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A new report finds that, if humanity's first colony on Mars were implemented with the plan, as is, it could fail after only 68 days, and for a reason most of us probably never even considered.

Suffocation? Starvation? Incineration? Success? What will be the fate of the Mars One colony?


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, October 16, 2014, 3:27 PM - Dozens of people (including Canada's Andrew Rader, above) are still in the running to become the first human colonists on the Red Planet. However, despite Mars One's assurances, a new study is saying that their proposed colony would be at significant risk of failure, as the colonists would die of starvation, suffocation, or incineration, in as little as 68 days.

Mars One is still in the beginning stages of their plan to put the first human colony on Mars. With their list of candidates whittled down to 75 people, from all around the world, they will soon open up the roster to a public vote, taking the total down to 24 potential Martians - six teams of four people each. While these people are scheduled to begin training in 2015, the company will continue raising funds and developing its technology, with a roadmap that will launch the first robotic mission starting in 2018, and put the first four human colonists on the planet in 2025 (updated from 2023, as stated in the video above). After that, four more colonists would arrive every two years, and this would presumably continue until they had sent all six of their initial crews and quite possibly more as further crews were chosen. The idea behind this mission is to bypass the biggest limiting factor to human missions to Mars - the difficulty in making the return journey to Earth. For anyone who goes to the Red Planet with Mars One, it would be a one-way trip, as they would spend the rest of their lives building and maintaining humanity's first off-world colony.


Credit: Mars One

However ambitious the plan, it has seen (perhaps more than) its fair share of detractors.

The initial claim by many was that it would be a suicide mission. However, that claim is somewhat unfair, given that the intention would be to journey there and survive. Even if there was an accident, it would no more be a 'suicide' than boarding a plane to fly across the country or to another continent. It's possible something bad could happen, but stepping on that plane certainly wouldn't be considered a suicidal act, so neither should signing on to be one of the first Mars colonists.

There have been claims that it's just not economically feasible. That's a legitimate concern, as travelling between planets is not cheap, even when it's just a robotic mission. Mars One founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp has certainly done his homework, though, speaking to representatives from aerospace and technology firms around the world to estimate the costs of his plan, and he has been hard at work securing funding to implement it. Still, this is one of the concerns raised in this new MIT report, penned by Sydney Do and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and presented at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto a few weeks ago.

The report says that Lansdorp's financial figures will only cover a little over one-third of the $4.5 billion it estimates for the mission cost (compared to Lansdorp's $1.625 billion). Also, the costs of the mission would rise the longer it went on, due to the added resources needed as the colony grew.

However, it's what the report predicts for the colony - if it actually does get to Mars and get set up - that's a bit more scary.

Suffocation

The colonists will be bringing along an air supply of course, and the colony plans involve growing crops to sustain that air, but Do and his colleagues point out a surprising problem with that idea. Oxygen levels in Earth's atmosphere are maintained as plants and animals respire and some gases are lost into space. If the colonists grow enough crops to meet all of their food requirements, the plants will actually raise the oxygen content of the air in the enclosed colony to dangerous levels. According to the report, without a way to remove the excess oxygen, this would require the colonists to vent air out into Mars' atmosphere to lower the oxygen content. However, this would mean also losing nitrogen along with it, and since the colony's nitrogen supply would be limited, they would eventually run out, the air would become too thin to breathe and the colonists would suffocate to death. The report estimates that the first deaths from this could occur after just 68 days on the surface of Mars!

Along with this danger is the risk of hypoxia if they don't produce enough oxygen from crops, carbon dioxide poisoning if the CO2 levels get too high in the colony air, and even suffocation due to cabin under-pressurization.

Starvation

This one depends on how much food the colonists bring with them, versus how much they grow on site, but the MIT report brings up issues with both options. Food brought along on the trip would not sustain the colony long-term and crop failures could put the plan in jeopardy as well. Dehydration is also a problem, due to limited supplies of water they could bring and the difficulties in extracting water from the Martian soil.

Incineration

Part of the same problem as suffocation, if food crops raise oxygen levels in the colony atmosphere, this raises the risk that a random spark somewhere in the habitat could start a devastating fire. Incineration is the first and most immediate result, but it would compromise the habitat oxygen supply and possibly the habitat structure itself. Any way you play this one out, the colonists wouldn't survive.

Success?

So, given this rather bleak outlook for Mars One's plan, should it be abandoned? According to Lansdorp, no.

He's not just stubbornly supporting his plan, though. There are some flaws in the MIT study that he points out, especially the basis for the report's assumptions about the colony's oxygen levels.

"It's based on technology available on the ISS [International Space Station]," Lansdorp told Universe Today's Elizabeth Howell in an interview. "So you end up with a completely different Mars mission than Mars One. So their analysis has nothing to do with our mission."

The Mars One plan is to use existing technologies, such as the 'pressure swing adsorption' methods used in hospitals today. However, as Do and the others pointed out in a Reddit AMA, "while Mr. Lansdorp is correct that O2 concentration via pressure swing adsorption is a technology that is used on Earth, no O2 removal technology has been developed for spaceflight. The process of developing a technology that can be used on Earth into one that can operate reliably in an extraterrestrial environment is very involved. We want to be clear, however, that we are not saying that this is impossible - instead (as noted in the paper) we mention that the implementation of an O2 removal system would require new technology development in order to prepare the Earth-bound technology for use on Mars."

The report isn't all doom-and-gloom about the idea though. While it does make a very frank analysis of the plan, and finds that Mars One's own idea of using only existing, off-the-shelf technologies (as opposed to producing new ones) will likely mean that it won't be feasible, it does go on to make recommendations that would help with the success of such a colony.

The first is that bringing all food along with the colonists would be more efficient, since the mass of the food would be less than the mass of the equipment needed to grow crops. This would also eliminate the problem of too much oxygen building up in the habitat, thus removing the threats of suffocation due to low air pressure and incineration due to a random spark. Also, it would be interesting to see an 'intermediate' option, where some food was brought and some was grown, to see if an efficient balance could be struck that would benefit the colony's survival.

A second is to develop manufacturing capabilities that could be brought along with the colonists, since most of the cost increases of the colony would involve needing more spare parts with time, thus requiring more rocket launches to deliver those supplies. 3D printer technologies are already making strides in this field, including the printing of metal parts, so who knows what will be available, off the shelf, by the time the first mission launches in 2024?

Further recommendations involve development of technologies for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) - ways of using local resources (soil, minerals, water, air etc) for the colony's needs, and systems to manage oxygen that have been tested beyond the environments they're used in here on Earth.

In a statement on the MIT website, Do and his colleagues said: "We have great respect for the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Mars One program has generated and our goal is not to detract from this, but rather to drive it forward - towards enabling affordable, sustainable Mars colonization."

What do you think? Does Mars One's plan have a chance? Voice your opinion in the comments below.

(H/T to CNET.com)

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