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Mars Space Technology

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

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

    I wrote an essay about this in more detail here []. 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

We gave you an atomic bomb, what do you want, mermaids? -- I. I. Rabi to the Atomic Energy Commission