Building The Blueprint For Life On The Red Planet

Building The Blueprint For Life On Mars

What is needed to make life on Mars sustainable for a long time? The main essentials of human life include air, water, food, and shelter. However, people require more than just the basic essentials to live comfortably. The Mars One project is becoming a more discussed topic by the media and public in general by the day. One interesting discussion is the speculation of how the first Mars settlers will create a lasting community on the planet.

The supplies that will be transported from Earth are likely to run out – most of them will probably be used in the seven-month journey to the red planet. When those first citizens arrive on Mars, they will have to come up with systems and processes to ensure sustainable resources for their future. In a nutshell, this is what they may be required to have. Even though humans will be able to produce numerous renewable resources on Mars, they will still need consistent funding from Earth.

According to the Mars One project, the estimated initial cost of settling the first four Mars citizens is around six billion dollars. Cost overruns are also a huge possibility. Future funding of this plan would come from donations by private investors, more so because the U.S has proposed budget cuts to space exploration funding. What began, as a grassroots cause might become a fierce global marketing campaign to get steady financial support.

A small leak in cash flow may cause trouble.  Space travel comes with a ton of health risks. All astronauts go through a thorough medical screening before undertaking a mission and they are monitored from Earth the entire time. However, this close monitoring will not be enough for permanent life on Mars. It is essential for all citizens to be able to access modern medical care.

It is almost impossible to have physicians of every specialty on Mars. Medical robots could act as a good alternative to diagnose the IBM Watson prototype and other conditions. Preventive medical technology such as early-warning software to preempt strokes, heart attacks, seizures, and other events might help. The use of minimally invasive robotic surgery to treat some conditions is also another option. All of these choices still call for equipment, facilities, and expertise. Communication with Earth is vital because of safety, technical support, and research.

Nonetheless, as the Mars community grows, the citizens will need stand-alone channels of communication among themselves. Creating a network of underground cables for the Internet and communications would be costly. A better choice is satellite phone and Internet. Humans and structures have to be protected from the environment. Too much exposure to dust storms, severe climate shifts, and radiation are some of the factors that astronauts need to be concerned about.

Southwest Research Institute has proposed plastic shielding for protection against cosmic radiation as well as wearing lead protective clothing and thick insulation. For structures, a strong outer coating might do. There are so many things to be considered when it comes to life on Mars. Examining them and coming up with solutions increases the chances of dual-planet existence. How will humans live on the red planet? An MIT team created a design concept in answer to this question as part of an international competition, Mars City Design 2017. The competition concentrated on sustainable cities on the red planet to be built within the next century.

The winning urban design by MIT, titled Redwood Forest, built tree habitats or domes, each with a capacity of up to 50 people. These domes offer open, public spaces with plants and water, obtained from the northern plains. The tree habitats will sit on top of networks of roots or underground tunnels that will give access to private spaces and convenient transportation to the rest of the tree habitats in the community. The roots will not only offer connectivity, but also protect residents from extreme thermal variations, micrometeorite impacts, and cosmic radiation.

The MIT team consisted of Caitlin Mueller, assistant professor, and postdoc Valentina Sumini leading nine students from various research groups and departments. Speaking on the project, Sumini says that the city will functionally and physically replicate a forest, utilizing the local resources on Mars such as regolith (or soil), water, the sun, and ice to support life. The forest-like design is also a symbol of the potential of growth as Mars transforms into a green planet.

Each tree habitat consists of an inflated membrane structure and a branching structural system. Since the design workflow is parametric, each habitat is different and is part of a diverse forest. The team seeks to create a comfortable environment for colonists using system architecture and location focused on sustainability—a very critical element for any Martian community.

George Lordos MBA ’00, the man responsible for the Redwood Forest system architecture, talked about the crucial role of water in developing vibrant communities on the red planet. He said that, in the Redwood Forest, each tree habitat would use energy from the sun to process and distribute water to the tree.

Water enters the soft cells in the dome and provides the much-needed protection from radiation, supplies hydroponic farms, and manages heat loads. Solar panels generate energy to break up the stored water for rocket fuel production, oxygen and charging hydrogen fuel cells (these are necessary in powering long-range vehicles and also for backup energy storage when dust storms occur).

According to the designers, most of the features in the Redwood Forest design could also be used on Earth. For instance, electric vehicles using underground multi-level networks might help with the congestion in cities in America. The tree habitat idea could help in creating working and living spaces in very harsh environments such as the sea floor, deserts, and high latitudes. Hydroponic gardening underneath cities could offer a steady supply of fresh vegetables; fish and fruits with lower transportation and land costs. Other member of the MIT team include AeroAstro PhD students Matthew Moraguez,

Alejandro Trujillo and Samuel Wald, Alpha Arsano SM ’17 (Architecture PhD student), Kamming Mark Tam MEng ’15 (research fellow), John Stillman and Meghan Maupin (Integrated Design and management Program graduates) and Zoe Lallas (Civil and Environmental engineering undergraduate). There is an easier way to launch humans to the red planet—the Martian mission could refuel on the moon. This is the suggestion of an MIT study.

Past studies have shown that water ice and lunar soil in specific craters of the moon can be mined and made into fuel. Assume that the necessary technologies are developed when the mission to Mars is set to take place; the MIT team has discovered that a detour to the moon for refueling would cut the mass of the mission by 68%. The team built a model to figure out the best route to the red planet, with the assumption that fuel-generating infrastructure and resources are available on the moon.

They determined that the most mass-efficient path would involve launching a crew with fuel, just enough to get it into orbit around Earth. Tankers of fuel would then be launched into space from a fuel plant on the moon. The Mars-bound crew would pick up the tankers, go to a nearby fueling station and refuel before going on their way. This plan is different from NASA’s direct route. It is against the common idea of how to get to Mars, where you have to go straight, carrying everything with you.

This new detour idea is unintuitive. However, from a big-picture view, it could be the most affordable option. Space exploration programs have employed two major strategies in providing resources to mission crews: the carry-along strategy, where all resources and vehicles accompany the crew at all times and the resupply strategy, which involves replenishing the crew with resources on a regular basis. However, the more humans go beyond Earth’s orbit in exploration, the more these strategies become less sustainable. The destinations are far away and budgets are limited.

The team suggests that missions to distant destinations will have a lot to gain from an “in-situ utilization” supply strategy; where resources and provisions such as fuel, oxygen, and water are produced and collected on the way. The resources generated in space would be used in place of those that would otherwise come from Earth. Ishimatsu came up with a network flow model for various routes to the red planet to see if manned missions would benefit from infrastructure and fuel resources in space. The routes range from a direct flight to those with several pit stops on the way.

The purpose of the model was to reduce the mass launched from Earth. The model focuses on a future situation in which fuel can be produced and distributed from the moon to certain points in space. According to the model, fuel depots are situated at specific gravitationally bound places in space, known as Lagrange points. Ishimatsu argues that this research highlights the importance of having a resource-producing structure in space. He goes on to say that it may not be necessary for the first mission to Mars but its presence will make repeated trips easier and more sustainable. Although the goal is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, a ‘road in space’ will make interplanetary travel more affordable. 

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