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NASA Mars Science

The Challenges of Building a Mars Base 228

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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  • Find a big cave (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:33PM (#38639906)

    and build it in there.

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:03PM (#38640266)

    My point is for us to build a base on Mars practically

    You could have stopped there. It is not an economically feasible operation on any scale larger than "send a couple geeks there to do some science". It may be scientifically interesting, and we may have a lot of NASA geeks get hot and bothered over the prospect of months cooped up in a small cargo container surrounded by inhospitable environment, but there is nothing you can find on Mars (or anywhere else) that would be economically practical to extract and ship back to Earth.

    Look at the size and tonnage of the ISS and other space vehicles & modules, then look at their living capacity. You will not have large scale colonization and exploration of space - for economic or survival purposes - without overcoming significant swaths of our current understanding of simple physics.

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:03PM (#38640274)

    The NASA video shows them bringing whole hab in on 3 semi-trailers - Why not airdrop the major components in, and see if putting the thing up while encumbered with a suit is feasible.

    Testing is done in stages. First see if we have the concepts and solution correct with basic equipment. Then figure out how to ruggedize the equipment. If the concept was flawed or the basic equipment lacking then ruggedizing would be a waste of time and money.

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:07PM (#38640324)

    Maybe NASA is so smart that they've ruled that out already as impractical?

    If Sarah Palin can come up with "Drill Baby, Drill," I'm pretty sure the brainiacs at NASA with all their learnin' have at least considered the notion.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:11PM (#38640376)

    I'm always confused by base designs for other worlds that are invariably above ground. Why waste the protective features of just burying things?

    I suppose it's difficult to dig a base into the earth but because there's very little atmosphere to speak of you have no real protection against radiation. And then there are questions of insulation. Put twenty feet of dirt between your habitat and the surface and all sorts of problems go away.

    No problem with micro meteorites since they'd have to penetrate 20 feet of dirt to even touch your habitat.

    No problem with radiation unless it can go through 20 feet of dirt. I know really hard radiation can... but that has to take most of the edge off it. And if needed you can always go deeper.

    No problem with dust storms because it's all raging above you. I suppose a dune could position itself on top of your access shaft but there are some fairly cheap ways to make that manageable.

    So on and so forth.

    this goes double for the moon. For the love of god there's not even a weak atmosphere on the moon. No protection. Put the facility down twenty feet though and you can inflate your little habitat to your heart's content knowing that the whole place isn't going to get stabbed by a thousand micro meteorites or flash burned by a solar flare.

    The only thing that really needs to be on the surface is an access shaft complete with airlocks. A communications array so you can broadcast to orbital relays or directly to earth. And some solar cells. Bury everything else.

    If we build underground we might not even need those somewhat elaborate bubble walls they're talking about inflating. We might just be able to get by with something to harden the earth up and then maybe a spray on polymer to make sure the walls are airtight.

    If people want to see the surface they can use one of the video feeds or climb up the ladder/take the elevator to the surface.

  • by realisticradical ( 969181 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:11PM (#38640378) Homepage
    So it sounds like there are multiple extremely difficult problems to work through. Isn't that kind of the point of this sort of thing?
  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:32PM (#38640674) Homepage

    " it's the fact that you can't transmit data back out of the cave. "

    Bet you $1000 I can. It's actually east to do.

    It's not possible to communicate to a satellite in the sky with microwave signals from a cave that has no direct line of sight. but it is indeed very possible to transmit data out of a cave and back in. It is done all the time. See how they map the aquifer caves in florida. guys can walk around above ground to follow and talk to the divers underground in the cave and under water.

  • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:46PM (#38640832) Homepage Journal

    Because it's VERY expensive to ship earth-moving construction equipment (sorry, MARS-moving equipment) through space, and it'd take far too long to dig a habitat with a shovel.

  • by ReallyEvilCanine ( 991886 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @04:06PM (#38641132) Homepage
    Heh. me giving a sober assessment.

    It's not about the will to do it (although that does play a role). The minute the copycyt Chinese land on the Moon the US -- possibly together with Russia &/or the EU -- will put an Apollo-type effort into getting to Mars. Hell, Just read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars (ISBN 978-1-85168-780-0) and see what nearly insurmountable problems there were in getting to the Moon, and she really only deals with life sciences, not physics.

    The problem is that we can't realistically get a payload of sufficient size there. The technological hurdles are easy; the problems are physics and biology. We can build a dozen rockets, take advantage of orbital mechanics for unmanned segments, launch 'em off three full-size gantries together so that one launch window serves three machines.

    But before we even think about getting the people there we still have to figure out how to arrive, orbit, and then land precisely -- repeatedly -- unmanned, all while dealing with the 8-minute radio delay in the best of circumstances.

    The problem of human physiology is even worse than the physics problem. We can come up with odd trajectories and multiple burns and en-route dockings to provide additional fuel to carry such things out. Have you ever seen the astronauts coming back from 3-6 months on the ISS? It takes a huge fucking crew [] to get them out of the return vehicle and into recovery. It takes three strong men just to pull those poor bastards off the couch and out of the capsule. And that's from LEO. There ain't no recovery crews waiting on Mars.

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @04:28PM (#38641478)

    You do realise that there are some planets in our own solar system, right?


    You do realize that none of the other planets in our solar system will support human life - that any colony or structure we build there must be *entirely* self-sustaining, self-contained, and extraordinarily fault tolerant - right?

    You do realize that building and shipping a habitat that will house a mere handful of people will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and that's a low-ball estimate, right?

    You do realize that "6 people in a tin can orbiting one of Jupiter's moons" does not provide any appreciable insurance for the human species against extinction events, right?

    If you want to send people to do science for a few months, great. But let's stop pretending that we're ever going to build a large-scale colony on another planet when that planet is fundamentally incapable of supporting human life. The energy, time, and financial costs are far too high for it to be anything but a "because we wanted to see what would happen" sort of thing.

    Mars is fundamentally inhospitable to human life. The rest of our solar system is fundamentally inhospitable to human life. This fairytale notion that we're going to magically whisk ourselves away to another planet, star system, galaxy, etc. and live there is just that: a fairytale notion. We better learn to behave well here on earth, because this is all we've got until we learn to violate our fundamental understandings of time & distance to enable faster-than-light travel.

    Any attempt to convince yourself that we will build a self-sustaining colony on another planet or other body inside our solar system which will be entirely self-contained & self-sustaining - i.e., capable of supporting human life indefinitely in the midst of an environment that is hostile to human life - is just delusional mental masturbation, and simply enables us to continue behaving in self-destructive ways in our own habitat here on earth.

  • Re:Find a big cave (Score:3, Insightful)

    by everett ( 154868 ) <efeldt&efeldt,com> on Monday January 09, 2012 @05:06PM (#38642032) Homepage

    No moon? So where does your claim leave Deimos? Phobos?

  • by lennier ( 44736 ) on Monday January 09, 2012 @05:43PM (#38642570) Homepage

    The threat we're guarding against is that of having a vast number of people stuck in a single biosphere, all complex unpredictable people, occasionally inventing new and dangerous things. A few decades ago, nuclear war seemed like the manifestation of that. We got past that hurdle with civilisation intact. How many more inventions like that will there be? How many times can we pass the test?

    I don't know what new doomsday weapons might come down the physics pipe (at the moment, realistically speaking, it's looking very much like physics has reached a centuries-long dead end and won't even be able to got fusion working, and the huge surge of discoveries in the 20th century was a weird spike anomaly which won't be repeated) - but also realistically speaking, there's no plausible scenario where any kind of war or world-killer device could make Earth less habitable than Mars, without also stuffing the rest of the solar system.

    Consider: to get a colony onto Luna or Mars, we're going to have to create a fairly reliable space shipping network. It won't be a case of "one launch, one ship, one colony, no followups". Apollo took more than 10 ships just to put boots on the ground. Soyuz/Progress/Shuttle/Mir/ISS have done multiple service flights per year just to replace consumables. Any longer-term space habitation program will grow out of these existing initiatives, and will require creating a space transport infrastructure which will most likely remain once the colony is self-sufficient. (Bear in mind that achieving true self-sufficiency may be a matter of centuries, not decades; even if Mars Base Alpha can grow its own water and oxygen like ISS currently can't, there'll still be skills and resources like doctors, engineers, replacement seeds, trace minerals, etc which require special flights. Even Earth city-states never became completely isolated from trade.)

    Also consider: the energy requirements for regular, reliable space shipping are similar to that required for city-busting weapons. If you can launch a chemical rocket into orbit, you can launch an ICBM to bomb Moscow or Washington (and in fact, in our history, the ICBMs were easier and came first). If you can put lots of cheap fusion drives on commercial rockets, you can probably smuggle lots of cheap fusion devices into office buildings. If you can divert asteroids for mining, you can also divert asteroids to smash Earth cities. So realistically, space shipping will require space policing and the extension across the solar system of (possibly fairly draconian) state monitoring and control of reactor fuel and drive flares - just like our current space traffic control has grown out of NORAD's missile monitoring. And space is lots of empty vacuum, very hard to hide things in, very easy to detect signals from a distance. Habitats will also (at least initially) be very fragile, very exposed to terrorism, and very aware of the delicate social balance needed for survival. So don't expect space to be a big wild west of freedom - expect the opposite, a tiny well-lit, pressurised, glasshouse filled with lots of big rocks and many very nervous people with guns watching everything.

    Also consider: the energy requirements for making Earth less habitable than, say, Mars already is, are absolutely stupendous. A simple nuclear war with every bomb we have wouldn't do it. Mars is bathed in radiation as it is; Jupiter's moons have far more; Venus is a hell of boiling sulphuric acid CO2 gas; Luna will just straight-up kill you with vacuum if you get a tear in your suit, and we don't even know how toxic or carconigenic moon dust might be to breathe (tiny nano-chunks of harsh dust, think asbestos). Global warming? Not a chance it could compare. If all the ocean levels on Earth rose ten metres, we'd still be far better off than Mars with its no oceans; at a pinch we could build undersea habitats using a tenth of the technology we'd need to even start looking at Mars. Boil Earth dry, irradiate it to hell, it's still better than Mercury. So u

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