As you’'re reading this article you may have seen Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster: “The Martian”. If you haven’t, I highly recommend booking your tickets right now! Just a few days after the film was released in the UK, NASA published their updated plan for “The Journey to Mars”. The schedule is packed and there is still a lot to do before setting off, but NASA is optimistic and claims that we will reach Mars in approximately 20 years.
(From The Martian)
The document NASA published is not just a plan for a one-time Mars mission, it has much more potential than that. Instead of sending one huge rocket just to let people set a foot down and come back in the name of exploration, NASA has carefully constructed a long-term plan that presupposes multiple journeys to Mars in the future. It also allows us to focus on research and baffling questions like: Was there ever life on Mars? How did Earth look like in the past and how will it look like in the future? Where do we come from? Yet the most innovative feature of the plan is the way it was created. Never before has such a long-term, large-scale plan enabled introducing new technologies during its execution. Thereby you will never again have to wonder why they installed a two megapixel camera in the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover.
The plan is divided into the three major stages. Each more difficult than the last. The first stage named EARTH RELIANT includes testing new technologies and preparing for deep space exploration using the International Space Station (ISS) at Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The second stage, codenamed PROVING GROUND, will include deep space exploration and cislunar (a volume of space within the orbit of Earth’s moon) operations. The last stage is EARTH INDEPENDEDNT and as its name suggests, it will focus on operations during which no help from Earth will be available. This stage also includes the landing on Mars with astronauts aboard a vehicle.
We are not starting actually from scratch, we are half-way through the first stage! In this, NASA is using the ISS as a field laboratory to test out new technologies like advanced life-support systems, radiation shielding and high-data-rate communication systems. In addition, this is the only available way of testing how microgravity and high radiation environments influence human biology. For that reason, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko are currently on a one-year mission at the ISS.
THE PROVING GROUND
The purpose of this stage is to test our ability to conduct complicated operations beyond LEO with minimal help from Earth. This step will involve a series of interesting exploration missions as well as tests for new propulsion technologies necessary for launching heavy payloads and Mars-class duration missions. Exploration missions will include sending a satellite to a near-Earth asteroid to collect samples around the year 2020. After that an attempt will be made to redirect a small asteroid to a stable orbit around the Earth so that astronauts could explore the captured asteroid in person. The satellites that will be used in asteroid maneuverers will also act as a model system for a new experimental propulsion that will be used in the Mars-class duration missions. The new propulsion will be harvesting the power of the Sun to accelerate an ionised propellant (Solar Electric Propulsion – SEP). SEP will only use a few tons of liquid Xenon (Xe) compared to over a dozen tons of fuel needed when using chemical based propulsion. Unfortunately SEP provides much lower levels of thrust and is therefore slower than traditional propulsion.
NASA will now combine everything we have learned from earlier stages. At first, we will send cargo vehicles containing fuel and food, habitat modules and the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Everything has to be carefully planned so that each component of the mission can last up to 1100 days of journey to and from from Mars. In missions like this, mass is your biggest opponent and therefore anything that is planned, is done so in regard to strict mass limits. Thus instead of sending all fuel, water and air to Mars, an attempt will be made to produce them on site. Not only will this reduce the mass of the cargo, but it will also allow the Martian colony to become independent from Earth’s resources; which is exactly the goal that NASA is in pursuit of.
As I started this article with a reference to The Martian it would not be complete if I did not finish it with a bit from “Interstellar”. If anyone asks themselves why we are pointing to the sky while there is still so much to accomplish on Earth, I would answer: “We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, cause our destiny lies above us.”