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We can get to Mars in 10 years: Aerospace engineer

We can get to Mars in 10 years: Aerospace engineer

How we can get there and what scientists will do first when they arrive

“Travel light, live off the land, make your own fuel.”

These are the key things astronauts must do after they land on Mars, according to American scientist and author, Dr Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin, known for his advocacy for the manned exploration and colonisation of a planet that is 54 million kilometres from Earth, was the keynote speaker at the ANZ CIO Forum in association with Dell EMC dinner in Sydney last week.

Zubrin told the audience that the human interplanetary expansion effort is now ready to take off: “turning humanity into a multi-planet species with an open future and open frontier in front of us.”

He believes that humans will land on Mars within 10 years of a program launch.

“I am not in any way predicting that we will be on Mars in 10 years, that’s a contingent development that depends upon what decisions are made. But I absolutely insist that we can be on Mars in 10 years from whenever there is a program start,” he says.

Scientists won’t be travelling in giant interplanetary space ships similar to the star destroyers in Star Wars, rather the first four scientists will complete the six month journey in a ‘tin can’ around eight metres in diameter and six metres tall, Zubrin told the audience.

“Star destroyers need to be constructed in space on facilities such as space ports with cranes, hangers and cryogenic fuel depots – an entire parallel universe of orbital infrastructure is needed to make those star destroyers possible. Clearly that’s not happening in 10 years,” he says.

But what is required is a heavy lift vehicle, something with the capacity of the Saturn 5 moon rocket, which was built in the 1960s before "push button telephones or pocket calculators, let alone iPhones,” says Zubrin.

“If you have a heavy lift vehicle, something with the capacity of Saturn 5, we can use that to throw a payload directly to Mars.”

The mission will consist of three launches: the first will launch a Mars to Earth return vehicle. During the second launch – two years after the first – a second Earth return vehicle for fuel production is sent followed by the launch of a ‘habitat craft’ with four astronauts inside.

An Earth return vehicle makes a ‘minimum entry trajectory’ to Mars, and deploys a heat shield or aeroshell, to propel the vehicle through the atmosphere a subsonic speeds before landing safely under a parachute. This is the same method that was used when Curiosity landed in 2012.

Once the vehicle lands, a ‘little truck’ which runs on a methane oxygen powered engine and carries a 100kilowatt ‘putt putt nuke’ as Zubrin describes it – is telerobotically-driven a couple of hundred yards away from the spacecraft.

“We place the reactor on the ground, turn it on and now we’ve got the power to run a pump,” he says. “We suck in the Martian air, which is 95 per cent carbon dioxide gas – everyone here [on Earth] is against carbon dioxide but on Mars it’s really handy because you can use it to make rocket fuel.

“We’ve also brought to Mars about six tonnes of hydrogen in gel form. So you suck in the CO2 and you can react CO2 with hydrogen to create methane and water. Methane is great fuel, you’ve got water and electrolytes – oxygen is your oxidizer and hydrogen is recycled to make more methane,” he says.

“Then you have another reactor in which you take CO2 and split it into carbon monoxide and oxygen. The oxygen you store and the carbon monoxide you vent as waste. You can do it on Mars, there’s no environmental protection agency there.”

What the astronauts will have essentially done is convert six tonnes of liquid hydrogen from Earth into 108 tonnes of methane-oxygen propellant on Mars, he says.

“You are making use of the resources available in the environment that you intend to explore. That’s how exploration has been done successfully on Earth and when we try to bring everything – like Sir John Franklin did when he travelled to the Arctic – you have very limited capacity and you typically fail.”

Because fuel is made prior to the arrival of the crew, there’s no question that the first humans on the red planet would be stranded if the propellant production operation fails, he says.

Two years later, the four astronaut crew takes off on its six-month trajectory from Earth to Mars landing two months before the second Earth return vehicle.

“The other Earth return vehicle is following us to Mars on an eight-month trajectory. If we land off course, it can be landed near us. So if there’s a massive pilot error and they land on the wrong side of the planet – which would indicate a significant problem with the pilot selection process… we can land the second return vehicle near us.”

But if the astronauts land accurately, the second Earth return vehicle can land anywhere on the planet.

“I would prefer to land it a few hundred kilometres away because we have with us ground transportation, a pressurised rover that has a one-way range of 1000km. So as long as we land the second vehicle within that distance we have two complete Earth return vehicles – either one of which can take us home.”

But the second vehicle is really for the next mission, two years later, which will open up a third site on Mars, says Zubrin.

“The idea is that every two years, two boosters launch off Cape [Canaveral] – one to open up a new site and one to exploit the previously opened site, an average of one per year. When we were launching shuttles in a serious way, we were talking about doing six per year. So it’s one-sixth of our previous heavy lifting capability to run a continuous program of human exploitation on Mars.”

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