Water on Mars

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock you’ve no doubt seen the announcement by NASA today that water has been discovered on Mars (sort of, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After a day of sensational hype created from NASA’s pre-warning of an important press release, this was making headlines from the word go, with everyone speculating on the topic of discussion. The discovery of aliens, mysterious artefacts and water on Mars were all proposed.

Here is one of the images which helped make the discovery. Images of the same part of Mars’ surface at different times shows these streaks appearing between shots, indicating an active landscape. The dark streaks are on the order of 5 metres wide, often narrower, were first discovered over a decade ago, and have been called ‘recurring slope lineae’. There were numerous proposed causes for these, including water, but also avalanches or grains of material rolling down slopes.

Once the CHRISM spectrometer was applied to these streaks, the spectral signature of the features could be analysed, revealing their composition. Hydrated salts were found on every streak, but were strikingly absent from the surrounding surface. Water turns to liquid on Mars’ surface at 0 degrees Celsius, just as it does on Earth, but water with a high concentration of salts will melt at much lower temperatures (try this at home with some table salt!). The flows appear when temperatures rise over -23 degrees Celcius, which is reached during the warm season in parts of Mars.

Researchers are working on determining where this water has come from. Possible theories include porous rocks under the surface and saline aquifers existing in some areas below the surface in areas. Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist, prefers the theory that the salts exist on the surface of Mars, and absorb water from the atmosphere until they reach a point where they have enough liquid to flow downhill, a process known as deliquescence. To me this would indicate that the surface of Mars where these features form would be laden in salts, but as mentioned earlier the spectral imagery does not seem to support this theory.

So why sort of? To be precise, we haven’t directly detected water flowing on Mars, only signs (however promising) that point towards water flow. But we must always be cautious and consider other processes that may create the same results (or even processes we have never encountered before!).

“Does this mean life on Mars?” everyone cries. The presence of liquid water (however transient in this case) is a good sign for the existence of life. Dr Grunsfeld of NASA has stated that “If I were a microbe on Mars, I would probably not live near one of these [sites]”. He suggests that underneath a freshwater glacier, such as those suspected in the north and south, would yield more ideal conditions for life.

In any case, these are certainly exciting times for Mars exploration. Of course, a ground-truthing experiment (physically checking these sites, drilling and collecting samples) would prove this theory right or wrong. Here’s to hoping we can get a geologist to these sites soon! If anyone asks, pick me.

Humans to Mars – For and against

Today I was reading an article by Frank Stratford, CEO and founder of MarsDrive, about the benefits of going to Mars. I was nodding my head in agreement as I usually do, but after looking at the comments, one by Heinrich Monroe particularly threw me. It’s a long one, so I’ve picked out the key points (in my opinion).

Oh, we’re going to get spinoffs from it? Like “from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more”? … You know, if we spend $100B on just about any massive technological and engineering goal, spinoffs like that… will fall out as well. The question is whether those spinoffs were really worth $100B, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more value on them with smarter investment.” – Heinrich Monroe

When I talk about the value of having space science programs, in addition to the intrinsic value of advancing scientific understanding, I often refer to the unforeseen advances in technology that come as a result. For example, we probably wouldn’t have instant global communications via satellite feed, let alone the host of material science, medical and software advances that have resulted from space programs. But the comments made by Heinrich did make me wonder whether we could have achieved these better with direct, targeted programs.

Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I'm unable to credit the original poster.
Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I’m unable to credit the original poster.

As Donald Rumsfeld has said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and and unknown unknowns. We don’t even know about some of the discoveries to be made working on space science and their implications to every day life until we make the discovery. However, one could perhaps say the same about a targeted research program. It’s certainly a tricky one to answer, although I will say this.

There is a lot of money being used for things that I disagree with ethically, and that isn’t being used for programs such as advancing medical science. By advocating for more space science funding, I’m not convinced that this would greatly cannibalise funding going towards these other programs. It’s not a choice between one or the other.

Having said that, I would be very interested to see a study that estimates the value of space science research compared to direct research in other fields. This is presumably very difficult, as it’s hard to put a number on the value of science development (would discovering life on Mars have intrinsic value?), but this shouldn’t stop people from trying. I’m sure something like this exists, but given my experience in determining the effectiveness of charities, I wouldn’t be that surprised if it didn’t. One example is the fact that for every dollar invested in NASA, there has been a $7-14 return on investment. If you are aware of any general studies of this nature, feel free to put a link in the comments below.

I may be biased – I am a space science researcher after all!

Here is a link to a neat infographic that summarises the spin-off benefits of NASA technology and funding.


Mars, Pluto and protecting Earth from asteroids

Hey everyone, just a quick post for today to summarise some stuff I’ve read that I thought was pretty cool.

Apparently the cost of travelling to the Moon can be reduced by a factor of around 10; down to $10 billion US from $100 billion US. Utilising water and hydrogen on the lunar surface as fuel, this can also significantly reduce the cost of travelling elsewhere in the Solar System. This of course flies in the face of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s claim that we don’t need to go back to the Moon to get to Mars. The study says that in 10 to 12 years, a four-person industrial base on the Moon could be built at a cost of $40 billion US. Of course, as the study admits, the fuel resources are not guaranteed, and some kind of exploration would have to be undertaken to prove their existence in quantities large enough to be worth extracting. Check out the summary article here or the report here. The report is a long read and I’m still working my way through it; I’ll put up my own summary when I’ve finished.

This article by Tanya Harrison explains how some of the cool surface features at Mars’ south pole formed, and tell you how YOU can help map Mars! Click here to check out the Zooniverse project that puts you in the scientists’ chair to pick surface features on imagery taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

So it turns out Pluto is red, and the reason is ‘tholins’. What are tholins? They’re basically complex organic molecules. Find out more about these and the implications here.

Finally, the B612 Foundation is worth looking into if you haven’t already heard of it. Simply put, they aim to enhance our capability to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts which can be potentially catastrophic for our civilisation through science, technology, advocacy and education.

Until next time.

Mars – Colonising and terraforming

I just finished reading Dr Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars (TCFM), which I bought from the man himself when he was last in Adelaide. Dr Zubrin is the president of the US Mars Society, a group which advocates sending a manned mission to Mars. Zubrin creates a rather compelling case for why we should send such a mission and how we could do it. The book is somewhat anti-NASA with the author expressing his frustration that we could get to the Moon in the 1960’s, yet can’t get back today, let alone get to Mars. There is a recurring theme that we are doing less with more than our space faring predecessors. I’ll cover several key ideas of the book, including the plan to get to Mars, then how to colonise and terraform the red planet, and add my own ideas.

Mars - Image from commons.wikimedia.org.
Mars – Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Zubrin’s plan to put humans on Mars is dubbed the Mars Direct Plan. A bit of background: due to the rate at which Earth and Mars orbit relative to each other, the ideal launch window for a mission to Mars opens up once every 2 years. For a mission with reasonable propulsion capability, it should take around 6 months to get there. One of the biggest complaints about sending a human mission to Mars is the fact that it would be too hard to bring all the fuel you need to launch back to Earth from Mars’ surface. So – going to Mars would be a death sentence, so to speak – a little off-putting for some. The Mars Direct mission utilises in-situ propellant generation, creating a fuel from Mars’ atmosphere via a series of chemical reactions using a feedstock of a small quantity of fuel brought from Earth. This means that we don’t have to bring the fuel with us, and we can return humans to Earth.

We start by sending an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars with in-situ propellant generation capabilities. This travels for 6 months then lands. It spends the next 18 months generating fuel. By this time, we are about ready for the next launch window. We remotely test the ERV to make sure it’s good to go for return, then send the first human mission and another ERV. The second ERV can act as a spare if the first doesn’t work, but more importantly can repeat the same process to prepare for the next human mission in 2 years.

I could go on at length about the numerous technical aspects. You can either trust me that Zubrin does a good job at covering all the bases or you can read the book yourself! But note that this plan doesn’t necessarily involve futuristic technology. A lot of the infrastructure required (including the in-situ propellant generation) exists now.

One idea proposed to encourage Mars exploration is dubbed the ‘Gingrich Approach’. This involves creating a series of challenges, each with its own cash prize, culminating in the ultimate prize of ‘Be the first to send a crew to Mars and return the crew members safely to Earth‘ with a reward of $20 billion US, plus $1 million per person for each day spent on the Martian surface, up to a maximum bonus of $5 billion. Not bad! I’d certainly put my hand up to spend 18 months on Mars for $1 million a day! Similar competitions exist, such as the Google Lunar xPrize. The idea is to create a financial incentive for private entities to explore Mars and develop the technology required. This would likely be a cleaner, more efficient way than directly funding the mission through a space agency. The country in question (in this case USA) would offer the prize at tax-payer expense, but the benefits to jobs and the economy would be huge, not to mention furthering science, and if no one succeeds, the tax-payer doesn’t cough up a cent.

One idea that came out of TCFM was to ‘sell’ blocks of land on Mars (of which there is 144 million square kilometres), just as tracts of land in Kentucky were sold for large sums of money a hundred years before settlers arrived. This would encourage the exploration of Mars as investors push for development of the planet in the hope that the value of their Martian territory increases in value as miners look to lease the land and property developers look to purchase it in the future. This would require the creation of some international body whereby all countries agree on the legality and authority of individuals owning parts of Mars. Why not go one step further and use the money raised to just fund a Mars mission? Zubrin thinks it should only cost $4-6 million for a private entity. At a value of just $20 an acre (around 4 square kilometres), Mars would be worth $700 billion. Or you could, I don’t know, solve a whole bunch of problems. Whatever. While we’re at it lets start selling off other planets, moons, asteroids, stars… We could have a whole swatch of money from cashed up investors to do with what we like. Cash which probably would not have been spent anyway.

The concept of terraforming Mars is certainly plausible enough. Essentially, the theory is that there is carbon dioxide and other gas locked in the polar ice caps and beneath the surface in permafrost. The aim is to heat up a small area of an ice cap using one of several methods (my favourite is a giant mirror near Mars to reflect and focus sunlight – read TCFM for more details!), which releases some of the gas, thickening the atmosphere and trapping in more heat. Eventually enough gas is released that this triggers a ‘runaway’ effect which finishes melting the rest of the ice itself over a time scale of decades to centuries, eventually making the atmospheric pressure high enough to wander about without a full space suit. The air still won’t be breathable though, so then we’d have to introduce plants to turn some of the carbon dioxide into oxygen.

While I confess I don’t fully grasp some of the atmospheric and climate system modelling covered in TCFM, we have certainly achieved a version of ‘terraforming’ by accident here on Earth over the course of the industrial revolution, raising the carbon dioxide concentration from 280 to 400 parts per million (0.028-0.04%) and increasing surface temperature. Imagine what we could do when we actually try to achieve such changes. This brings me to an important question: should we terraform another planet?

It’s a difficult one to answer, and I don’t pretend to know the answer, but there are a lot of clever people working on this sort of thing, and I’m sure I’ll write a blog entry devoted to terraforming in the future.

Regarding the simpler case of accidentally transporting Earth-based microbes to Mars and ‘contaminating’ the planet, Zubrin raises the interesting point that unsterilized Earth originating material is already raining down on Mars, possibly seeded with organisms, just as Mars rock rains down on Earth (at the rate of around 500 kg per year) as the result of material flung into space from asteroid impacts and large volcanic eruptions. Following on from this is the realisation that perhaps life on Earth originated on Mars.

Zubrin appeals to our humanity in that we as humans have a need to explore the next frontier, and Mars is just that.

One world will be just too small a domain to allow the preservation and continued generation of the diversity needed not just to keep life interesting, but to assure the survival of the human race.

I wonder… does Zubrin refer to the innate human need to expand and consume more resources? If that is truly necessary for human survival as a species, we will eventually consume our entire Solar system in the not too distant future. Rocky planets, asteroids and gas giants alike will one by one fall to humanity’s conquest. Is it impossible for us as a species to be sustainable? Zubrin seems to think that humanity is not doomed because the universe is vast, its resources are infinite, and technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate. I’ll leave you all with that thought, and some of my favourite quotes from the The Case for Mars.

To summarize in Star Trek terminology, what a piloted Mars mission needs are two “Scottys” and two “Spocks”. No “Kirks,” “Sulus,” or “McCoys” are needed

Just as the example of nineteenth-century America changed the way the common man was regarded and treated in Europe, so the impact of progressive Martian social conditions may be felt on Earth as well as on Mars.”

Until next time.

Anyone interested in reading more about or joining the Mars Society can do so here: www.marssociety.org