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The big question is, "Will we ever make it to Mars?" Of course we will, but it might be further away than the public thinks. But one organization, Mars One, is aiming to make a permanent settlement on Mars. Here are some of the current topics swirling around in their discussions about the manned Mars missions:
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What Technology Is Needed?
Surprisingly, nothing revolutionary, and nothing we haven't seen before. What makes Mars One so convenient is that we can use current components to build every stage of the mission. The landing module will use current technology. There's no need for a heavy-duty launch vehicle or rovers. The trip will only take 210 days, so water recycling is not required.
With that said, here's some of the technology you might see on the future mission:
The SpaceX Rocket Engine
The private aerospace manufacturer is currently developing an engine that will be used on the Mars rockets. It's called the Raptor, and according to CEO Elon Musk, it can put out 510,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.
While Musk readily admits that the engine is still "weak" compared to NASA engines, he insisted that the company is in a good spot during the testing. Several of these engines will be installed on the shuttle that will take humans to Mars — as early as 2024, the company claims. So far, the only major news on the engines is the fact that they've been delivered to the SpaceX test sites. Hopefully more news will surface in the coming months.
Ah, the sun — it's always burning bright, even behind dark and scary storms. It's one of the best resources out there because it's powerful, plentiful and dependable. We harness the sun's energy by using solar panels.
This technology is the best choice for powering Mars One. The settlement will set aside 3,000 square meters of surface area for the panels. They are thinner than the ones here on Earth, which makes them a bit less efficient. But what they lack in efficiency they make up in portability. They’re also extremely light.
But what if solar panels weren't an option? Mars One would have to resort to a nuclear reactor, which would take an enormous amount of time and money to create. Plus, it's extremely risky for something way out in space.
The Permanent Settlement
The main purpose of the Mars One mission is to send a crew to permanently settle on the planet. There will be no return missions. There are several reasons that make this the most convenient and feasible option:
- A return vehicle, its propellant and the systems needed to produce the propellant are not required.
- Technology that would allow rockets to take off from Mars and come back to Earth doesn't exist yet.
- If there was a return mission, it would need to be tested with several unmanned vehicles before any astronauts would be included.
- The first rocket to blast off from Mars carrying a crew would also carry several risks.
- Astronauts would have to adjust to Earth's gravity again after spending nearly two years in a zero gravity environment.
A Landing Module
In order to touch down on the surface of the Red Planet safely, the Mars One astronauts will need a landing module. And in order to ensure maximum safety, the lander will be tested eight times before the Mars One crew uses one to reach the planet.
All mechanical and electrical components included on the lander will be simple and durable in case any of the crewmembers need to repair them after landing. Essential and precise designs in the lander's circuitry will make sure thermal management and high-frequency RF components function properly.
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While the Mars One mission will be based on simpler and existing technology, it’s still a monumental undertaking that doesn't go without risks.
The mission will bring about two major categories for risk: loss of life and cost issues.
Loss of Human Life
During all levels of space exploration, there is always some sort of human risk. An astronaut could die on the launch pad, on the way to Mars or on the surface of the red planet. Everyone involved in a space mission has to keep this in the back of their mind.
Mars' environment is incredibly harsh. One small mistake could result in injury or death. That’s why every component, and the backups of the components, will be checked and tested countless times until it is certain they function perfectly.
While using existing technology will greatly reduce the cost of the Mars One mission, it will still be tremendously expensive. Half of the cost is to launch and land. The other half consists of a safety margin, should anything go wrong with the mission.
The risk associated with cost is that it will exceed the proposed budget for the mission. As the mission gets closer, however, more details associated with cost will likely be ironed out.
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How Close Are We?
While the idea of having a settlement on Mars is awesome, it doesn't look like it will fall into NASA's hands anytime soon.
NASA is currently working on its Orion capsule and its Space Launch System (SLS). But the Government Accountability Office is after them, questioning their ability to meet project deadlines. The two issues that the GAO pointed out are internal management problems and insufficient funds.
In addition, it appears that NASA's schedule for the Orion isn't realistic. They want to launch an empty Orion around the moon in 2018, and schedule a full-crew mission in April 2023. And by the 2030s, they want to send crews to Mars. But by pushing for these early dates, NASA runs the possibility of creating more risk.
It looks like the Mars milestone might be accomplished by private companies like Mars One and SpaceX. But no matter who sets foot on Mars first, it will still be a tremendous human accomplishment — whenever that may be.
About the Author: Megan Nichols loves discussing innovations in technology and science. Her favorite topics are astronomy, the environment, and psychology. If you are interesting in learning about other astronomical wonders, join the discussion on her blog, or follow her on twitter.