2012 August 19 Sunday
JPL Curiosity Workers Living On Mars Time

Jet Propulsion Lab workers who are controlling the Curiosity vehicle on Mars take turns living 3 month periods on the (longer) Mars daily period. The result: a feeling of jet lag.

To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the $2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.

Among the many technological advances we need to be able to colonize Mars: genetic engineering of our sleep cycles to enable us to function well on a daily cycle that is about 40 minutes longer than Earth's 24 hour planetary rotation.

We need a wide assortment of biotechnological advances for Mars living. Some of the biotechnologies we'll need:

  • Plants bioengineered to make a wide variety of drugs.
  • Our bodies genetically altered to function well in lower gravity and with a longer day.
  • Plants bioengineered to make a variety of textiles. Think cotton plants that make something more like cloth. Also, we'll need wood for structures and plastics as well. Silk-making plants would be very useful on Mars.
  • Vats and genetically engineered mammalian cells to create leather and fur.
  • Plants bioengineered to recycle sewage and other wastes.

The underlying thread for most these biotechnologies: they reduce the number of fields of expertise that the members of a Mars colony would need to master. No need to know how to carry out steps of many drug syntheses if those steps can be genetically engineered into plants or perhaps a yeast strain. Since the initial Mars colony will be very small it will not have a large staff of engineers and equipment needed to make many kinds of material. So organisms genetically engineered to create an assortment of drugs, textiles, and construction materials would be great due to their eliminating the need for many fields of specialty in the initial colony.

By Randall Parker    2012 August 19 10:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2011 October 04 Tuesday
Why Live In Small Habitat On Mars?

A story in Technology Review about habitats for Moon and Mars colonies and an accompanying slide show of NASA tests of inflatable space habitats brings to mind a rarely discussed issue on long term Moon and Mars missions: Why subject yourself to years of living in very close quarters? Imagine living in a small home with the ability to go out for relatively short periods of time and then only in a space suit. Well, that's too frustrating a scenario for me to subject myself to it as a volunteer.

Such confined spaces and stresses of Mars life demand a very mentally stable and low stressing crew. If NASA ever sends a crew to Mars (or even the Moon) for a long mission then the latest brain genetics research and neuroscience ought to be employed to screen potential crew members. Who is least likely to crack? Who is most likely to stay unstressed, happy, and productive? Surely many genes that contribute to cognitive function and also to stress responses will be identified in the next 10 years.

To prepare for an eventual long term space mission (and also find genetic discoveries useful to the rest of us) an organized effort should be made to gather DNA samples from many people who suffer emotional breakdowns, depression that shows up only in mid-life under stress, and other mental diseases that do not first manifest at younger ages. DNA sequencing, brain scans, and other screening of those who hit serious mental problems in mid-life could provide clues for genetic variants and brain attributes to avoid when staffing for a Mars mission.

Another point: A picture in the slide show with lettuce being grown brings up the question of relevance. Growing plants enough to make a substantial impact on diet requires a lot of space. Unless it is possible to deliver large inflatable hot houses the growth of food at a Mars base will at best deliver a bit of extra flavoring and variety. Also, how to power hot houses to supply enough light and heat? Nuclear power plants seem the only viable option since solar panels will weigh too much to send in quantity.

A question: How much Mars soil would need to be processed to extract a meaningful amount of oxygen? Suppose inflatable habitats spring leaks. How to make more oxygen to inflate them after they get patched? Is concentration of oxygen from the thin Mars atmosphere a viable option? Would it be necessary to put a Mars base near water at a pole to extract the oxygen from water?

Update: Even worse, no dogs. How big would a Mars habitat have to get before dogs would be brought in? How long after humans first set up a permanent Mars base until dogs are introduced? A habitat unfriendly to dogs is really a habitat unfriendly to humans. We've got a lot of shared interests with our canine companions. They enjoy fields and trails into hills as much as we do.

Since Mars mission of just a few years duration would obviously not create permanently inhabitable facility my reaction is why bother? What is the point of building something on Mars that can't develop into a dog-friendly community with excellent parks for running the dogs? We should not spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to put a habitat on Mars until such a habitat could stay continuously inhabited and grow to a size sufficient to support a substantial dog population and grassy parks. It is not worth the trouble to just go visit Mars. We visited the Moon over 40 years ago and haven't been back for a few decades. The experience was that unsatisfying. Another stunt trip, this time to Mars, is a waste of time and resources.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 04 09:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (33)
2011 August 31 Wednesday
Food Challenge For Mars Mission

Maya R. Cooper, a scientist in NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, says keeping astronauts fed during a 5 year mission to Mars poses big challenges.

Speaking at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Maya R. Cooper said that provisioning the astronauts with food stands as one of the greatest challenges in scripting the first manned mission to Mars.

If they took all their food with them they'd need 7,000 pounds per person for a 5 year mission. One immediately thinks: But why ship the food? Why not grow it there?

For flights on the space shuttles and the International Space Station, astronauts get 3.8 pounds of food per day. For a 5-year round-trip mission to Mars, that would mean almost 7,000 pounds of food per person.

It would be cheaper to send the food ahead of time on a slower but cheaper orbit. Anyone got a grasp on how to calculate the shipping costs for tons of goods to Mars orbit?

If all the food was sent in advance it would have to be packaged to last 5 years. Shipping the means to grow food would reduce the amount of food mass that would need to be sent. How much weight in food growing equipment would need to be sent to do this? How long does the mission have to last for Mars farming to become cost effective?

Whenever I read proposals for a Mars mission my reaction is we should work on enabling technologies first. Why go with lousy tech? Going to Mars is not just about the safety or speed or cost of the rockets and spaceship. It all gets much cheaper, easier, safer, and sustainable with advanced robotics and advanced bioengineering. Therefore going to Mars will get steadily easier in the 21st century.

Sufficiently advanced robots that include robot maintenance capabilities and very long lasting designs could go to Mars years before humans. Such bots could build up physical structures for humans to live in and operate farming equipment to grow and package enough food to assure astronauts of sufficient food once they reached Mars. even more important, sufficiently advanced bioengineering technologies will enable creation of plants suited for food, fiber, pharmaceuticals, and biomass fuel production. Bioengineering will make Mars farming far more productive and fruitful.

By Randall Parker    2011 August 31 09:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (38)
Nuclear Power For Moon And Mars Bases

A reactor for the equivalent of 8 Earth-bound homes would be the size of a carry-on suitcase.

The first nuclear power plant being considered for production of electricity for manned or unmanned bases on the Moon, Mars and other planets may really look like it came from outer space, according to a leader of the project who spoke here today at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

James E. Werner said that innovative fission technology for surface power applications is far different from the familiar terrestrial nuclear power stations, which sprawl over huge tracts of land and have large structures such as cooling towers.

"People would never recognize the fission power system as a nuclear power reactor," said Werner. "The reactor itself may be about 1 ½ feet wide by 2 ½ feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other planets. Fission power technology can be applied on Earth's Moon, on Mars, or wherever NASA sees the need for continuous power."

While the Mars rotation period is almost the same as Earth the Moon's rotation is about 27.32 days. Hard to make solar power work when you have to store 2 weeks of electricity. Harder still if operating in a crater that gets sunshine for an even shorter period of time.

Getting enough mass to Mars for solar panels and batteries would be far more expensive than moving nuclear power plants to Mars. So a Mars base would almost certainly be nuclear powered. But to break free from dependency on uranium from Earth would require development of solar and perhaps biomass energy sources. Geothermal and wind are not options on Mars or the Moon.

By Randall Parker    2011 August 31 07:08 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2010 November 18 Thursday
CERN Scientists Build Anti-Matter Container

A warp core breach due to failure of the anti-matter containment field suddenly starts to look possible.

A clearer understanding of the Universe, its origins and maybe even its destiny is a significant step closer, thanks to new research.

As part of a major international experiment called ALPHA*, based at CERN in Switzerland, researchers have helped to achieve trapping and holding atoms of 'anti-hydrogen', which has not previously been possible.

The project involves physicists at Swansea University led by Professor Mike Charlton, Dr Niels Madsen and Dr Dirk Peter van der Werf and the University of Liverpool under Professor Paul Nolan, all supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

This breakthrough will make it possible to study 'anti-matter' closely for the first time, and so develop unprecedented insight into its composition/structure and improve understanding of the fundamental physical principles that underpin the Universe and the way it works.

Anti-matter propulsion for Mars colonists?

The way I see it there's no point in using anti-matter propulsion to move between stars until we master rejuvenation technologies, miniaturize the technologies, and develop the ability to hibernate. But terraforming robots should be sent decades in advance to prepare a planet for colonist arrival.

CERN researchers are also looking for parallel universes. So when we burst into these parallel universes we'll be able to defend ourselves with anti-matter weapons.

And as their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva moves into high gear, they are talking increasingly of the "New Physics" on the horizon that could totally change current views of the universe and how it works.

"Parallel universes, unknown forms of matter, extra dimensions... These are not the stuff of cheap science fiction but very concrete physics theories that scientists are trying to confirm with the LHC and other experiments.

Is there such a large infinity of parallel universes that some have parallel Earths with similar histories? If so, what's different?

By Randall Parker    2010 November 18 10:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2010 November 16 Tuesday
One Way Trips To Mars First?

Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies argue that of a human trip to Mars was one way then costs could be slashed and the mission could be done much sooner.

A human mission to Mars is technologically feasible, but hugely expensive requiring enormous financial and political commitments. A creative solution to this dilemma would be a one-way human mission to Mars in place of the manned return mission that remains stuck on the drawing board. Our proposal would cut the costs several fold but ensure at the same time a continuous commitment to the exploration of Mars in particular and space in general. It would also obviate the need for years of rehabilitation for returning astronauts, which would not be an issue if the astronauts were to remain in the low-gravity environment of Mars. We envision that Mars exploration would begin and proceed for a long time on the basis of outbound journeys only. A mission to Mars could use some of the hardware that has been developed for the Moon program. One approach could be to send four astronauts initially, two on each of two space craft, each with a lander and sufficient supplies, to stake a single outpost on Mars. A one-way human mission to Mars would not be a fixed duration project as in the Apollo program, but the first step in establishing a permanent human presence on the planet. The astronauts would be re-supplied on a periodic basis from Earth with basic necessities, but otherwise would be expected to become increasingly proficient at harvesting and utilizing resources available on Mars. Eventually the outpost would reach self-sufficiency, and then it could serve as a hub for a greatly expanded colonization program. There are many reasons why a human colony on Mars is a desirable goal, scientifically and politically. The strategy of one-way missions brings this goal within technological and financial feasibility. Nevertheless, to attain it would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.

They advocate sending older crews. Though such crews would be unable to create self-sustaining populations. As I've previously argued, rejuvenation therapies would enable colonizing missions of much longer duration. If we wait 30 or 40 years for the rejuv tech then a Mars colony could start out with a population that could live and reproduce there for centuries. Send youthful polymath minds. The radiation damage of the trip could get repaired once the astronauts reach Mars. Robots (which will also be much more advanced in 30-40 years) could build up rejuvenation labs before humans arrived.

The Obama Administration is not keen on one-way trips.

President Obama informed NASA last April that he "`believed by the mid-2030s that we could send humans to orbit Mars and safely return them to Earth. And that a landing would soon follow,'" said agency spokesman Michael Braukus.

No where did Obama suggest the astronauts be left behind.

"We want our people back," Braukus said.

But what if some people were really willing to go on a one-way trip to Mars? Granted, they'd probably die sooner due to less advanced medical care. But what if they really wanted to go? Why not let them?

By Randall Parker    2010 November 16 11:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2010 November 14 Sunday
Craig Venter To NASA: Engineer Your Astronauts

Gene therapy, cell therapy, and tissue engineering techniques could be used to rebuild astronauts. No mention of robotic prostheses.

Craig Venter has an answer. The biologist told a group of scientists at NASA Ames on Saturday that NASA already does genetic selection when it picks astronauts. He just suggests that the space agency get even more systematic about its process.

“Inner ear changes could allow people to escape motion sickness,” Venter said. “(You could have genes for) bone regeneration, DNA repair from radiation, a strong immune system, small stature, high energy utilization, a low risk of genetic disease, smell receptors, a lack of hair, slow skin turnover, dental decay and so on. If people are traveling in space for their whole lives, they may want to engineer genetic traits for other purposes.”

Okay, this is an obvious and unoriginal idea. But we are approaching the era when it becomes possible to start working on the problem. Tissue engineered astronauts could become common in the 2020s. While I would argue NASA should have higher priorities (asteroid defense most notably) the spin-offs for mainstream medicine would be substantial and of far greater benefit than all the other spin-offs from NASA engineering to date.

Note to NASA: Collect tissue samples of all surviving astronauts and even of people who failed out of the astronaut program for health reasons. The DNA in the tissue samples could be sequenced and compared to the medical records of each astronaut. Which ones had the hardest time adjusting to weightlessness? Which ones had a harder or easier time readjusting once back down on Earth? The genetic variants that contributed to these differences would be good to know.

The US Air Force and Navy could conduct an even bigger research program into pilot performance and genetics because orders of magnitude more people have become military pilots than astronauts. Sports performance research has an overlap with NASA's needs as well. So does aging research in areas such as osteoporosis (bone loss) and sarcopenia (muscle loss). How to maintain bone and muscle mass in space for long periods?

I would argue that space exploration really needs rejuvenation therapies. The cost of moving humans around in space is so great that their lasting decades longer in young bodies would offer great advantages in, say, a Mars colony. The first generation would stay young enough long enough to produce lots of offspring, pass on their many skills (colonists would likely be chosen in part for their polymath skills), and do lots of work.

Interplanetary travel would absolutely require rejuvenation therapies to minimize the costs (and considerable risks) of training new generations. Also, why start out on a few hundred year trip across the stars only to die a couple of centuries for reaching a destination?

By Randall Parker    2010 November 14 12:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2010 June 16 Wednesday
Moon Water Supply Estimate Way Up

When you move up to an underground warren on the Moon you'll be able to take long showers and install a hot tub (with high walls to deal with low grav splashing). A new scientific estimate of Moon water paints a much rosier picture.

WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded scientists estimate from recent research that the volume of water molecules locked inside minerals in the moon's interior could exceed the amount of water in the Great Lakes here on Earth.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, along with other scientists across the nation, determined that the water was likely present very early in the moon's formation history as hot magma started to cool and crystallize. This finding means water is native to the moon.

"For over 40 years we thought the moon was dry," said Francis McCubbin of Carnegie and lead author of the report published in Monday's Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "In our study we looked at hydroxyl, a compound with an oxygen atom bound with hydrogen, and apatite, a water-bearing mineral in the assemblage of minerals we examined in two Apollo samples and a lunar meteorite."

The new estimate is at least 2 orders of magnitude greater water concentrations underground than previously thought.

McCubbin's team utilized tests which detect elements in the parts per billion range. Combining their measurements with models that characterize how the material crystallized as the moon cooled during formation, they found that the minimum water content ranged from 64 parts per billion to 5 parts per million. The result is at least two orders of magnitude greater than previous results from lunar samples that estimated water content of the moon to be less than 1 parts per billion.

With the low gravity think of the sports possible with underground water slides. Solar panels up on the surface could power the water pumps to feed the slides. How about underground creeks in big sealed tubes where rafts would move along side hydroponic food growing areas?

Water polo in low G would involve much higher jumps out of the water.

By Randall Parker    2010 June 16 06:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
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