NASA and China plan to mount crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. While this represents a tremendous leap in terms of space exploration, it also presents significant logistical and technological challenges. For starters, missions can only launch for Mars every 26 months when our two planets are at the closest points in their orbit to each other (during an “Opposition“). Using current technology, it would take six to nine months to transit from Earth to Mars.
Even with nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP), a one-way transit could take 100 days to reach Mars. However, a team of researchers from Montreal’s McGill University assessed the potential of a laser-thermal propulsion system. According to their study, a spacecraft that relies on a novel propulsion system – where lasers are used to heat hydrogen fuel – could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days!
At one time, the idea of sending humans to Mars either seemed like a distant prospect or something out of science fiction. But with multiple space agencies and even commercial space companies planning to mount missions in the coming decade, the day when humans will go to Mars is fast approaching the point of realization. Before this can happen, several issues need to be resolved first, including a myriad of technical and human factors.
In any discussion about crewed missions to Mars, there are recurring questions about whether or not we can mitigate the threat of radiation. In a new study, an international team of space scientists addressed the question of whether particle radiation would be too great a threat and if radiation could be mitigating through careful timing. In the end, they found that a mission to Mars is doable but that it could not exceed a duration of four years.
In 2012, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp launched the world’s first private and crowdsourced-effort to create a permanent outpost on Mars. Known as Mars One, this organization was the focus of a lot of press since it’s inception, some of it good, most of it bad. While there were many who called the organization’s plan a “suicide mission” or a “scam”, others invested their time, energy, and expertise to help make it happen.
In addition, thousands of volunteers signed on for the adventure, willing to risk life and limb to become part of the first one-way trip to the Red Planet. Unfortunately, we may never get to know if Bas Lansdorp’s plan for colonizing Mars was feasible or even sincere. According to a recent declaration by a Swiss Court, Mars One Ventures (the for-profit arm of Mars One) is now bankrupt.
Looking to the future of space exploration, there really is no question that it will involve a growing human presence in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This will include not only successors to the International Space Station, but most likely commercial habitats and facilities. These will not only allow for ventures like space tourism, but will also facilitate missions that take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and even beyond.
With this purpose in mind, an interdisciplinary team of MIT graduate students designed a space habitat known as the Managed, Reconfigurable, In-space Nodal Assembly (MARINA). This module would serve as an privately-owned space station that would be occupied by two anchor-tenants for a period of ten years; a luxury hotel that would provide orbital accommodations, and NASA.
Since 2002, RASC-AL competitions have sought to engage university students and advisors for the purpose of coming up with ideas that could enhancing future NASA missions. For this year’s competition, NASA asked teams to develop human spaceflight concepts that focused on operations in cislunar space – i.e. in, around, and beyond the Moon – that could also facilitate their proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s.
Specifically, they were tasked with finding ways to leverage innovations and new technologies to improve humanity’s ability to work more effectively in microgravity. With this in mind, the themes for this year’s competition ranged from from the design of more efficient subsystems to the development of architectures that support NASA’s goal of extending humanity’s reach into space.
These included new designs for a Lightweight Exercise Suite, Airlock Design, concepts for a Commercially Enabled LEO/Mars Habitable Module, and concepts for a new Logistics Delivery System. As Pat Troutman, the Human Exploration Strategic Analysis lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center, said in a NASA press statement:
“We are carefully examining what it will take to establish a presence beyond low-Earth orbit, where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed for challenging missions to distant destinations, including Mars. The 2017 RASC-AL university teams have developed exciting concepts with supporting engineering analysis that may influence how future deep space infrastructure will look and operate.”
Led by Matthew Moraguez, a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and a member of the Strategic Engineering Research Group (SERG), the MIT team focused on the theme of creating a Commercially Enabled LEO Habitat Module. Their concept, which incorporates lessons that have been learned from the ISS, was designed with the needs of both the private and public space sectors in mind.
“Just like a yacht marina, MARINA can provide all essential services, including safe harbor, reliable power, clean water and air, and efficient logistics and maintenance. This will facilitate design simplicity and savings in construction and operating costs of customer-owned modules. It will also incent customers to lease space inside and outside MARINA’s node modules and make MARINA a self-funded entity that is attractive to investors.”
To meet their goals for the competition , the team came up with a modular design for MARINA that featured several key innovations. These included extensions to the International Docking System Standard (IDSS) interface (used aboard the ISS), modular architecture, and a distribution of subsystem functions throughout these modules. As Moraguez explained, their design will allow for some wide-ranging opportunities.
“Modularized service racks connect any point on MARINA to any other point via the extended IDSS interface,” he said. “This enables companies of all sizes to provide products and services in space to other companies, based on terms determined by the open market. Together these decisions provide scalability, reliability, and efficient technology development benefits to MARINA and NASA.”
Another important benefit comes in the form of cost-savings. According to NASA estimates, the recurring cost of MARINA will be about $360 million per year, which represents a significant reduction over the current costs of maintaining and operating the ISS. In total, it would offer NASA a savings of about $3 billion per year, which is approximately 16% of the agency’s annual budget.
But what is perhaps most interesting about the MARINA concept is the fact that it could serve as the world’s first space hotel. According to Valentina Suminia, a postdoc at MIT who contributed to the architectural concept, the space hotel will be “a luxury Earth-facing eight-room space hotel complete with bar, restaurant, and gym, will make orbital space holidays a reality.”
Other commercial features include serviced berths that would be rented out to accommodate customer-owned modules. This goes for the station’s interior modularized rack space as well, where smaller companies that provide contract services to on-board occupants would be able to rent out space. Would it be too much to ask that it also has robot butlers?
The RASCAL competition began in August of 2016 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and concluded on June 2nd, 2017. The top overall honors were awarded to the teams from Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland for their space habitat concepts, known as Project Theseus and Ultima Thule, respectively.
Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.
And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.
It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.
However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.
We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?
Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.
But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.
The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.
Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.
In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
Here’s the relevant language:
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.
And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.
But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.
Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.
Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.
The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.
But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.
The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.
Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.
In order to provide some clarity, the United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. This gave details on how space tourism should work, and described how companies might mine minerals from space. The gist of the law is, if an American citizen can get their hands on materials from an asteroid, they own it, and they’re free to sell it.
As you know, SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars. Well, so far, their plans include building the most powerful rocket ever built, and hurling human beings at Mars, hundreds at a time. The first mission is expected to blast off in 2024, so this is quickly becoming a practical issue.
What are the legalities of colonizing Mars? Will you own a chunk of land when you stumble out of the Interplanetary Transport Ship out on the surface of Mars?
Right now, you can imagine the surface of Mars like a research station on Antarctica. If SpaceX, an American company, builds a colony on Mars, then it’s essentially US government property. Anything that happens within that colony is under the laws of the United States.
If a group of colonists from China, for example, set out on their own, they would be building a little piece of China. And no matter what kind of facility they build, nobody within the team actually owns their homes.
If you’re out on the surface, away from a base, everything reverts to international law. Watch out for space pirates!
Under the treaty, every facility is obliged to provide access to anyone else out there, which means that members of one facility are free to visit any other facility. You can’t lock your door and keep anyone out.
In fact, if anyone’s in trouble, you’re legally bound to do everything you can (within reason) to lend your assistance.
The bottom line is that the current Outer Space Treaty is not exactly prepared for the future reality of the colonization of Mars. As more and more people reach the Red Planet, you’d expect they’re going to want to govern themselves. We’ve seen this play out time and time again on Earth, so it won’t be surprising when the Mars colonies band together to declare their separation from Earth.
That said, as long as they’re reliant on regular supplies from Earth, they won’t be able to fully declare their independence. As long as they have interests on Earth, our planet’s governments will be able to squeeze them and maintain their dominance.
Once a Mars colony is fully self sufficient, though, which Elon Musk estimates will occur by 1 million inhabitants, Earth will have to recognize a fully independent Mars.
Space law is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the future of space exploration. It’s really the next frontier. Concepts which were purely theoretical are becoming more and more concrete, and lawyers will finally be the heroes we always knew they could be.
If you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but your parents have always wanted you to be a lawyer, now’s your chance to do both. An astronaut space lawyer. I’m just saying, it’s an option.
As part of their effort to kick-start the eventual colonization of Mars, SpaceX is sending an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars. Initially, that mission was set for 2018, but is now re-scheduled for 2020. Now, SpaceX says they’re working with NASA to select a suitable landing site for their first Dragon mission to Mars.
At a presentation in Texas on March 18th, Paul Wooster of SpaceX said that they have been working with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to identify candidate landing sites on the surface of Mars. In order to aid colonization, the sites need to be:
near the equator, for solar power
near large quantities of ice, for water
at low elevation, for better thermal conditions
But finding a site that meets those conditions is difficult.
According to SpaceNews, the study done with NASA initially recognized 4 regions in Mars’ northern hemisphere, all within 40 degrees of the equator. They are Deuteronilus Mensae, Phlegra Montes, Utopia Planitia, and Arcadia Planitia.
Deuteronilus Mensae (DM) is located between older, cratered highlands and low plains. DM shows evidence of glacial activity in its surface features. In fact, there are still glaciers there, which makes it a desirable source of ice.
Phlegra Montes (PM) is a system of mountains on the Martian surface, over 1300 km across. It’s a complex system of basins, hills, and ridges. They are likely tectonic in origin, rather than volcanic, and the region probably contains large quantities of water ice, perhaps 20 meters below the surface.
Utopia Planitia (UP) is the region where the Viking 2 lander set down in 1976. At 3300 km in diameter, UP is the largest impact basin in the Solar System. In 2016, NASA found a huge deposit of underground ice there. The water is estimated to be the same volume as Lake Superior.
Arcadia Planitia (AP) is a smooth plain containing fresh lava flows. It also has a large region that was shaped by periglacial processes. This supports the idea that ice is present just beneath the surface, making it a candidate for colonization efforts.
The image below shows the Arcadia Planitia region in relation to some of its surroundings. Colonists at AP might have a great view of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System.
The four areas looked suitable in images from a medium resolution camera (CTX) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). But when the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the same orbiter was used to look more closely, the first three locations appeared to be much rockier. According to SpaceNews, Wooster said ““The team at JPL has been finding that, while the areas look very flat and smooth at CTX resolution, with HiRISE images, they’re quite rocky. That’s been unfortunate in terms of the opportunities for those sites.”
The fourth area, Arcadia Planitia, is a more promising site. HiRISE images showed that it is much less rocky and could be a suitable site for the first Dragon mission to Mars.
The Dragon mission to Mars is just the first step for SpaceX. They see themselves as an interplanetary transportation company eventually. SpaceX intends to send a craft to Mars every two years, when the launch window is optimal. SpaceX says they’ll have the ability to deliver one ton of payload to the Martian surface with each Dragon mission.
Their Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) might have the capability to make it to Mars in as little as 80 days, while carrying a payload of up to 450 tons. While still in the very initial stages of design, it may eventually revolutionize our ability to colonize Mars in any meaningful or enduring way. SpaceX envisions a fleet of craft in the ITS which will constantly make the return to trip to Mars.
If that ever happens, we may look at the first Dragon mission to Arcadia Planitia, or another eventual landing site, as the first step.
With robotic spacecraft, we have explored, discovered and expanded our understanding of the Solar System and the Universe at large. Our five senses have long since reached their limits and cannot reveal the presence of new objects or properties without the assistance of extraordinary sensors and optics. Data is returned and is transformed into a format that humans can interpret.
Humans remain confined to low-Earth orbit and forty-three years have passed since humans last escaped the bonds of Earth’s gravity. NASA’s budget is divided between human endeavors and robotic and each year there is a struggle to find balance between development of software and hardware to launch humans or carry robotic surrogates. Year after year, humans continue to advance robotic capabilities and artificial intelligence (A.I.), and with each passing year, it becomes less clear how we will fit ourselves into the future exploration of the Solar System and beyond.
Is it a race in which we are unwittingly partaking that places us against our inventions? And like the aftermath of the Kasparov versus Deep Blue chess match, are we destined to accept a segregation as necessary? Allow robotics, with or without A.I., to do what they do best – explore space and other worlds?
Should we continue to find new ways and better ways to plug ourselves into our surrogates and appreciate with greater detail what they sense and touch? Consider how naturally our children engross themselves in games and virtual reality and how difficult it is to separate them from the technology. Or is this just a prelude and are we all antecedents of future Captain Kirks and Jean Luc Picards?
Approximately 55% of the NASA budget is in the realm of human spaceflight (HSF). This includes specific funds for Orion and SLS and half measures of supporting segments of the NASA agency, such as Cross-Agency Support, Construction and Maintenance. In contrast, appropriations for robotic missions – project development, operations, R&D – represent 39% of the budget.
The appropriation of funds has always favored human spaceflight, primarily because HSF requires costlier, heavier and more complex systems to maintain humans in the hostile environment of space. And while NASA budgets are not nearly weighted 2-to-1 in favor of human spaceflight, few would contest that the return on investment (ROI) is over 2-to-1 in favor of robotic driven exploration of space. And many would scoff at this ratio and counter that 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 is closer to the advantage robots have over humans.
Politics play a significantly bigger role in the choice of appropriations to HSF compared to robotic missions. The latter is distributed among smaller budget projects and operations and HSF has always involved large expensive programs lasting decades. The big programs attract the interest of public officials wanting to bring capital and jobs to their districts or states.
NASA appropriations are complicated further by a rift between the White House and Capitol Hill along party lines. The Democrat-controlled White House has favored robotics and the use of private enterprise to advance NASA while Republicans on the Hill have supported the big human spaceflight projects; further complications are due to political divisions over the issue of Climate Change. How the two parties treat NASA is the opposite to, at least, how the public perceives the party platforms – smaller government or more social programs, less spending and supporting private enterprise. This tug of war is clearly seen in the NASA budget pie chart.
The House reduced the White House request for NASA Space Technology by 15% while increasing the funds for Orion and SLS by 16%. Space Technology represents funds that NASA would use to develop the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which the Obama administration favors as a foundation for the first use of SLS as part of a human mission to an asteroid. In contrast, the House appropriated $100 million to the Europa mission concept. Due to the delays of Orion and SLS development and anemic funding of ARM, the first use of SLS could be to send a probe to Europa.
While HSF appropriations for Space Ops & Exploration (effectively HSF) increased ~6% – $300 million, NASA Science gained ~2% – $100 million over the 2014 appropriations; ultimately set by Capitol Hill legislators. The Planetary Society, which is the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) staunchest supporter, has expressed satisfaction that the Planetary Science budget has nearly reached their recommended $1.5 billion. However, the increase is delivered with the requirement that $100 million shall be used for Europa concept development and is also in contrast to cutbacks in other segments of the SMD budget.
Note also that NASA Education and Public Outreach (EPO) received a significant boost from Republican controlled Capital Hill. In addition to the specific funding – a 2% increase over 2014 and 34% over the White House request, there is $42 million given specifically to the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for EPO. The Obama Adminstration has attempted to reduce NASA EPO in favor of a consolidated government approach to improve effectiveness and reduce government.
The drive to explore beyond Earth’s orbit and set foot on new worlds is not just a question of finances. In retrospect, it was not finances at all and our remaining shackles to Earth was a choice of vision. Today, politicians and administrators cannot proclaim ‘Let’s do it again! Let’s make a better Shuttle or a better Space Station.’ There is no choice but to go beyond Earth orbit, but where?
While the International Space Station program, led by NASA, now maintains a continued human presence in outer space, more people ask the question, ‘why aren’t we there yet?’ Why haven’t we stepped upon Mars or the Moon again, or anything other than Earth or floating in the void of low-Earth orbit. The answer now resides in museums and in the habitat orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes.
The retired Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station represent the funds expended on human spaceflight over the last 40 years, which is equivalent to the funds and the time necessary to send humans to Mars. Some would argue that the funds and time expended could have meant multiple human missions to Mars and maybe even a permanent presence. But the American human spaceflight program chose a less costly path, one more achievable – staying close to home.
Ultimately, the goal is Mars. Administrators at NASA and others have become comfortable with this proclamation. However, some would say that it is treated more as a resignation. Presidents have been defining the objectives of human spaceflight and then redefining them. The Moon, Lagrangian Points or asteroids as waypoints to eventually land humans on Mars. Partial plans and roadmaps have been constructed by NASA and now politicians have mandated a roadmap. And politicians forced continuation of development of a big rocket; one which needs a clear path to justify its cost to taxpayers. One does need a big rocket to get anywhere beyond low-Earth orbit. However, a cancellation of the Constellation program – to build the replacement for the Shuttle and a new human-rated spacecraft – has meant delays and even more cost overruns.
During the ten years that have transpired to replace the Space Shuttle, with at least five more years remaining, events beyond the control of NASA and the federal government have taken place. Private enterprise is developing several new approaches to lofting payloads to Earth orbit and beyond. More countries have taken on the challenge. Spearheading this activity, independent of NASA or Washington plans, has been Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX).
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and soon to be Falcon Heavy represent alternatives to what was originally envisioned in the Constellation program with Ares I and Ares V. Falcon Heavy will not have the capability of an Ares V but at roughly $100 million per flight versus $600 million per flight for what Ares V has become – the Space Launch System (SLS) – there are those that would argue that ‘time is up.’ NASA has taken too long and the cost of SLS is not justifiable now that private enterprise has developed something cheaper and done so faster. Is Falcon Nine and Heavy “better”, as in NASA administrator Dan Golden’s proclamation – ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’? Is it better than SLS technology? Is it better simply because its cheaper for lifting each pound of payload? Is it better because it is arriving ready-to-use sooner than SLS?
Humans will always depend on robotic launch vehicles, capsules and habitats laden with technological wonders to make our spaceflight possible. However, once we step out beyond Earth orbit and onto other worlds, what shall we do? From Carl Sagan to Steve Squyres, NASA scientists have stated that a trained astronaut could do in just weeks what the Mars rovers have required years to accomplish. How long will this hold up and is it really true?
Since Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue, there have been 8 two-year periods representing the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits. This is a factor of 256. Arguably, computers have grown 100 times more powerful in the 17 years. However, robotics is not just electronics. It is the confluence of several technologies that have steadily developed over the 40 years that Shuttle technology stood still and at least 20 years that Space Station designs were locked into technological choices. Advances in material science, nano-technology, electro-optics, and software development are equally important.
While human decision making has been capable of spinning its wheels and then making poor choices and logistical errors, the development of robotics altogether is a juggernaut. While appropriations for human spaceflight have always surpassed robotics, advances in robotics have been driven by government investments across numerous agencies and by private enterprise. The noted futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who predicts the arrival of the Singularity by around 2045 (his arrival date is not exact) has emphasized that the surpassing of human intellect by machines is inevitable due to the “The Law of Accelerating Returns”. Technological development is a juggernaut.
In the same year that NASA was founded, 1958, the term Singularity was first used by mathematician John von Neumann to describe the arrival of artificial intelligence that surpasses humans.
Unknowingly, this is the foot race that NASA has been in since its creation. The mechanisms and electronics that facilitated landing men on the surface of the Moon never stopped advancing. And in that time span, human decisions and plans for NASA never stopped vacillating or stop locking existing technology into designs; suffering delays and cost overruns before launching humans to space.
So are we destined to arrive on Mars and roam its surface like retired geologists and biologists wandering in the desert with a poking stick or rock hammer? Have we wasted too much time and has the window passed in which human exploration can make discoveries that robotics cannot accomplish faster, better and cheaper? Will Mars just become an art colony where humans can experience new sunrises and setting moons? Or will we segregate ourselves from our robotic surrogates and appreciate our limited skills and go forth into the Universe? Or will we mind meld with robotics and master our own biology just moments after taking our first feeble steps beyond the Earth?