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Mars Space Technology

Ask Joseph Palaia About Building Lunar Machines and Living On Mars 107

Posted by samzenpus
from the future-is-now dept.
Joseph Palaia is an entrepreneur, engineer and technologist who is working on creating the first permanent settlement on Mars. In 2009, he served as executive officer and chief engineer for a one-month simulated Mars mission at the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island in the Canadian arctic. He has played an integral role in two commercial design studies of the first permanent Mars settlement. He is co-author of technical papers on the topics of Mars nuclear power plant design, Mars settlement architecture, space economics and the economics of energy on Mars. In addition to his work on inhabiting Mars, Joseph is also the Chief Operating Officer & Director of Earthrise Space, Inc. ESI is a research laboratory whose goal is to design, build, and operate spacecraft with the help of students. They are currently working on both a lunar lander and lunar rover for the Google Lunar X Prize. Joseph has agreed to take off his spacesuit and answer any of your questions about building moon machines with students, long-term survival in space, and all things Kuato related. Ask as many questions as you like, but please confine your questions to one per post.
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Ask Joseph Palaia About Building Lunar Machines and Living On Mars

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  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Friday July 13, 2012 @11:50AM (#40639553)

    With low air pressure, little in the way of concentrated water/oxygen, no arable soil, cold weather, weak sunlight, and limited natural ores and minerals--can any Martian colony ever be anything other than a constant resource sink for its earth-bound sponsor?

    • by na1led (1030470)
      Maybe they'll find lots of "Naquadah" to make it worth while.
    • by Tx (96709) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:11PM (#40639781) Journal

      Can? Ever? Yes. The resources are there for a self-sustaining colony. You need the technology to access and work with those resources, and the funding to bootstrap the entire chains of resource extraction and processing, but if the raw materials are there, then the potential is there.

      Will? Soon? Not fully self sustaining. You could look to build a colony that can produce basics - water, air, staple food, rocket fuel, energy - locally, but they'll be doing it using equipment shipped from Earth, that will need spares etc from Earth, and they'd still need a whole bunch of enabling material shipped out. So it would be partly self-sustaining; I guess the question you're really asking is to what degree.

      • by u17 (1730558)
        A colony doesn't need to be fully self-sustaining. As long as there is something valuable on Mars that can be exported to Earth, it can form the basis for interplanetary trade and allow the colony to co-exist with Earth without unilaterally draining resources from her.
        • As long as there is something valuable on Mars that can be exported to Earth[...]

          So... any ideas? Keeping in mind that anything you come up with has to be economically viable despite the staggering cost of the return trip. And don't tell me those costs will fall, obviously they will, the part you might forget is that other manufacturing and resource costs will fall also. Also keep in mind that if you're already talking about mars it probably isn't much harder (and possibly could be much easier) to colonize an asteroid or a moon. Personally, I honestly can't think of a single thing th

          • by arth1 (260657)

            Personally, I honestly can't think of a single thing that could conceivably be found on Mars that could warrant the expense.

            We are but eggs who haven't grokked Mars.
            How about Tara Thoris, the evolvarium, Aelita and Amy Wong?

          • by Jeng (926980)

            If we are removing resources from Mars then we are probably also at the point that we have been removing resources from asteroids. As such then the market for goods from Mars may not be Earth.

            Also, having a nice bit of gravity is good, and since Mars gravity well is not as deep as Earths it may end up being a better place to consolidate, manufacture and ship goods to different parts of the solar system. Granted though I don't see that happening for another 300 years or so.

          • by khallow (566160)
            Scientific research is one such. In addition to producing knowledge about the environment of another planet, there will be more pieces of puzzle to put together for understanding our Solar System. For example, Mars probably has the best sample of Asteroid Belt materials in the Solar System, including the Asteroid Belt. It's been collecting meteorites for a billion years and putting a bunch of them right on the surface for easy access by man or machine.
        • by Rei (128717)

          A colony doesn't need to be fully self-sustaining

          One of the prime justifications of becoming a multi-planet species is that we could survive the loss of the Earth. Kind of hard to do that when your colonies need the Earth to survive.

          • by arth1 (260657)

            One of the prime justifications of becoming a multi-planet species is that we could survive the loss of the Earth. Kind of hard to do that when your colonies need the Earth to survive.

            But there's such precedence! Instead of countries being self-sustained, they now depend on other countries for food, energy and vital goods. This is called progress.

            IMHO, if we are to go for a dirtball that can't sustain life without severe modifications, let's start with the moon. Then Mercury. TBy then, we should have enough experience that we can go for the gas and ice giant moons like Ganymede, Titan and Triton, and by that time we may perhaps even be ready for Venus. Then we won't need Mars at all

        • by sycodon (149926)

          Right...

          Companies can't even mine deposits off the ocean floor without scads of people getting their panties in a twist about who "owns" the resources or environmental impacts. Just think what the cluster fuck of jurisdictions would be saying about mining something on mars and bringing it back.

          The paperwork would outweigh, literally, whatever ore or refined products you brought back.

      • ... You could look to build a colony that can produce basics - water, air, staple food, rocket fuel, energy - locally, but they'll be doing it using equipment shipped from Earth, that will need spares etc from Earth, and they'd still need a whole bunch of enabling material shipped out ...

        Initially. However societies tend to eventually want to produce critical necessities themselves. Such equipment will eventually probably be made locally. To avoid such pressures two regions must be part of the same society, such as regions within the same country. Full peers in the social and political sense with their counterparts on earth.

    • With low air pressure, little in the way of concentrated water/oxygen, no arable soil, cold weather, weak sunlight, and limited natural ores and minerals--can any Martian colony ever be anything other than a constant resource sink for its earth-bound sponsor?

      Actually there is a lot of water, oxygen, minerals, etc "nearby" in asteroids. Once we get to the point where we can build a Mars colony we should be able to harvest the asteroids for what is needed.

      • by Jeng (926980)

        In that case it would be more efficient to mine the asteroids before setting up a Mars colony since the asteroids would be one of the prime building materials.

        • At which point, what is Mars for?

          • by Jeng (926980)

            A manufacturing, consolidation, and distribution point.

            • You don't put a major hub in a place that's hard to get to, unless there's some other overwhelming advantage. We build ports in deep water bays because it's easier to get large ships in close to shore, we build distribution centres near wharfs to be close to the transport hub. We build trading posts at cross-roads. We build agricultural centres near rivers, or at cross-roads. We likewise build power-plants near available water. We build manufacturing hubs near available power and transport.

              Mars has no natur

          • At which point, what is Mars for?

            Mars is closer to the asteroid belt and would make a more practical outpost for mining and processing operations. 1/3 the gravity of earth aids such operations that need to be ground based rather than orbital. Plus without a biosphere to protect such processing can be "dirtier".

            • If you are able to mine the asteroid belt, why do you need Mars? Put your facilities where the resources are, or closer to your markets. (As we do on Earth.)

              If you need acceleration (gravity), you can spin just the processing equipment for centripetal acceleration. Certainly for less than the cost of trying to land the raw material on Mars, process it, then relaunch it off again to reach the market. That 1/3 gravity affects launches too, remember. You virtually need the same launch infrastructure as you hav

    • It's hard to find words for the kind of abject abuse and ethical poverty involved in raising children in 1/3 G, in an environment that is otherwise much more hostile than Antarctica.

      And there's our clue that colonies (as opposed to bases where adults work) are not feasible for the forseeable future: Antarctica doesn't have even a single colony.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why not Moon first?

  • Knowing that much of the early science experiments and resources on either the Moon or Mars will be dedicated to finding ways to survive the harsh conditions of either location, what do you see being the second tier science being performed from either location (other than the obvious search for life on Mars)?

  • by na1led (1030470) on Friday July 13, 2012 @11:58AM (#40639639)
    Will there be subterranean facilities built, or will the base be all above ground? Seems more logical to use the Moons natural resources to protect the astronauts.
    • by rraylion (1406761)

      Hello, related to this question, and the following question for that matter:

      With Mars' lack of a magnetosphere and the MARIE experiment failing due to high radiation levels coupled with no ozone layer to absorb UV light, what hope do humans have of using the surface of the planet or introducing flora?

      Would it not be more practical to send robots to the Moon and set up infrastructure in an experimental effort to identify problems. Granted the two are VERY different environments, atmosphere, and gravity, but

      • Would it not be more practical to send robots to the Moon and set up infrastructure in an experimental effort to identify problems. Granted the two are VERY different environments, atmosphere, and gravity, but surely the money saved on fuel and communication time would give the Moon a a very strong case to be first settled.

        That's kind of like using the Sahara Desert to test for problems and issues in setting up a colony under the Arctic ocean. No amount of money saved or decreased communications time can m

  • by cje (33931) on Friday July 13, 2012 @11:59AM (#40639651) Homepage

    One of the biggest impediments to long-term settlement of Mars is the fact that it lacks an Earth-like magnetosphere to protect surface dwellers from solar flares/CMEs and other forms of energetic particle radiation. Similarly, the very thin Martian atmosphere provides little of the protection that the Earth has from photon-based radiation (e.g., UV/X-rays, etc.)

    How much of a problem is space-based radiation for future Martian settlers, and what would be the best way to deal with it?

  • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:03PM (#40639691)
    In comparing 4Frontiers and Mars One, it looks like there are two competing companies working to establish outposts on Mars and both have similar plans for funding - virtual tourism and monitoring of the participants.

    The Apollo program was an ambitious program to land humans on the moon. If you consider that it started with Kennedy's speech in 1962 and ended with Apollo 17 in 1972, it only lasted 10 years but the astronauts could all be brought back to Earth to live out their lives.

    Even though civil unrest and budget issues led to the demise of the Apollo program, and no humans have visited the moon since, underneath it all was a very quick loss of interest by the public. The world stopped to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon, but by Apollo 17, the US broadcasters had stopped live broadcasts and had resorted to very short updates during the evening news.

    Sending humans to mars is for all practical purposes a one-way trip and those humans will need to be supported for the rest of their natural lives. They simply won't be able to create manufacturing facilities essential to be entirely self-sufficient. With the loss of interest in the Apollo program and the presumed inability to bring humans back to earth if either 4Frontiers or Mars One programs/companies cease operations before all of the astronauts have died, what happens to the astronauts or what will be done so that they can live out a full, and to whatever extent possible, enjoyable life on mars?
    • In comparing 4Frontiers and Mars One, it looks like there are two competing companies working to establish outposts on Mars and both have similar plans for funding - virtual tourism and monitoring of the participants.

      Your question about declining interest is a valuable one. I fail to consider that in order to fund their mission, the resulting "reality" show would have to be more popular than any other show - ever. By several orders of magnitude.

    • Along these lines, since there are two competing companies with similar funding/support plans, both planning to build and populate outposts on mars, how do you plan to work with the other company in the event either of you run short of funding/support? Would you allow the other colony to take up residence in your colony? What if it would overrun resources available to sustain your colony?

      What about the other side of that coin? How would you work with the other colony if 4Frontiers was to see the end of f
      • With two colonies on mars, won't that then become a ratings war as each tries to be more interesting to viewers and not be canceled[...]? How far would colonists be expected to go in order to maintain interest and viewership?

        Damn, now I do want to watch that show.

    • It's worth pointing out that millions of people watched some of the least interesting humans on the planet do nothing more than share a house [wikipedia.org] for a few months, a dozen at a time, for over a decade. At one point, the UK devoted an entire TV channel to nothing else, even while everyone in the house was asleep - with a second channel showing exactly the same thing but delayed by an hour. You know, in case anyone missed any of the really good bits, like snoring.

      I'm excited to think we can go to Mars, but at t

  • Terraforming? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SternisheFan (2529412) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:08PM (#40639747)
    I have read that by introducing fast spreading/oxegyn producing lichens, that Mars' could be 'terraformed' into having an breatheable atmosphere within 300-400 years. If this is correct and feasible, is this dea going to be incorporated into your plans? Thank you and best of luck with this exciting endeavor!
    • by the gnat (153162)

      I have read that by introducing fast spreading/oxegyn producing lichens, that Mars' could be 'terraformed' into having an breatheable atmosphere within 300-400 years.

      There isn't enough CO2 in the Martian atmosphere right now for this plan to be viable. There is some in the ice caps and in the form of frost, but I thought it was unlikely to be enough for terraforming. More likely, you'd have to bring in frozen CO2 from asteroids, comets, and gas giants, which is a huge undertaking. (Of course, after you d

      • Hey, Earth has lots of extra CO2! :D

      • Wait, wait, I don't think Mars needs any more CO2:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Mars [wikipedia.org]

        • by the gnat (153162)

          Wait, wait, I don't think Mars needs any more CO2:

          Sorry, I may be mixed up - it's probably the nitrogen base that needs to be imported (or produced locally, but I don't know if that's feasible).

        • 95% at a pressure of .6 kilo-pascals. The ratio is fine, drop some plants down and let them do their thing, eventually you'll have O2 to breath, just not nearly enough. If there were more CO2 on mars, much, much more, you could break it down into a breathable amount of Oxygen. Though it gets kind of tricky if that's all you add, because CO2 is poisonous in high concentrations even if there's O2 to breath so you'd probably want to keep the pressure low, and the O2 content high. Or ship in a few billion t

      • by na1led (1030470)
        At least Mars doesn't have 7 Billion people to F--- things up.
      • by Rei (128717)

        There is some in the ice caps and in the form of frost, but I thought it was unlikely to be enough for terraforming.

        Quite true. There's a common myth that Mars has vast quantities of dry ice, but in reality, the northern polar cap is estimated to rarely get more than (if I'm remembering the numbers correctly) a meter or so deep, and the southern cap, 8 meters, in terms of dry ice. The rest is water ice.

        Lots of water ice on Mars, at least...

      • More likely, you'd have to bring in frozen CO2 from asteroids, comets, and gas giants, which is a huge undertaking.

        True. And in which case, why not biologically process it in-situ before exporting it to Mars. Ie, build a series of multi-100km wide bubble-habitat in free space, for the algae/lichen/plants to efficiently turn CO2 into O2, right next to where you're extracting the CO2. Unlike on Mars, you can better regulate pressure and temperature to optimise the process.

        But, as I've said elsewhere, after you've got all that lovely O2... what's Mars for?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Would they be consider a state of the founding country? What if the colony is founded by a private, multinational company? What laws would apply and how would they be enforced? I'd move to Mars if it meant I no longer had to pay taxes

    • by rraylion (1406761)

      Could you expand on this question:

      Like all colonies on Earth from the Imperialism era where there was the land grab in Africa to the American colonies: Once colonies become self sufficient their cultural base wants increased taxes because the colony operates like corp, but the people living there treat it as home and want independence from a culture that is not in touch with their day to day lives. How do you suppose to guarantee funding for Mars exploration while protecting the future of the endeavor from

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Is'nt food more of a challenge on Mars than power.
    It strikes me with such a difficult project you should tackle the largest problem first.
    Even if you need power to create food if you can’t grow food in the first place it would all be for nought.

  • How do you enjoy living on Mars so far? What's the culture there like? Do you ever miss Earth? Would you recommend it as a retirement destination?

  • by SternisheFan (2529412) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:16PM (#40639837)
    Wouldn't a moon base launch facility be more economical, fuel-wise, for the journey to Mars?
    • Wouldn't a moon base launch facility be more economical, fuel-wise, for the journey to Mars?

      Assuming you could manufacture the fuel on the moon, yes.

      And there's enough evidence of water ice on the moon to suggest that manufacturing LH2/LOX there might be feasible.

      For that matter, LOX is 80+% of the mass of the typical LH2/LOX mixture, which means you can just manufacture the LOX there and make it worthwhile. And you can get LOX from rocks, with enough solar panels....

    • That's kind of like buying an eighteen wheeler to haul your minvan across country. The minivan will get great gas mileage, having consumed none to travel a vast distance...
       
      Or, in other words, no. The vast expense of setting up fuel infrastructure on the Moon is not balanced by the vanishingly small amount of fuel you'll save on the vehicle.

  • by nazsco (695026)

    Where will you acquire enough toilet paper for long term life support on mars? or, what's the alternative and why it's not being considered on earth right now?

  • Do you have any plans to construct and take along a small (e.g. washing-machine sized) factory that can run on solar power and spits out small amorphous silicon solar cells?
  • by fritsd (924429) on Friday July 13, 2012 @01:02PM (#40640303) Journal
    There is probably lots of iron oxide on the Martian surface, and you'll want the oxygen and iron.

    Have you considered what kind of reducing agent you'd bring along to reduce it? Or are you planning to reduce something else electrolytically (e.g. aluminium) and obtain it that way?

    Cheap reducing agent would probably also come in handy to remove the perchlorate from the soil so your worms and plants thrive a bit better :-)
  • Considering the advances we are making in robotics, what is the justification for having humans in the settlement already in "Phase 1"?

    It adds a huge overhead to the project; not only in the obvious forms such as food, water, air, radiation protection, space suits, which are all heavy and extremely costly to ship to Mars. But also in the form of safety standards (equipment failure on Mars will likely mean the death of the person operating it). And it also leads to the problem of biosphere contamination.

    I th

  • Why should I care anymore? I'm serious, not being trolly here. We get so many promises about space decade after decade that never pan out to even a fraction of what was projected. Why should I not see your shiny prognostications as just more dreams that will evaporate when we wake up to some problem or pragmatic issue?

  • Most of the science-fiction movies and anime I've watched show humans living in space as though it were simply an extremophile version of Earth. The space children of the future might wear space suits when they go to school but are otherwise no different from the astronauts of today. To me, this depiction of ordinary carbon-based humans living in space seems to belong to the same quaint category as the flying car and Star Wars.

    Instead of thinking up some grandiose terraforming scheme or building gigantic space stations, wouldn't it be more practical simply to let information technology progress first to the point where we can copy our minds to artificial bodies that can survive in space without the need for artificial gravity, thick radiation shielding, or cold sleep?

  • What about sending up a handful of terraforming, replicating nanobots that will eat up all the bad stuff and poop out good stuff on Mars? This seems like the cheapest option, and there is only one technology barrier: inventing the nanobots.
  • Considering that Mars is even more uninhabitable of a place to live vs any place on Earth I am wondering which technologies that are being developed for living on Mars may help us live sustainably in rather uninhabitable places here on Earth such as Death Valley or the Atacama Desert?

  • by david_thornley (598059) on Friday July 13, 2012 @02:04PM (#40640989)

    Assuming we send people to Mars, we either need to send a way for them to get back (very expensive), or send whatever the colony needs for survival long-term (also very expensive), bearing in mind that people's medical needs tend to increase as they age. A compromise would be to send the colony first and come up with return tickets later.

    What do you see as the comparative economics of each approach? Roughly how much more expensive would this make the trip?

  • biome (Score:5, Interesting)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday July 13, 2012 @02:11PM (#40641031)

    To date, all attempts to create a sealed and self-sustaining biome have failed; Maintaining the air quality over long periods of time is presently an unsolved problem. At present, there's no way for your settlement to completely untether from Earth: You will need regular shipments of supplies, if only to maintain the air quality. Supplies which can only be replenished through industrial processes available here.

    How do you plan on addressing this major problem?

  • Concerning building living areas, I remember reading in an old Popular Science an idea of building low cost 'moon-homes', and even space stations, via a machine that would scoop up lunar soil, compact it into cubes which are somehow sealed. Then, taking advantage of the moon's low gravity, the cubes can be 'catapulted' precisely to anywhere on the moon, or space, to be caught and stored until later use and assembly. Have you and your students given this idea any consideration, or would spraying sealant o
    • by Jeng (926980)

      Rather than a sealant, wouldn't really high temperatures in a solar oven work in order to fuse it into a solid block?

  • by Rei (128717) on Friday July 13, 2012 @02:23PM (#40641161) Homepage

    I wrote an essay about this in more detail here [dailykos.com]. To try to sum up: People often talk about colonizing another planet like early settlers colonizing the New World. But that's a bad analogy. Early settlers had dramatically simpler technology trees that they could readily assemble with their bare hands. Human survival on Mars depends entirely on new and replacement parts using modern technology (everything from CO2 scrubbers to space suits), which means to be self-sustaining, you have to implement a large chunk of our modern technology trees on Mars. How would you plan to do this staggeringly massive feat?

    To elaborate on what I mean by "technology trees": Let's say you have a metal part designed to handle high temeratures, say, in some forge. High temperature alloys are typically some mix like titanium, nickel, and iron. So now we have three metal requirements; let's trace back the one that's usually easiest. Iron is typically produced from iron oxide, coke, limestone, oxygen, and fluxing agents such as fluorspar and magnesium minerals, as well as insert gases to ensure proper mixing, water for watercooling of parts, etc. That went from one required resource to "a bunch". Not to mention all the new parts you need to maintain and replace when they break: crucibles, slag skimmers, tubing of all sorts, valves of all sorts, cranes with cables and pulleys, bearings, and on and on. Now, iron oxide is readily available to be mined on mars. The others not so much. On Mars it gets a bit easier using the Linz-Donowitz process instead of a blast furnace, so you'd probably burn methane from the Sabatier process with insufficient oxygen from electrolysis with low-sulfur iron ore (sulfur reduced by yet process to generate the sulfuric acid needed for other industrial processes, since getting sulfur from petroleum isn't possible on mars). Limestone isn't as readily available on Mars; you need to use oolitic lime, or maybe dolomite as a substitute. And of course you need to mine and refine your fluxes (each of them having their own refining proceses).

    Notice how quickly it expands? It keeps on going because each of those processes have their own inputs with their own processes and even something that sounds extremely simple - say, mining some abundant mineral - would involve a staggering array of mining machines (each with tons of parts to wear down and break, as well as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, etc), bucket loaders, trucks, separation processes (float baths, etc), ball mills, and of course various leaching and rinsing stages, all imparting their own dependency trees. Modern technology is dependent on tech based on tech based on tech; it's the nature of the beast.

    If you want to try to at least simplify the "refining" stages, yes, there are other less "industrial" processes that can be used for isolating minerals, like, say, plasma centrifuges. But the rub is that everything has an opportunity cost, and when you're making yourself consume vast amounts of energy, labor, or separation facility resources in order to produce only small amounts of resources, you're imposing brand new requirements on what your colony must produce to yield those newly-imposed demands. Then on top of this, you have the fact that not every resource will be found in one spot. As on earth, Mars would need to ship resources from all around the planet. So you need to have a planetary transportation network that can move things in bulk, with minimal energy usage and usage of other consumables.

    Raw elements must become compounds and alloys, in a variety of forging and refining processes (just think of the crazy complexity of an oil refinery and chemical plant for an example). Compounds must become parts, in a variety of casting and milling processes (and with the scale of all of the above, "one-off" rapid prototyping processes like 3d printing don't cut it except for suitable rare parts, or you hit the

    • you nailed it on the head. Thank you. I am going to copy and paste this whenever some technophilic idiots say "C'mon! Let's go put colonies on Mars!" I will credit you appropriately. You get a gold star for the day.
    • http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/ [kurtz-fernhout.com]

      Never really got off the ground so far though...

      See also this paper I co-wrote and presented to the 2001 SSI conference on doing all that as an open-source project:
      http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/SSI_Fernhout2001_web.html [kurtz-fernhout.com]

      Or my graduate school plans from the 1980s:
      http://www.pdfernhout.net/princeton-graduate-school-plans.html [pdfernhout.net]

      Of course, decades later, this may all seem obvious. I've ended up working more more towards a general purpose social-semantic desktop ideas,

  • I would like to know your thoughts on muon fusion for mars and trips to mars. muon fusion is a great alternative to nuclear fission if muons are available, and outside of earth atmosphere there are a lot of muons although I admit I don't know if there are enough to provide adequate power. upside is safety, simplicity, need to protect against radiation anyway.

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