This NASA video shows a concept animation of how one proposed Exploration Zone on Mars might work.

An excellent new article in Scientific American describes a meeting last October that gathered together dozens of the world’s most committed proponents of a manned mission to Mars. They hoped to be able to choose the landing site for the NASA Mars mission planned for twenty years from now, or at least come up with a shortlist. They didn’t.

There are a huge number of important factors to consider in the selection: they need a landing site that’s not too high in elevation (or the thin air will hamper the use of a parachute) and not too low (thicker air will hold too much dust kicked up during the rocket landing and cause problems);  a site close to the poles will be too cold and get too little sunlight, plus the rotation speed of the planet near the equator gives an extra boost to a departing spacecraft for the trip home. Producing rocket fuel for the return trip (from water) is essential—some places it would have to be processed from the soil using heat, or squeezed from rocks; places farther north or south likely have groundwater or ice under the surface, but they have disadvantages mentioned above. Areas already studied by the Mars rovers and other craft are well-known, with lots of data gathered over the years, but there’s something to be said for exploring new territory too. The Scientific American article covers all of those issues very well.

But one aspect of the Mars discussion might be even more of a roadblock than the selection of a landing site—the dilemma about microorganisms.

If there is some form of life on Mars—and answering that question is one of the main reasons for going there—there’s the risk that astronaut explorers will disturb some soil or rock, or thaw some ice, and release organisms native to that world which could find their way inside the habitat, maybe inside the astronauts themselves, and eventually back to Earth. It’s unlikely that precautions and decontamination measures would be 100% successful in preventing that, and there’s no way to know what kind of risk such life might pose to forms of life here on Earth. An alien ebola for which our immune systems have no defence? That’s an alarmist view, but not impossible.

Then there’s the other side of the coin: protecting Mars from contamination by us.

The United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids the harmful contamination of celestial bodies. Every spacecraft that goes to Mars has to undergo (and survive) rigorous sterilization procedures, which accounts for a substantial part of the costs of such craft. And that’s just metal and circuits—what about living bodies? Some researchers claim that the human body supports ten times as many bacterial hitchhikers inside and outside than the number of the body’s own cells. How can we possibly be sure of not leaving some of those bacteria behind on Mars? If the planet is utterly barren, the risk that our Earth bacteria might survive and spread might not seem like a severe consequence (except for violating the space treaty). But what if there is life on Mars? It will probably be in the form of microorganisms inhabiting the subsurface ice and damp soil, managing to survive under very challenging conditions. There’s a significant chance that the Earth bacteria we unleash could be deadly to Mars life outright or simply provide too much competition for scant resources.

We might discover the first known form of life elsewhere in the universe, only to find that our explorations have condemned that life form to death.

There’s an outside chance that we could dodge these problems with one very carefully regulated visit to the Red Planet. There’s no chance at all that we can ignore them if we ever establish permanent habitations there. So before we ever colonize other celestial bodies, we’ll have to decide whether it will be a one-way trip for the colonists (to prevent the contamination of Earth) and whether or not we have the right to spread our own form of contamination throughout space.

If you’ve read many of my blog posts you’ll know that I think it’s critically important for humanity to establish a presence beyond Earth—our small planet is just too fragile, and we’re too vulnerable here—but it may be that we’ll have to confine our migration to places that are unquestionably devoid of life.

On one hand we’d love to know that we’re not alone—that life has arisen elsewhere in the universe, but if it has, we may have to protect it from ourselves by staying away.

A dilemma indeed.


Image from'Neill_Cylinder

Recent data sent by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is bad news for those who hope to someday open up Mars for human colonization.

We already knew that the Martian atmosphere is very thin (about 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level). To make the Red Planet suitable for humans to live on we’ll have to drastically thicken the air and also heat it up. There were hopes that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, could be freed from the soil and ice caps of Mars to produce a good atmosphere for trapping heat and feeding plants, which would then produce oxygen. It had been thought that much of Mars’ lost atmosphere had been absorbed into the soil, but the new MAVEN data (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) suggests that most of that ancient atmosphere vanished into space, stripped away by the solar wind and solar explosions after Mars’ magnetic field died about four billion years ago. It’s gone and can’t be retrieved. That might not affect plans to build domed or underground cities on Mars, but terraforming the whole planet will be a lot harder.

Terraforming Mars was never a short-term project anyway, and the biggest drawbacks to colonies there include gravity and distance. We still don’t know if regular exercise and other methods will mitigate the potential health problems of living in a low gravity environment. And trying to build up the population of Martian colonies will require a lot of very long trips—about nine months one-way as technology stands, but that’s when Earth and Mars are in the right alignment, which only happens every couple of years. That’s a slow process. If our goals are to protect a sampling of the human race from potential disasters on Earth, ease population pressures on Earth, and make use of resources and manufacturing advantages that space provides, we’ll want something quicker.

If we build manufacturing complexes on the Moon, we can make the materials and air to build free-floating colonies in space, possibly in orbit around Earth or the Moon, but more likely where the gravity of the two bodies balances out at the so-called Lagrange points. That doesn’t mean that colonists would live in zero gravity (although they could get to it when they wanted to do a little recreational flying perhaps). One of the popular concepts is a gigantic rotating space wheel like in the movie Elysium that would produce artificial gravity on its inner surface from its rotation. The best-known example is called a Stanford Torus. But my preference would be a miles-long cylinder that would produce a gravity effect by spinning along its long axis. Its inner surface would alternate bands of habitable space with long windows to let in sunlight. In the 1970’s Gerard O’Neill proposed cylinders 32 kilometers long that would provide almost 1300 square kilometers of living space for several million people. Maybe my preference has to do with my love for the Arthur C. Clarke classic Rendezvous With Rama.

These colonies would avoid the concerns about low gravity and be close—only a few days travel from Earth. Research funded by NASA in the ’70’s said that such things could be built with the technology of the time, but materials, knowledge, and tech developed since then would make the job even more feasible.

So while I’m all in favour of Mars exploration for the sake of knowledge, I think the human race would be better served by focusing our colonization plans on free-floating near-Earth colonies or the Moon for the near future. If you think I’m off-base, let me know. Maybe you just have more patience than I do.

The good news this past week? NASA will accept applications from Dec. 14, 2015 through mid-February 2016 for their next class of astronaut candidates. Applications will be accepted at: . It’s only for U.S. citizens (unfortunately) but you could end up working on the International Space Station, a couple of spacecraft being produced by commercial companies, or even NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle.

The final frontier…but you know all that.


It was announced this week that the hunt is now on for colonists for Mars. No, not by NASA (who really believed George W. Bush when he announced plans to go to the Moon and Mars back in 2004, and what’s really been done since then other than some paperwork?) No, I’m talking about a private initiative based in the Netherlands called Mars One which hopes to raise a ton of private money and put human colonists on the Red Planet by 2023. Recruitment will begin over the next few months, and training for the…(dare I call them Martianauts?) will take about eight years.

Chief Medical Director for Mars One, Norbert Kraft, a former Sr. Research Associate at NASA states, “In my former work with NASA we established strict criteria for the selection and training of astronauts on long duration space flights. Gone are the days when bravery and the number of hours flying a supersonic jet were the top criteria. Now, we are more concerned with how well each astronaut works and lives with the others, in the long journey from Earth to Mars and for a lifetime of challenges ahead. Psychological stability, the ability to be at your best when things are at their worst is what Mars One is looking for. If you are the kind of person that everyone chooses to have on their island, then we want you to apply too.

You need to be 18 or older, and have lots of other qualifications, but you can read all about it here.

The catch? Well, they have a chance of coming up with a way to get you to Mars, but there won’t be any way to get you back. It’s a one-way trip, and you’ll be alone on a whole planet with the rest of your team for two additional years, until the next group of colonists is expected to arrive.

Do you really feel like getting away from it all? How do prepare yourself mentally for something like that? Watch all the reruns of Gilligan’s Island?

Or maybe just haul out all of those lists that end “...would you take with you to a desert island?”