Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IAC 2014 - Day 3: An Independent Review of the Mars One Proposal

I know I should be writing about day 3 here, but yesterday, after submitting my day 2 entry, I attended perhaps the most compelling symposium of the conference; it was all about manned missions to Mars.  I can say with some confidence that nothing today will top it, so this entry will focus entirely on the exciting presentations that took place yesterday afternoon.

Most of the conference rooms hold about 150 people in it, and it is rare that a room is more than half full.  But I had a feeling that this symposium about Mars missions would draw interest, and sure enough, it spilled out the back of the room.  The first few talks were rather benign: A plan to land on Mars by 2030, recommendations by several experts in the field on planning the first mission, and a commentary on the social and legal structure of the first Martian society (nothing more compelling than reading the novel Red Mars).

The fourth presentation was introduced by the session chair as 'something special', and he was right.  Five students from M.I.T. wrote a paper challenging the proposal for Mars One.

For those unfamiliar, a short while ago, a couple of guys from the Netherlands with deep pockets hatched a plan to get a small crew of regular people to Mars by the year 2024.  They put out a detailed proposal and also put out a call for volunteers (apparently, thousands of people were keen at the prospect of a one-way trip to the red planet).  The M.I.T. students took all of the information from the proposal, and independently verified its feasibility.

They essentially constructed a virtual world (like SimCity but on Mars), which could simulate everything from the growing of crops to the consumption of air by the crew.  They then input everything from the Mars One proposal into the simulator and were surprised by the results... The entire crew was dead by day 68.  The spellbound space experts in attendance gasped and then laughed (it is a simulator after all).

What went wrong?  In essence, as the crops matured, they released a large amount of oxygen.  When the oxygen level in the enclosed space gets too high, it must be reduced to avoid any risk of fire.  When this situation arises on the ISS, nitrogen must be pumped into the space to reduce the percentage of oxygen in the air.  While this reduces the fire risk, it makes the air less conducive to breathing.  The simulation showed that the crops produced simply too much oxygen for the system to safely compensate for it - so the first Mars crew had to choose to die by fire or by hypoxia (they chose hypoxia).

In addition to this apparent oversight, the Mars One proposal seems to have grossly underestimated the amount of supplies from Earth that a Mars settlement will need - in particular, spare supplies (contingencies, etc).  The M.I.T. team concluded that the proposal underestimated the number of launches per year and cost per year by about 5-10 and tens of billions of dollars, respectively.

When the presentation ended, the audience erupted.  Forget Derek Jeter's final baseball game, this is something to get excited about.  The most compelling question from the audience was: "Has the Mars One team got an answer for these serious concerns?"  The response of the team was, "We told them about the study before we did it, but they never responded.  We should probably try to contact them again."

When the next presenter took the stage I thought, "Poor guy - an impossible act to follow."  But I was wrong.  The presentation was by an engineering company who has put together a plan and preliminary design for an enclosure that allows for long-term stasis similar to hibernation.  Think of the Alien film franchise, and you'll remember those chambers that allow the crew to sleep through most of a long voyage through space.

At a minimum, the trip from Earth to Mars will take six months.  There are many challenges associated with such a journey, such as radiation exposure and the psychological effects of being in a small space with other people for six months.  A chamber inducing a form of hibernation could not only address these challenges, it could also significantly reduce the mass of the spacecraft as the crew could potentially sleep through the whole journey, eliminating the need to move around.  Reducing mass by a factor of 50% is unheard of on a space project, but that is the kind of impact that these devices could have on a Mars mission.

The way it works is that crew members sit inside a chamber of sorts, hook up a feeding tube (input) and a peeing tube (output) - there is no excrement when the only input is fluids - and the body temperature is slowly reduced by several degrees, reducing the metabolic rate significantly.  It is like a managed hypothermia.

The approach is actually used in hospitals with some trauma patients.  Patients have been put into this state for up to seven days in the past.  This engineering team is proposing to extend this to perhaps six months.  Upon arriving at Mars, the crew members will need about eight hours to return to a normal state of consciousness.

The presentation concludes; again, a wild ovation.  This is exactly where I want to be right now.  

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