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Moon Mars

Joseph Palaia Answers Your Questions About Building Lunar Machines and Mars 63

Posted by samzenpus
from the listen-up dept.
Last week you asked Joseph Palaia, Chief Operating Officer & Director of research laboratory Earthrise Space, Inc. about living on Mars one day and building moon machines with students. Below you'll find his answers to your inquiries.
Can Mars ever hope to be self-sustaining?
by crazyjj
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?

Joseph: Yes a Mars settlement can be self-sustaining. Mars possesses all of the natural resources needed to support agriculture and industry. Mars has also been subjected to the same geological and volcanic processes which have been experienced here on Earth, and these processes concentrate resources. The location for the first Mars settlement will be selected to be in relative proximity to concentrations of a variety of key mineral resources. Early infrastructure sent from Earth will focus heavily on mining, refining and manufacturing tools and equipment which can be used to extract raw resources from the local environment and process these materials into useful products (such a structural materials, air to breath and water to drink). The CO2 Martian atmosphere itself is a resource which can be concentrated and used to support industrial processes, and to produce fuel and oxygen. As for water, there are regions near the Martian equator which contain greater than 50% water ice or hydrated minerals (minerals which contain water bound into their structure). Soil on Mars can be conditioned to be quite good for plants, with the main issue being a lack of organics. Initial agriculture will be hydroponic, but suitable soils can be built up over time through composting of inedible bio matter. Cold temperatures don’t stop humans from living in the far north or south here on Earth, so why would this stop us on Mars? And as for weak sunlight, there is still enough sunlight at the Martian surface to allow for the use of photovoltaics, and nuclear power will supply the rest of what is needed.

The Martian settlement will work over time to first become material self-sufficient (food, water, air, at first low-tech building materials and later higher tech materials) and then eventually will shift focus to working on energy self-sufficiency. But there will be time for this, as the initial nuclear reactors sent from Earth can be designed to last for at least 10 years before requiring refueling.

Other Science Missions
by RapidEye
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)?

Joseph: I feel that you are correct, in that a lot of the early science investigations conducted will focus on how to locate and extract indigenous resources. However there are a lot of different science investigations which will be enabled by the fact that you will have astronauts and their tools on-site in these locations. Certainly there is the search for life as you point out, but there is also a wealth of knowledge to be gained regarding comparative planetology. In learning more about how Mars formed and the processes which alter it, we will learn more about the evolution of the solar system in general and may learn lessons which can be applied to improve our understanding of the Earth and its formation.

My personal focus has always been on understanding how we can create infrastructure and grow a settlement on Mars. I am not a scientist per se, and while I appreciate and encourage science investigations, for me personally that is not the reason that we will go to Mars. We will go to Mars for the challenge. We will go to Mars to become the builders of a new world, and through that challenge we will learn and grow as a society just as society has learned and grown from the challenges we have faced and overcome in the past.

Build Subterranean Base
by na1led
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.

Joseph: For both the moon and for Mars, building underground or building above ground and then covering the facility with regolith (rock and soil) makes a lot of sense. Both Mars and certainly the moon have much higher radiation environments on the surface than Earth. By burying the habitats and other structures you can provide some protection from this radiation. You can also place shielding materials between the structures and the rest of the environment (water or plastics for instance anything which contains a lot of hydrogen).

Re:Build Subterranean Base
by rraylion
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 surely the money saved on fuel and communication time would give the Moon a a very strong case to be first settled. I have heard the arguments that rocket fuel can be easily made with late 1800's techniques from the CO2 rich atmosphere. Do those arguments hold any water?

Joseph: You asked a number of questions here. Let me address them one by one.

Your first question seems to concern how do we get plants and people out of the well shielded habitats and onto the surface. Radiation effects can be mitigated sufficiently using shielding technologies built into spacesuits and surface vehicles to permit humans to travel across, explore, and be productive on both the surface of the moon and on Mars. This will especially be true if the time durations spent there are limited. To improve productivity, we can also make use of telerobotics. This would be robots operated in real-time by astronauts working in safety and comfort from within the habitat. One might ask why such robots couldn’t be operated by remote control from Earth well they certainly could be, but remember that there are significant time delays involved, especially between the Earth and Mars. This makes teleoperation very difficult. Operators on the moon or on Mars would not have to deal with this time delay. Regarding how to get plants to survive and thrive on the Martian surface, there have been some recent studies which have shown that there are radiation and lower pressure resistant life which would fare well on Mars. With advancements being made in genetic engineering every day, I have no doubt that this is a solvable problem.

There are certainly a lot of good reasons that we might want to send people to the moon, but unfortunately it would make a poor place for a permanent settlement. While true it is much closer to Earth, thus reducing transportation times as well as time delay to send and receive signals, the moon is lacking in three key resources. These resources, which are absolutely critical for agriculture and industry, and carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. So any settlement on the moon would be focused on trying to find very very efficient recycling systems to conserve and reuse these resources, and would need to import these materials in order to expand and grow the settlement.

Regarding making rocket fuel with 1800’s technology and the CO2 atmosphere on Mars, that’s absolutely correct. I would encourage you to read The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin which outlines the technology needed in detail. Dr. Zubrin actually built a working demonstration unit several decades ago when he was working for Martin Marietta.

Protection from space-based radiation
by cje
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?

Joseph: I’ve already addressed some of this question in my previous responses. In short, we bury or shield the habitats, provide “solar storm” shelters (essentially hollow water tanks) which the settlers can take refuge in for the relatively short duration solar flares / CMEs, incorporate shielding technology into space suits and surface vehicles, and make use of telerobotics where possible.

As for UV, there are numerous UV protectant / blocking coatings which are used here on Earth so this shouldn’t be a problem at all.

Sustainability of the Project?
by NeverVotedBush
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?


Joseph: I won’t debate you point for point, because there is simply too much here that I disagree with. I’ll answer you with some general comments:
  • 1. 4Frontiers started essentially as a series of research studies where we examined the feasibility of creating a Mars settlement. While our personal ambitions are to pursue this until it happens, I am under no illusion that we have answers to all of the issues which people raise or that we even understand all of the challenges we will face! This is a tremendously large and complex undertaking. We will need to work on this over time.
  • 2. One of the biggest challenges, as with many projects, is funding. I encourage the Mars One program to continue its efforts, as I believe we need more people exploring the issues related to creating infrastructure to support humans on Mars but I have not yet examined their information in detail so I don’t know how feasible or well thought out it is. Regarding their funding plan, one thing that I have become convinced of over the past several years is that no single funding strategy will work for creating a Mars settlement. The Mars One approach (reality TV / media coverage) is certainly one possible funding element to consider, but I am not sure how significant it will be compared to other funding pathways. I feel it is just one element of what will need to be a much broader and complex funding strategy.
  • 3. I agree that it will not be possible without a great many years of effort for a Mars settlement to become completely self-sufficient. But where I disagree with you is with regards to how much self-sufficiency is necessary. I think you will find that many of the most massive items which will be needed for the settlement (building materials, consumables such as water and gases, etc) are relatively low-tech items to produce. Many high-tech items (computer chips, sensors, etc) are relatively low mass (and so can be imported with only minimal impact on program cost). Another thing to think about here is how many cities here on Earth are completely self-sufficient? Are any? Trade is a necessary part of life here on Earth and I think it will also be a big part of life on Mars (trade between different settlements) and in space (trade between Earth, Mars, the moon, asteroids, and other locations where humans will conduct work and live).

Re:Sustainability of the Project?
by NeverVotedBush
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 funding and then be unable to support your own colonists?

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 (or at least keep revenue coming in) by whatever media outlet is supporting your colony/company? How far would colonists be expected to go in order to maintain interest and viewership?

Why not work with the other colony/company from the outset instead of competing? It would seem that competing on such a venture is going to doom one of the colonies. Funding for one is questionable enough. Funding for two and competing for public interest could ultimately doom both, couldn't it?


Joseph: Who said we were competing?

How do we get the energy we need to mars.
by Anonymous Coward
Any human base seems to depend on a long term high energy source, in the case of mars the only viable option is a nuclear reactor. Is there any approximate energy requirement basic mining and extraction will need to consume ?

Are any of the current nuclear powerplant designs able to operate in Mar's gravity, atmosphere, and temperature range. Is this something that should be actively pursued ? Are there any powerplant designs that can be shipped to mar's as a whole piece or will they all have to be shipped in parts ?


Joseph: Thank you so much for asking this question. You are dead-on. A Mars settlement will need an energy rich environment to support a human population, including agriculture and industry. 4Frontiers has completed an initial analysis looking at energy requirements for mining, refining and manufacturing. Let me refer you to the following book chapter which was authored by 4Frontiers personnel which includes that information: Palaia J, Homnick M, Crossman F, Stimpson A, Truett J. (2009) Economics of Energy on Mars. In: Badescu V. Mars: Prospective Energy and Material Resources. New York: Springer. Ch 13 p369-400.

There are existing nuclear reactor designs which would be appropriate for use on Mars, but they are not optimal. This is an area which deserves a lot of attention. This is one of the reasons I studied nuclear engineering at MIT in order to get an understanding of this exact question. We have team members with the appropriate skill sets and experience lined up to work on the challenge of creating an optimized nuclear reactor design, and building and testing that design. What we lack currently is the funding to actively pursue this. But we know this is a high priority item and will pursue it aggressively as funding becomes available.

Why Humans?
by pyzondar
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 think it is very obvious that the scientific ROI is vastly higher for an installation that is strictly electricity driven. Achieving ore extraction and flexible equipment manufacturing so that the base can both replenish itself and expand seems both more economically rational and technologically feasible. And once that is in place, we can get a nice little settlement ready and pre-built for when the first humans arrive.

Joseph: We will certainly send equipment and materials ahead of time, to ensure key assets, equipment, tools and supplies are safely on-site before we commit a human crew. But in terms of setup of equipment or actual operations, it’s largely impossible to do this even taking into account recent advancements in robotics technology. Robots cannot adapt to new situations rapidly the way that humans can. They cannot improvise or innovate on site to overcome challenges which are faced. And robots cannot accomplish nearly as much in a given amount of time as a human on the scene can. For example, all of the geological investigations and exploration conducted by the Mars Exploration Rovers in their several years of operations on the surface of Mars could have been accomplished in one or two days of effort by one or two human field geologists.

I also disagree with you regarding the link between equipment failure and death on Mars. Equipment will be designed to facilitate human troubleshooting and repair. Redundant and backup systems will eliminate single point failures and allow a crew on-site time to evaluate the failure and come up with workable solutions. Certainly humans will be more dependent upon their technology for their very survival than they ever have been before in human history but they will be there to solve problems as they occur, and they will be armed with the knowledge, experience, tools and materials to allow them to tackle whatever challenges they face. Will there be danger and hardships? Yes. But this is no different from how things have been on every frontier in human history.

biome
by girlintraining
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?

Joseph: Closed-loop life support experiments (such as Biosphere 2 and some work by NASA) have focused on 100% or nearly 100% closure. This is where absolutely everything is recycled and reused. We’re not even going to attempt anything approaching this. It’s not necessary (although obviously the more we trend in this direction, the more efficient our operations become). The needed raw materials are on Mars, we just need to send the equipment, tools, and trained personnel to make use of them. If you run low on oxygen, split some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and generate some more. If you run into a problem with carbon dioxide buildup in the habitat’s atmosphere (like they did in Biosphere 2) then just vent the entire habitat (or one section at a time) and start fresh. Better yet, build a regenerating scrubber. Need more water? Go mine more. As long as you have people on the scene with tools and equipment, and enough energy (provided by nuclear reactors brought from Earth and backed up by solar and wind), the settlers will survive, and likely thrive, for as long as they care to stay there.

On creating living areas...
by SternisheFan
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 on pre-existing cave floors/walls be more feasible for living quarters?

Joseph: There are a lot of different ideas out there regarding how to build habitats on the moon or on Mars. I’m more familiar with habitat construction on Mars, so that’s what I’ll address here.

As you may realize, due to the low air pressure (about 1% of Earth sea level) any structure constructed on Mars will need to be a pressure vessel of some kind. You need to balance the outward forces exerted by the atmosphere contained within the structure (at a comfortable pressure approaching Earth’s sea level) with equal and opposite forces. If you don’t, your structure will explode. At the same time, it would be nice to have a structure with some inherent structural strength to it, so that should you have to open the structure up to the outside atmosphere (low pressure) it won’t collapse.

A number of studies have looked into masonry structures with some type of soil overburden (soil piled on top to push down and counter the outward forces of the internal air pressure). This will work, but the problem with masonry (brick or block) structures is that they are very labor intensive to build. Construction by robots may allow you to somewhat overcome this limitation.

Some individuals have looked at using natural caves on Mars and applying some type of spray sealant to the inner surface. This may be possible but as I mentioned in a previous answer, we will want to locate the settlement where there are concentrations of resources. Imposing the additional constraint of finding a suitable cave, and verifying the structural integrity of this cave, may be untenable.

The construction techniques looked at most closely by 4Frontiers are welded steel pressure vessels, reinforced concrete poured structures (where pre-stressed steel rebar provides the inward force to keep the structure together against the internal air pressure), and spun fiberglass vessels.

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Joseph Palaia Answers Your Questions About Building Lunar Machines and Mars

Comments Filter:
  • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @02:56PM (#40702387) Homepage Journal

    How they going to contend with dust on Moon? From what I understand from astronaut reports, that super-fine, gritty regolith sticks to everything through static charge. Got a plan to keep that stuff from gumming up the bits of anything you are running?

    • Considering how long the Martian rovers operated in that dust with no human intervention beyond taking advantage of the Martian winds to clear it off and in spite of less-than-optimal preparedness for it, I'm sure we'd be able to find a way to compensate for it.

      • Just to clarify - I know he was talking about the moon, but dust has been a major issue on Mars so that's why I pointed at that - especially since in the Q&A he made it clear that Mars is a much better place than the moon for a major permanent settlement.

      • Re:Foo. I missed it. (Score:5, Informative)

        by camperdave (969942) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @03:37PM (#40702855) Journal
        The dust on Mars has been blowing around in the wind for centuries. All of the sharp edges have been pounded away. Dust on the Moon, being an airless environment, has just been sitting there and is as razor sharp as it was millennia ago. Ask yourself this: Would you rather be dragged through ground glass or beach sand?
        • by fj3k (993224)
          To be perfectly honest, I would rather not be dragged through either of them.

          Can we not find a better way?

    • by Spy Handler (822350) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @03:16PM (#40702611) Homepage Journal
      They're going to solve the dust problem on the Moon by simply not going there. They're going to Mars instead.
    • How they going to contend with dust on Moon? From what I understand from astronaut reports, that super-fine, gritty regolith sticks to everything through static charge. Got a plan to keep that stuff from gumming up the bits of anything you are running?

      Charge the object with the same polarity as the dust. Voila: dust is repelled.

    • Re:Lunar Dust (Score:5, Informative)

      by DanielRavenNest (107550) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @05:04PM (#40704149)

      I am the mythical "they" you mention, in that at one point I was studying taking Space Station modules to the Moon. I was working at Boeing, on the Space Station project, and naturally we wanted to sell more modules. Lunar dust was definitely the #1 issue that needed work. We came up with several approaches:

      * Paving things - roads and landing pads are places you tend to kick up dust, so focus sunlight into concentrated areas and melt the regolith to pave it.

      * Electrostatics - it's correct that the dust tends to stick to things via static charge. So you can also use static voltages to repel it, either charging up your modules and rovers, or wands you can wave over things.

      * Removable spacesuit overalls and equipment covers, or hatches in the back of the suit, so the suit itself stays in the airlock.

      * Blower, suction, or wash sprays in a "pre-airlock" area. This does not have to be full breathing pressure, but a cleaning chamber before you enter the main airlock.

      Which of those will work best, or if you just live with it and replace filters and worn out parts, will take lots of testing, including on the Moon for real (vacuum chamber tests with simulated Lunar soil only go so far).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 19, 2012 @03:31PM (#40702759)

    Both these companies are either scams or run by scammers. none of them will ever produce anything more than a reality show for astronaut applicants and take the cash and run.

  • but I'd still like to have my "why should I care" question answered given the caveats I gave, but I got modded down for not being a True Believer.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I am all for science and space exploration, but we need to get our priorities straight. There are so many more important things that we could do here on Earth, like building a particle accelerator that goes around the equator, which is kinda rediculous idea in itself, but so is the notion of sustainable space exploration with our current technology.

    • Building a particle accelerator that circles the earth is tough. It's a vacuum chamber so needs vacuum pumps, power, and would be vulnerable to sabotage, tampering, part theft, etc. Plus you have to float it across oceans and span mountains.

      Build it in space. It's just a giant ring. The walls don't have to be very strong since you aren't supporting against atmospheric pressure. You don't need much in the way of pumping because you can simply vent to get to a very good vacuum. Power could just be supplied
  • Can we put a breeder reactor on Mars?
    That would certainly resolve the issue of refueling and would give Martians long term energy security.
    And I can't imagine we'd need to worry about nuclear proliferation or dirty bombs on Mars.

    • You might want to take a look at what a breeder rally is. It uses the neutrons from fission of one material to create another fissionable material from a non-useful isotope. After you "breed" the new isotope, you still need to process it to create fuel suitable for another reactor that can burn this other fuel.

      The only benefit of a breeder is that you can turn a non-useful isotope of a material into a useful one. But you need pretty sophisticated facilities to recover and process that new fuel.

      It make
    • Re:Nuclear Power (Score:4, Interesting)

      by slew (2918) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @07:35PM (#40705781)

      Can we put a breeder reactor on Mars?
      That would certainly resolve the issue of refueling and would give Martians long term energy security.
      And I can't imagine we'd need to worry about nuclear proliferation or dirty bombs on Mars.

      Well it is obvious that if we actually can get a standard reactor on mars, we could instead put a breeder reactor, but maybe we really won't want to do this.

      I think many people have a misunderstanding about breeder reactors. They are not magic fire-and-forget nearly-perpetual energy machines. The benefit of breeder reactors is that they have extra neutrons available flying around to make nuclear fuel from what is called fertile material (e.g., U238) which it converts to fissile material (e.g., P239) which it can then use as fuel after reprocessing***. Generally, most common breeder reactors need to have the fuel reprocessed (usually a very nasty industrial chemical separation process more complicated that standard U235/U238 separation) to achieve their benefit. The built in assumption of a breeder is that it is cheaper to reprocess than find and mine new uranium to refine. This certainly hasn't turned out to be true on earth (but maybe it might be true on mars, hard to say)...

      Also, known breeder reactors are all "fast-neutron" reactors (e.g, they don't slow down the chain-reaction neutrons very much so that they can escape the core to breed a surrounding blanket of fertile fuel). This means they need different coolant system (usually liquid sodium). It is unforutnate that nobody has seemed to come up with a cooling scheme for a breeder that has very good safety properties. With a typical reactor, if you lose water and cooling, like Fukishima, then neutrons don't slow down and at least the chain reaction slows/stops (as on average fast neutrons are then easier absorbed by the bulk of the U238 in the fuel, than the 5% of U235 which would chain so it's essentially sort of breeding instead of chaining when the neutron-slowing water is lost). In current cooling systems for breeders, since it's designed to chain w/ or w/o coolant to slow down the neutrons, you don't get this inherent safety property. This requires extra safeguards to prevent core explosions (as opposed to just core meltdown from the residual heat). Also liquid metal coolants tend to get highly radioactive when exposed to this level of fast neutron flux, so that makes it a very tough material science problem to get high reliability in the cooling system (soduim fires are the biggest problem with breeder reactors on earth).

      It seems to me that it would be better to have a more reliable reactor design and spend effort at getting better fuel efficiency for the fuel you have (higher fuel burnup percentage), without relying on a breeder w/ reprocessing for a small colony that didn't want to invest in maintaining complicated industrial processes.

      **If you don't consider reprocessing, even standard nuclear reactors "breed" some amount of fuel which is immediatly "burned" (although they are not optimized for that). The most important measure of this is the "burn-up" percentage (an indication how much energy they extract from the fuel you have). Without fancy reprocessing, there isn't too much difference between a breeder reactor and the latest generation of high-burnup standard reactors.

  • Holy crap someone built Mars, I had no idea. Always thought it was a natural phenomena resulting from the creation of our star but oh well.

    Unless they mean "Mars and Building Lunar Machines" which goes to show that "Grammar does Matter". -_-

    • "Grammar does Matter"

      Is that some kind of linguist porn movie?

      • Is that some kind of linguist porn movie?

        Oh no I just realized that I could have done so much better on this one.

        "Grammar does Matter",
        is obviously a sex-ed movie for linguist - physicist couples.

  • by Thaelon (250687) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @04:18PM (#40703469)

    Why not mercury?

    The sheer (solar) energy abundance alone would seem to almost make anything possible...I'm no expert, but Wikipedia says it gets 4-10x as much energy and with a near 700K surface temperature the place should be just swimming in energy...right? Obviously the colony would have to be underground (where there is also a lot of geothermal energy.

    What that much free power available, couldn't we do just about anything we had the raw materials for? Drop a few mineral rich asteroids on the planet and you've got those...

    We have the ion drives to move asteroids (slowly) already...

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      ..hell why not just scoop energy directly off the sun? worked in elite, right?

      asimov had one short story about mercury mining iirc.. technically the temps might allow for playing with the idea.

    • I think the difficulty of coping with the high temperatures on Mercury offsets any solar energy bonus. And then some.

      It's not like lack of energy on Mars is a critical problem, we already know how to get/generate sufficient energy there.

      • by Thaelon (250687)

        Surely a km or two below the surface would help? Again, I'm not an expert, obviously.

        It's not like lack of energy on Mars is a critical problem, we already know how to get/generate sufficient energy there.

        Sufficient for what?

        I was just thinking Mercury wouldn't have sufficient energy, it would have abundant energy.

        • Sufficient for what?

          Sufficient to run a colony.

          Surely a km or two below the surface would help?

          Oh you wouldn't have to dig down that far. You wouldn't even need to dig 100 meters let alone 1km. Probably 30 meters underground and you'd have a nice comfy bunker.

          Problem is, digging out an underground base 30 meters deep would require bringing heavy earthmoving equipment. Those things weigh a lot, like 20 tons each. Plus you need to make the bunker structurally sound, so you need to bring steel reinforcing beams etc. and that's a lot of weight also. And the people are gonna nee

    • by dryeo (100693)

      Mercury is one of the hardest places to get to in terms of delta-v which is the reason there has only been 2 probes there.

  • Nitrogen... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by slew (2918) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @04:30PM (#40703683)

    I'm a bit surprised at the answer concerning the soil on mars and the presumed ease of creating a self sustaining agricultural development.

    Plants that we know of need nitrogen in the soil and as far as I understand it, there really isn't a good source of nitrogen on mars (atmosphere 95% CO2, 3% N2 on mars, vs 78% N2 and 20% O2 on earth). On earth we have nitrogen-fixing bacteria, nitrogen-fixing plants (like legumes), and even fossil fuel powered fertilizer to help "fix"-nitrogen into the soil for growing plants, but in each of these cases, the source of nitrogen is from the air. Although decaying plants will release some of their nitrogen back into the soil, this isn't 100%, so energy-efficient recycling won't get you all you need to be sustaining and doesn't address how to get enough Nitrogen there to start with...

    This would seem to be a really big impediment to creating a self sustaining agricultural development on mars until this problem is solved.

    • That is a legitimate concern. Looking for sources of nitrogen will be one of the first things that the colonists will be doing, I imagine.

      Meanwhile, you bring the nitrogen with you. The nitrogen requirements for a small colony isn't so huge as to be a deal-breaker... the weight of it would be a small fraction of the water and food you'll be bringing along.

      • I'm curious about the sunlight intensity, will plant growth be very slow on Mars? The Russians wanted to put up solar mirrors here could we do the same there? Or how about the "soletta" from "green Mars", basically a giant magnifying lens to concentrate light?
        • I'm no botanist but I doubt sunlight intensity will be a problem. Sunlight on Mars is like 50%-60% of Earth and the shortfall can be compensated for with LED lights or mirrors like you said. Plants that grow in the shade (on earth) wouldn't even need any supplemental lighting.
        • by tragedy (27079)

          Insolation on Mars is 44% of insolation on Earth based on the distance from the sun. However, the differing conditions on Earth and Mars push that up to effectively 60% of the insolation on Earth. This is mostly due to the light atmosphere and lack of sun-blocking weather. Even in the harshest dust storms, virtually all of the light still reaches the ground.

          Basically, plant growth won't be as great as the equator, but it won't be as bad as Antarctica either. Ground-based solar concentrators and maybe grow l

          • Is it possible to build a big magnifier like the author suggested? Mylar mirrors shouldn't be too hard, but the lens idea was pretty cool, space-based construction to up the isolation to earth normal.
            • by tragedy (27079)

              Possible, sure. Practical for a small colony, no. A geosynchronous orbit on Mars is about 17,000 km from the surface. No practical space mirror is going to be able to focus light on any usefully small area from that kind of distance. The only way you could do it is to make it incredibly gigantic. If you have terraforming in mind, then that could work. If you just want to provide extra light to a small colony, it won't really work. Closer orbits could shine light into a relatively tightly focused area around

    • as far as I understand it, there really isn't a good source of nitrogen on mars (atmosphere 95% CO2, 3% N2 on mars, vs 78% N2 and 20% O2 on earth).

      The atmosphere of Mars may only be 3% nitrogen, and only .6% the density of Earth, but it's still a lot in absolute terms.
      Easy to get, and unlikely to run out.

      With a reactors worth of energy and maybe a tonne of compressor, it's reasonable to liquify and separate it into CO2, Nitrogen, Argon, and water.
      My very rough estimates are about 10kWh to produce one kg of liquid nitrogen (about 1m^3 worth of 100kPa air).
      A decent sized habitat has maybe 200m^3 of air.
      A megawatt power plant, and you could fill that in

    • by tragedy (27079)

      You pointed out yourself that the atmosphere is 3% nitrogen. Even though that makes the concentration of nitrogen only about .025% of the concentration on Earth, there's still a massive amount of it available. It's just a matter of choosing the most reliable/energy efficient method to extract and compress it. Whether that's using custom zeolites filters or cryogenic methods or chemical/biological methods is still up in the air, but it's clear that colonists won't have trouble actually finding nitrogen, they

  • NeverVotedBush asked three or four interesting questions, and Palaia avoided answering any of them just by saying "Who said we were competing?"

    It doesn't answer at all the first question or two of "what do you expect one colony will do if the other fails." It's kind of an answer to the last two questions of "how will competition affect things" and "do you think competition might be detrimental to the projects?" but only by dismissing the question entirely. Every time two companies are doing closely relate
    • Thanks, Daetrin. I was also hoping for an answer. I had heard of Mars One but not 4Frontiers when I saw the call for questions. Either group by itself sounds like it could be plausible if handled right, but two companies competing raises the stakes a bit I think and they do need to consider what to do if the other settlement loses backing. I also think it would be easier for one company to justify backing out if they think there could be a place for their settlers to go. So what do they do with the extra lo
  • One method that I've head of for building an underground habitat was to bury a small nuke underground and set it off. If buried deep enough and the yield was small enough you'd end up with a large cavity underground. There is the issue of left over radioactivity, but it might be possible to remove the radioactive layers of material from the cavity with robot mining equipment and shield over what is left.

    • by tragedy (27079)

      Project Gnome [energy.gov] was an experiment to create such a cavern in a salt deposit. There's a photo of someone standing in one of those caverns in the link. Considering the instability of such caverns, the guy in that picture has to be pretty brave. The Wikipedia article on Underground Nuclear Testing [wikipedia.org] talks about these caverns. The process is well enough understood that they have specific names for the zones that form in the rock around the melt cavity: "crushed zone", "cracked zone" and "zone of irreversible strain

  • Nobody asked this question: what happens when one of your permanent Mars colonists gets cancer or some other disease that may have only a small chance of being cured on Earth but none on Mars, and there are months of headlines of how an astronaut is dying of cancer on Mars?

    Even worse if the disease is one that does have a high cure rate on Earth. Imagine the headlines then.

    This problem alone is likely to mean the project will never happen.

    • Nobody asked this question: what happens when one of your permanent Mars colonists gets cancer or some other disease

      Then they fucking die.

      Even worse if the disease is one that does have a high cure rate on Earth. Imagine the headlines then.

      I'd imagine the headlines would be like, "MARS COLONIST X DIES OF CANCER"

      This problem alone is likely to mean the project will never happen.

      If all of mankind consisted of ninnies, pantywaists and worrywarts who desired 100% safety 100% of the time and worried about the sky falling all day, then yes I agree with you. Otherwise no, there are people who like adventure and willing to take risks.

      • by Naso540 (2304414)
        Anyone who is willing to boldly go where no man has gone before probably isn't worried about disease risk.
    • by tragedy (27079)

      If my observations of typical reality shows hold true, then what happens is that the ratings go through the roof. The biggest sellers in that sort of entertainment seem to be sex and human tragedy.

      In any case, if a Martian colonist is dying a very public death of cancer far from help, maybe it will help people to think about all the people who die from disease _right here on Earth_ who simply don't get help. Maybe it can be turned into a net positive.

      Also, if it has "only a small chance of being cured on Ea

      • by Jiro (131519)

        It's going to be worse if the disease would have a good chance of being cured on Earth. There are going to be headlines about how we left the astronauts to die, no matter that they accepted the risk going in.

        • by tragedy (27079)

          Sure, but there will still be billions of people around the world getting worse medical care than the colonists will.

    • by cusco (717999)
      Two things happen. First, there are months of headlines, which improves the show's ratings. Second, the person dies. We all die some time, I'd prefer doing it while conducting an experiment that will help get humanity off of a single planet and start our movement into the wider universe, and people like me would be the most likely candidates for a mission like this. I personally think that NASA's 'zero casualty' goal for all of its missions has held us back from exploring the frontier like we could be d

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