Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mars Colony - Bad Idea

Subtitle: A One-Way Death Voyage

The idea of sending men (and presumably, women) to Mars, and having them establish a base in which to live has long been discussed. NASA has a webpage on the subject. (see link)  This article, and subsequent articles, discusses the Mars colonization issue from the perspective of an experienced process engineer.   The conclusion is grim: A Mars colony has very little hope of success due to very difficult conditions on Mars, the frailty of humans, and inevitable decay and malfunction of processes.   Evidence is presented from a variety of sources, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and NASA's own studies.  
credit: NASA website

To begin with the basics: humans require several things for life.  These things include (but are not limited to) breathable air, drinkable water, palatable and nourishing food, heat or cooling to maintain the body within a narrow comfort range, medical care, sanitation, protection from intense radiation, and protection from deadly meteors that fall from the sky.  For a colony to be self-sustaining, basic biology dictates that a sufficient number of unrelated people be included to produce healthy children.  

The conditions on Mars are now fairly well-known: the atmosphere is unbreathable, even corrosive; water exists but requires great effort to make clean enough for drinking, cooking, and bathing; ambient temperatures range from a few moments of 70 degrees F in daytime down to minus 200 F at night; soil is likely poisonous to plant life; radiation at the surface is deadly, plus the radiation penetrates as much as 3 feet into the surface; and the atmosphere is too thin to effectively burn up meteors.   As if those conditions were not sufficient, the long journey from Earth to Mars requires prospective colonists to endure strong, inter-planetary radiation.    

Ideas for colonies generally attempt to overcome these obstacles.   There is typically some energy source to provide electricity that is then used for air production, heating, lighting, and powering various equipment.   The energy source typically is stated as solar photo-voltaic, or PV.  What is not stated is the very weak solar energy at Mars' distance from the sun, nor the difficulty create by tremendous dust clouds that obscure the sun.   How much the PV system will be degraded by wind-blown dust is not mentioned much, if at all.   Storing the limited PV-provided electricity for use at night and during dust storms is a major issue.   

Living quarters must be enclosed to keep out the thin Martian atmosphere, and retain the human-tolerant air inside.   The pressure inside is much greater than that outside, so any leaks or punctures will send precious air out into the atmosphere.  That air must be replaced.  Living quarters must also provide shielding from deadly radiation from space, and from meteors of any size that smash into the surface.   Some proposals call for cave-like living quarters located under the surface.  

One recent MIT study (see link) showed the plans for growing plants would result in a poisonous air composition within a short time due to an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, CO2. 

It is assumed by colony proponents that seeds will survive and be viable after the long journey from Earth, even after being exposed to deep-space radiation.  Studies on Earth show that seeds are detrimentally affected by ionizing radiation. 

One of the greatest problems, though, is the impact on mechanical systems and especially their lubricants, from fine dust found on Mars.  It is as yet unknown how long a system would operate before the grit in the dust causes the mechanical systems to fail.   It may be that filtration or cyclonic systems can be designed and implemented to reduce dust-related failures.  

The lack of spare parts, and additional food to sustain the colonists are issues to be considered.   It is likely that unmanned, resupply ships must be sent on a regular basis to the colony.  Given the long transit time, it will be difficult to obtain needed parts and supplies on a timely basis.  This is not like contacting an internet store and having the items appear at your doorstep the next day.   Crop failures, and critical equipment malfunctions, could and probably will cause early death for the colonists. 

Finally, for this article, the basics of biology dictate that Mars colonists should not have children.  A small gene pool would result in birth defects in subsequent generations.   Proponents might respond that that problem can be overcome with sperm banks and ova, however the technology to successfully perform artificial insemination may be far beyond that found in a Mars colony. 

UPDATE 1 - 5/31/2015.  

Regarding spare parts, some have mentioned the 3-D printers would solve that problem. That may actually be true, in a very limited set of circumstances.  Perhaps a plastic o-ring seal can be made to replace one that failed.  However, it is questionable (meaning I seriously doubt this one) that an item made of stainless steel, shaped in a forge with high heat and pounded with heavy hammers, then heat treated, and finally ground and polished to close tolerances will exit from a 3-D printer.  The same issues exist for other metals: copper wiring, aluminum castings, even bolts with their strength requirements and threads cut into their end.  

The biology issue was mentioned to me, and the proposed solution is simply to send more colonists until the gene pool is sufficiently great.   One can only wonder what the new colonists will eat, and what air will they have to breathe, and water to drink.   Plus, who will be spared from the ongoing work to devote time to caring for infants, then toddlers, then see to their education until they can be productive members of the colony.  Children are great (I have two), however in a Mars colony environment that is likely on the verge of starvation or suffocation each and every day, children may be a significant contributor to extinction. 

For more on the negative side, NASA recently noted unexpected corrosion on the rover's wheels.  This is attributed to acidic vapor rising from the surface as the sunlight warms the Martian soil.  -- end update. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California

Copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

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