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NASA Mars Science

The Challenges of Building a Mars Base 228

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the needs-a-jacuzzi dept.
ambermichelle writes with an excerpt from an article in Txchnologist: "Going to Mars? Expect to stay a while. Because of the relative motions of Earth and Mars, the pioneering astronauts who touch down on the Martian surface will have to remain there for a year and a half. For this reason, NASA has already started experimenting with a habitat fit for the long-term exploration of Mars. Last year, students at the University of Wisconsin won the XHab competition to design and build an inflatable loft addition to a habitat shell that NASA had already constructed. The final structure now serves as a working model that is being tested in the Arizona desert. Like any home, it's a sacred bulwark against the elements; but not just the cold, heat, and pests of Arizona. A Mars habitat will have to protect astronauts from cosmic rays, solar flares, and unknown soil compositions all while keeping inhabitants happy and comfortable."

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The Challenges of Building a Mars Base

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  • Re:Cryosleep (Score:4, Informative)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:08PM (#38640342)

    The obvious and simple solution is cryo-sleep. Just ship some capsules along with a rudimentary habitat, and be prepared to sleep most of the time away. The Mars explorers can't realistically bring 18 months' worth of food and oxygen and medical supplies and whatever else--tampons, contact lenses, etc. So just send a month's supply of food, and they can sleep for 17 months until the return vessel arrives.

    I think that compared to the amount of fuel and supplies they're going to have to carry to travel to mars, build a habitat and survive for months (years?) on Mars' surface, supplying them with food on the trip there is not going to be a big deal. The ISS goes through around 3 tons of food per person per year.

    Cooling the human body to a near-death state has been demonstrated--actually, it has happened many times when people fall into icy water and are revived many minutes later (google extreme hypothermia).

    But waking them up again without a team of doctors to assist is rare.

    Another concept might be to simply upload the astronaut's neural net into a very high capacity computer. Once this task is accomplished, the computer can continue to operate a space vessel and otherwise completely imitate a human being's decisionmaking and responses. One possible catch is that the computer, unlike an organic brain, lacks any stimulus from hormonal secretions, adrenaline, etc. This kind of stimulus would have to be simulated. The astronauts themselves would remain on Earth, monitoring the flight. Any mistakes or accidents would be blamed on the individual whose brain had been uploaded, obviously.

    How would you do this? Dissect a live astronaut's brain cell by cell to determine each neural connection?

    Lastly is the idea of telecommuting (similar to the second idea expounded above). A completely automated vessel with remote controls would allow a team of astronauts to "work from home". Unlike an actual trip into space, this virtual exploration would be much safer.

    The 6 minute to 45 minute round trip communications lag makes this difficult (but not impossible as demonstrated by the mars rovers).

    I think a hybrid of your last two approaches is better than sending men right now - send smart robots to build a base, they can be largely autonomous, and when they need help, they await communications from earth.

    Or, maybe instead of sending a large team of men to live on the surface and build a habitat, send a large team of drone robots controlled from orbit by a small team of humans.

  • Re:not soil (Score:5, Informative)

    by camperdave (969942) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:10PM (#38640360) Journal

    Its not soil, it is regolith.

    We're not entirely sure about that yet. The difference between soil and regolith is that soil has active bacteria and organic material suspended among the ground up rock particles. We've taken a few samples that show no organic material, but the methodology behind the testing and the results is in dispute.

    Bear in mind, though, that except in geology papers, regolith and soil are synonyms.

  • by White Yeti (927387) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:13PM (#38640396) Homepage Journal
    The HDU work to-date has focused on developing processes, procedures, and some technologies you'd need to live away from Earth. The first assumption is, "We have a habitat." They're still figuring out where to put lights and bunks before building expensive hardware for tests in near-Earth space. With current Administration/NASA plans, the next step is a Lagrange point and/or asteroid. Mars (and those siting and assembly issues) will have to wait...
  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:5, Informative)

    by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:21PM (#38640510) Homepage Journal
    Um, the Mars Science Labratory is going over there with a RTG as the primary power source. The reason the rovers don't explore underground isn't the terrain handling (they already do their own navigation) or the lack of sun, it's the fact that you can't transmit data back out of the cave.

    It would be possible for the MSL to explore a cave a little bit, but I'm sure that would cause a lot of nail biting over at NASA.
  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:4, Informative)

    by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Monday January 09, 2012 @04:08PM (#38641154) Homepage Journal

    You can have relay stations. That's not a problem. Yes, the rovers can do their own navigation, but caves aren't the same thing as strolling along the surface. Spelunking requires skills that even the most advanced robots to date have enormous difficulty with -- unpredictable traction, corners that require flexibility, debris around which there is no good path, the fact that the original pothole will more likely be a vertical drop than a nice, easy drive-in, etc. (Chances are that most of the entrances will be ancient sinkholes - there may have been a shallow sea on Mars but with no significant moon there would be no tides and therefore no caves formed from the lateral pounding of water.)

    The flexibility plays into everything else. There are "snake" robots that can handle the kind of terrain we're talking about. They're designed to and do a wonderful job of it. Those snake robots are not, however, equipt to lug around nuclear batteries. Their ability to climb up vertical walls is astonishing but relies heavily on being able to cling to that wall. Adding a few kilos of battery would not only shift the centre of gravity in the wrong direction, it would vastly exceed the gripping ability of the robots.

  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:5, Informative)

    by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Monday January 09, 2012 @04:28PM (#38641486) Homepage Journal

    A nuclear reactor will produce -specific- isotopes. Each type of reactor will produce a given set of isotopes, the ratio of which is unique to that reactor.

    Reactors that specifically produce Plutonium-238 (not all forms of plutonium are useful) aren't common, since plutonium-239 is what is wanted for 99.9% of all terrestrial plutonium usage, and separating something with equal charge and very very nearly equal mass would be hard. The Curiosity rover, recently launched, has one of the most powerful Pu-238 batteries ever produced, at a whopping 110 watts. For climbing vertical walls, this is useless. There is also a well-known and well-publicized global shortage of Pu-238. Fast breeder reactors produced Plutonium (which is why they were popular in the Cold War) but modern reactors produce little or none, giving them zero weapons proliferation risk (which is why they can be safely exported to non-signatory nations).

    For serious energy density, you'd have to go to Polonium-210. US reactors do not produce Polonium. The only source is in Russia, which is why when the former Soviet spy was poisoned with Polonium in Britain, it took scientists around 5 seconds to figure out where that would have come from. Do you seriously, seriously imagine the Russians are going to sell NASA a whole bunch of Polonium? Especially with all the political battles over anti-missile systems, etc?

    As for the number of reactors, several nations started shuttering theirs after the disaster in Japan. Those that remain open are being scrutinized over safety. Jerry-rigging them to produce Polonium would produce a political nightmare that the nuclear industry is not going to want right now.

  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:4, Informative)

    by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Monday January 09, 2012 @05:42PM (#38642546) Homepage Journal

    Oversized pebbles are not "significant moons". They would not be capable of generating tidal forces large enough to gouge through rock. They're also modern captures, so are completely irrelevant as the oceans on Mars existed only for the first few hundred million years. 4 billion years ago, neither was there and therefore neither did anything.

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