How Startups on Earth Could Blaze a Trail for Cities on Mars

Illustration: 3D-printed habitats on Mars
An artist's conception shows 3D-printed habitats in a Mars settlement. (Credit: Team SEArch+/Apis Cor via NASA)

If future explorers manage to set up communities on Mars, how will they pay their way? What’s likely to be the Red Planet’s primary export? Will it be Martian deuterium, sent back to Earth for fusion fuel? Raw materials harvested by Mars-based asteroid miners, as depicted in the “For All Mankind” TV series? Or will future Martians be totally dependent on earthly subsidies?

In a new book titled “The New World on Mars,” Robert Zubrin — the president of the Mars Society and a tireless advocate for space settlement — says Mars’ most valuable product will be inventions.

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How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

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Mars Society Proposes A Year-Long Arctic Mission To Better Prepare for the Red Planet

Outside view of a structure at Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. Credit: Mars Society

The Arctic’s a lot like Mars, according to the Mars Society. It’s cold, it’s isolated, and it’s kind of dangerous. And, the society says, it’s ready to bring humans to the Arctic for a year to make a mission there even more Mars-realistic.

The proposed Mars Arctic 365 (MA365) mission on Canada’s Devon Island would take place at Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, where missions have been sent since 2001 for periods of a few months each. This mission would encompass all seasons, though, including the bitter winter.

In a press release, Mars Society president Robert Zubrin drew comparisons of his latest venture with the Mars500 mission that saw a group of people put into a simulated Mars spacecraft in Moscow. But, he added, the Mars Society will go “much further” as the work will include field exploration similar to what Mars astronauts would do: geology, climate and microbiology. Also, the Arctic — like Mars — is a “cold and dangerous remote environment.”

Robert Zubrin. Credit: The  Mars Society
Robert Zubrin. Credit: The Mars Society

“It is only under these conditions,” Zubrin added, “where the crew is trying hard to get real scientific work done, while dealing with bulky equipment, cold, danger, discomfort, as well as isolation, that the real stresses of a human Mars mission can be encountered, and the methods for dealing with them mastered.”

The mission isn’t finalized yet, but fundraising is under way.

The society is asking for $50,000 from supporters in the next 24 days before starting the first phase (basically retrofitting the station and adding equipment) in July. Phase 2, the mission itself, would happen in 2014. Total costs for both phases are estimated at $1.13 million.

More information on MA365 — perhaps with information on crew selection — should come in August, when members of the Phase 1 crew issue a report at the 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention.

Source: The Mars Society, with a hat-tip to aerospace analyst Jeff Foust. Foust live-tweeted a talk today by Zubrin — who included mention of the effort — at the International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C.

Zubrin Claims VASIMR is a Hoax

Artist rendering of the VASIMR powered spacecraft heading to Mars. Credit: Ad Astra


A next-generation plasma rocket being developed by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) has been touted as a way to get astronauts to Mars in weeks rather than months, as well as an innovative, cheap way to re-boost the International Space Station. But in a biting commentary posted on Space News and the Mars Society website, “Mars Direct” advocate Robert Zubrin calls VASIMR a “hoax” saying the engine “is neither revolutionary nor particularly promising. Rather, it is just another addition to the family of electric thrusters, which convert electric power to jet thrust, but are markedly inferior to the ones we already have,” adding, “There is thus no basis whatsoever for believing in the feasibility of Chang Diaz’s fantasy power system.”

The VASIMR uses plasma as a propellant. A gas is ionized using radio waves entering into a plasma state. As ions the plasma can be directed and accelerated by a magnetic field to create specific thrust. The purported advantage of the VASIMR lies in its ability to change from high impulse to low impulse thrust as needed, making it an ideal candidate for a mission beyond low Earth orbit.

Chang Diaz’ company, the Ad Astra Rocket Company successfully tested the VASIMR VX-200 plasma engine in 2009. It ran at 201 kilowatts in a vacuum chamber, passing the 200-kilowatt mark for the first time. “It’s the most powerful plasma rocket in the world right now,” said Chang-Diaz at the time. Ad Astra has signed a Space Act agreement with NASA to test a 200-kilowatt VASIMR engine on the International Space Station, reportedly in 2013.

The tests would provide periodic boosts to the space station, which gradually drops in altitude due to atmospheric drag. ISS boosts are currently provided by spacecraft with conventional thrusters, which consume about 7.5 tons of propellant per year. By cutting this amount down to 0.3 tons, Chang-Diaz estimates that VASIMR could save NASA millions of dollars per year.

For the engine to enable trips to Mars in a reported 39 days, a 10- to 20-megawatt VASIMR engine ion engine would need to be coupled with nuclear power to dramatically shorten human transit times between planets.

Robert Zubrin. Credit: The Mars Society

Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society and author of the book “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.” He has long touted the “Mars Direct” approach of getting humans to Mars to create a sustainable human settlement. The plan includes a series of unmanned and human flights to Mars using existing technology, as well as “living off the land” on Mars by creating rocket fuel to return to Earth, and using underground reservoirs of water on Mars.

In his commentary on VASIMR, Zubrin says, “existing ion thrusters routinely achieve 70 percent efficiency and have operated successfully both on the test stand and in space for thousands of hours. In contrast, after 30 years of research, the VASIMR has only obtained about 50 percent efficiency in test stand burns of a few seconds’ duration.”

On the ‘39 days to Mars’ claim, Zubrin says VASIMR would need to couple with a nuclear reactor system with a power of 200,000 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 1,000 watts per kilogram, while the largest space nuclear reactor ever built, the Soviet Topaz, had a power of 10 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 10 watts per kilogram.

Zubrin has invited Chang Diaz to a formal public debate the VASIMR at a Mars Society convention in Dallas next month.

Read Zubrin’s commentary on Space News or the Mars Society website.

More info: Ad Astra Rocket Company