our current limits, human missions would not be allowed.
“However, assuming that protocols are agreed to that will allow humans to visit the surface of Mars, those protocols could impact where humans will land, what types of science will be conducted, and what access crews [will have] of in-situ resources (water, etc). All of these implications could impact overall mission architecture design and production. As such, we can’t wait unit the 2030s to agree on well-reasoned planetary protection protocols that enable a sustainable human presence on Mars.”
If there is just one takeaway from the AM IX Report, it is that there is much to be done before a crewed mission to Mars can happen. The challenges go far beyond science and engineering and extend to the well-being of astronaut crews (in the holistic sense) and far-reaching environmental considerations. It’s not enough to simply send crews to Mars and make sure they make it home in one piece. We must also ensure they can maintain contact with home, explore Mars safely and effectively, and leave the planet much as they found it (aka. the campsite rule).
According to Janet, this year’s Workshop was special because it was the first time since 2019 that all the people involved met in person:
“Coming out from what felt like a very long analog Mars mission, people were really eager to gather together and collaborate in person for the first time in three years. That seemed to really be an interesting dynamic that was quite lovely. In a way, the pandemic sort of informed some of these larger questions and the desire to find solutions. It was wonderful to know that we could meet in person and to know that even during the pandemic, the Artemis Program was still going forward, we landed another rover on the planet in 2020, and everyone came together on June 2022 with the launch of Artemis I.
“It felt more real, it felt more actionable, it’s never been more real than it is right now. I imagine there’s going to be even more excitement when we gather again this June to discuss how we build on the momentum we already have. Being able to meet face to face after three years because of the pandemic creating a kind of excitement and urgency as Mars looms ever-closer. [The prospect] of humans on Mars has gone from a theoretical possibility to a very real inevitably.”
There’s a lot to do before 2033 rolls around, and much of that work will be happening soon. Success on Mars depends heavily on the success of the Artemis Program and the validation of key technologies and strategies that will later be used to explore the Red Planet. More than that, the Artemis Program will test whether humans can operate away from Earth for extended periods. In short, it will assess whether or not humans have the capacity to become “multiplanetary.” One way or another, the next decade is going to be an exciting time!
Further Reading: Explore Mars