CIO

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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What happens when humans get there?

Astronauts will spend 18 months exploring the rocky, red planet searching for answers to two questions: ‘Was there or is there life on Mars?’ and ‘Will there be life on Mars?’

“Mars was once a warm and wet planet – it was warm and wet for a billion years which is five times as long as it took for life to appear on Earth,” says Zubrin.

The first evidence of life on Earth is in Australia in the form of stromatolites, the bacterial equivalent of coral reefs. Bacteria can create macroscopic fossils that go back around 3.5 billion years, says Zubrin.

Stromatolites in Western Australia
Stromatolites in Western Australia

“Almost immediately after water could form on Earth, life developed. If the theory is correct that life phenomenon of chemical complexification that occurs naturally when you have the right physical and chemical conditions, then it should appear on Mars,” he says.

Zubrin says that if scientists can find similar fossils on Mars, then humanity would have proven that the development of life in chemistry “is a general, not an exceptional phenomenon.”

“We now know that most stars have planets – the Kepler telescope has found thousands of extra solar planetary systems. Since the entire history of life on Earth is the development from simple to more complex forms manifesting greater degrees of capacities for activities and intelligence… if life is everywhere, it means that intelligence is everywhere and we are not alone in the universe.”

While on Mars, scientists will drill down about one kilometre to reach the groundwater.

“If there is life on Mars today, that’s where it will be found, not at the surface,” says Zubrin. “If we can bring those samples, examine that stuff and find life in it subject to biochemical analysis, we will be able to find if it’s the same as Earth life."

Dr Robert Zubrin: "If life is everywhere, that means intelligence is everywhere and we are not alone in the universe."
Dr Robert Zubrin: "If life is everywhere, that means intelligence is everywhere and we are not alone in the universe."

All Earth life is fundamentally the same at the level of its information system, it all uses DNA and RNA, which is idiosyncratic, a very specific method of recording and translating and utilising information, he says.

“It’s as if every computer was a Mac – that would be a disaster. But imagine this is what the cosmos is like. That’s what you see on the Earth, there’s only one information system in operation.

“Why can’t there be others? The real question is if life as we know it on Earth – what life is or are we just one specific example born from a much faster tapestry of possibilities that are exemplified elsewhere.”

At the end of their mission, the scientists will leave the habitat behind. Humans will then ask the next question, ‘Will there be life on Mars?

To answer this, we must establish a series of habitats all in one place, linking them up with the goal of supporting exploration but also doing engineering research, says Zubrin.

“[This will] advance our capacity to use Martian resources from just making fuel and oxygen out of the atmosphere to drawing water out of the soil, growing plants, extracting geothermal power for the subsurface – making bricks, plastics, ceramics, glasses, metals, wires, and tubes,” he says.

“If we can move up to that level of craft, then Mars becomes habitable. The thing that defines whether an environment is habitable or not is only partially a function of the objective character of the environment. It’s largely a function of you – of what you have in your mind, the level of craft you have.

“Two people could be stuck in the wilderness; one could starve half to death and the other could live there indefinitely. It’s because one can understand and perceive how to use the resources that are there and to the other they are invisible.”

What we are doing by showing that Mars is within our reach is illustrating that the resources that are potentially available to humanity are not limited to planet Earth to be fought over by nations for a shrinking piece of the pie, he says.

“Rather they are available in unlimited amounts to humanity willing to use its creative capacities to create an ever greater future. This is a different vision which is why it is one of the most critical things we can do. It’s only in a universe of unlimited resources that all men can be brothers.”