68 Days On Mars

Building a human colony on Mars is easier said than done, says a team of engineers at M.I.T., who’ve studied the technical feasibility of a human settlement of Mars, as envisioned by the “Mars One” project, led by a Dutch non-profit.

The ambitious mission aims to establish an output on Mars by 2024. A crew of 24 astronauts would migrate to the new cosmic neighborhood on a one-way trip and spend the rest of their lives there, building it up into a base.

This is what the Mars One neighborhood may look like: a row of pod-like habitats. Solar panels (in the foreground), would supply the colony’s electricity. A system to extract water from the soil (in the background) would provide drinking water.

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is unfeasible,” study co-author, Olivier de Weck, professor of aeronautics and engineering at M.I.T., said in a statement. “But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made.”

The all-encompassing analysis, which took a look at the Mars One adventure from myriad angles, found it to suffer from many drawbacks and deficiencies.

If, as Mars One envisions, food is got from fruits and vegetables, grown locally, then, a harmful side-effect of the vegetation would be excess oxygen levels, which would trigger a chain of events, leaving the colonists gasping for air.

They may also be parched. Getting water from melting the deposits of ice, trapped beneath the dusty Martian surface may not be an option. A device designed to “bake” water from soil isn’t yet ready for deployment in space.

Prior to the arrival of the vanguard population, their new “home” has to be prepared. Freighter spacecraft will need to carry infrastructure supplies ahead. While Mars One believes that that can be achieved by six of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets, the M.I.T. group estimates that the shipment can be delivered by 15 of such carriers.

Sydney Do, M.I.T graduate student and the study’s lead author, said in a statement, that Mars One had very “many unknowns.”

To stay alive and well on Mars, a settler would need to consume about 3,040 calories daily. Crops that can provide a wholesome, balanced diet are beans, lettuce, peanuts, potatoes, and rice.

But growing them in abundance, enough to feed a batch of men and women, in the long-run, would call for a patch of agricultural land four times bigger than assumed by Mars One: 200 square-meters, not 50 square-meters.

The simple act of breathing alone can be in jeopardy. As the air inside the habitat modules leaked, the internal atmospheric pressure, too, would drop, creating an oppressive environment that’d suffocate the first settler within 68 days.

A pile of 875 LEDs would be needed to illuminate the place, but which, over time, would fail. Spares have to be, thus, taken in plenty.

Unlike in the case of the International Space Station, where calling home and having a replacement sent up is relatively quick, on Mars, the waiting time will be excruciatingly long. A light bulb, for instance, can be sent only when a launch window is open—every couple of years—and it’d get there in the next nine months.

3-D printing it might save a lot of time and money and agony. But the technology, as it exists today, isn’t reliable enough to do that.

Surely, this is going to dampen the spirits of the 200,000-plus people, who applied for the program.


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