The moon may be more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone on humanity's path to the Red Planet, one prominent researcher says.
The perceived need to develop lunar infrastructure and resources first could push a manned Mars mission far off into the future, said Harley Thronson, senior scientist for advanced concepts in the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
And if putting boots on the Red Planet in the next few decades is indeed the top priority of the international human spaceflight community, then making a prolonged stopover on the moon beforehand runs counter to the spirit and history of exploration, he added. [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]"In the 19th century, the American West was explored for decades by trappers, frontiersmen and occasional minimal expeditions sent by the central government," Thronson wrote in an essay in The Space Review, which was published online Aug. 5.
"Only later was the elaborate national infrastructure established to support sustained development of the West," Thronson continued. "In contrast, widely popular 'moon first, then Mars' architectures are a reverse of the historical experience of human exploration on Earth."
Discussions about how to send astronauts to Mars often center on "stepping stones" — for example, whether to go to a near-Earth asteroid or the moon first. But mission architects must keep in mind that focusing too much on intermediate destinations could significantly delay or doom a manned Mars effort, especially in this era of tight budgets, Thronson said.
Indeed, the best approach may be to work toward heading straight to the Red Planet with a bare-bones mission.
"Let's just go — prove that it is doable, prove that it is feasible and then examine how you do it on a regular basis that's affordable," Thronson told SPACE.com.
The success of that first mission, however stripped-down it may be, would generate a great deal of excitement and momentum that would pave the way for future, more sustained Red Planet efforts, he added.
The exploitation of lunar or asteroid resources could eventually play a large role in humanity's Red Planet plan, but it may be unwise to wait for this step. It could take hundreds of billions of dollars and many decades to build up enough infrastructure to make a difference, Thronson said.
Thronson said his thinking on this issue has been influenced by Inspiration Mars, a private mission that aims to launch two astronauts on a Red Planet flyby in 2018.
"They have obviously adopted the philosophy of, 'Let's just do it,'" he said.
The Space Review piece is meant to stimulate productive discussion and debate about the future of human spaceflight, Thronson said. And it may also help scientists, engineers and policymakers view the term "stepping stone" in a new light.
"Stepping stones don't have to be measured by distance; they could be measured by capabilities," Thronson said.
"The successful space station program is stepping stone number one," he added. "Going to Mars in a minimal or reduced-capabilities mission is stepping stone two. And then setting up the support system for subsequent missions to Mars — say, on the moon — is stepping stone three."
Humans haven't been on the moon, or anywhere else in deep space, since NASA's Apollo 17 mission returned to Earth in 1972. NASA is currently working to get astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s, as directed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com
Where should the first permanent space colony be built?
- The Moon - It's our nearest neighbor after all.
- Mars - The Red Planet should be the next giant leap.
- Deep Space - Orbiting outposts are the only way to go.
- Asteroid Waystation - We should hitch a ride on a space rock.
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Space Exploration - We Must Explore Mars
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Have you ever looked up in the sky and wondered if there is life elsewhere in the universe? Have you ever looked at a photograph of Mars and wondered if there really was ever life on it? People have a wide variety of opinions regarding these questions and with good reason. As far back as the broadcast of H. G. Well's novel, "The War of the Worlds", the world has been fascinated with the possibilities of what Mars may hold. Over time, the majority of people have come to realize that there is no way that life can currently be on Mars. Those who are uncertain think there may be microscopic bacteria underground.
There is, however, rising speculation that Mars currently holds ice and possibly flowing water in certain areas on and under the surface. Because of the surface conditions, the water would evaporate very quickly and not be directly visible from space, along with the possible exception of the polar caps, which will be discussed later. Almost all researchers and scientists believe that there is ice on Mars, but the trick is to find it and use it to our benefit.
Scientists have dreamt over the possibility that it may be possible to live on another planet. Some think that Mars has that potential to support life, if it's hidden resources are uncovered and exploited to their full potential. There is even evidence that it once contained enough water that it had been possible to hold life. Think about it, what if we could transform it into such a place, even if only our children's children get to see any result? The following will describe Mars, present evidence of ice and water, give possible ideas for the future exploration of Mars, and give reasons for why it is important.
The fourth planet from the sun was named after the Roman god of war, Ares and the Greek god of war, Mars. The month of March was named after him so the Romans believed that March was the time of war. Juno, wife of Jupiter, became pregnant with him when Flora, the goddess of flowering and blossoming plants, touched her. Mars was known for his outrage and fury. He is said to have loved battle and killing. He raped a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. This led to Mars having two sons, Romulus and Remus, who would later found Rome.
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Mars is known as the ancestor of the Romans because of his children. (Mars.)
Mars has a particularly red appearance that is a result from an abundance of certain elements such as iron. (Astronomy) The temperature varies greatly depending on the time of year and location. Because of its distance from the sun, 1.52 times as far as earth, it is overall much colder. (MarsNews.com) On the surface, it gets as hot as 80û F at noon during its summer and cold as -222ûF during its midnight winters. (Mars on Encyclopedia.com) It's diameter is about 53% that of Earth at about 4,217 miles and 11% of our mass. A Martian day is about 37 minutes longer than an earth day. A year, however, is a lot longer at 687 days. (Find... Mars) This makes only select times available for missions to take place.
The atmosphere of Mars is extremely thin and when viewed from its surface, it is a pink color. (Astronomy) This would likely be the hardest obstacle to overcome and fix if we ever tried to make the planet habitable. Composed of 95.3% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, and only 0.13% oxygen, it has no o-zone layer. (Mars.) Since Mars has no o-zone layer, strong UV rays penetrate through and brake up any water that comes to the surface. This is why there is no longer any liquid water visible to us except for the few parts per million in the air. (Lahrer) Conditions can be compared to those on Earth at 100,000ft altitude. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Both are believed to be meteors or asteroids caught by gravity because of their odd shapes and are about the size of a major city. (Astronomy)
Mars has two extraordinarily distinct features, the Valles Marineris and Olympus Mons, both near the equator. Valles Marineris is a gigantic canyon that scientist believe was formed by water, volcanic activity, or the stop of tectonic plates. It is 2500-3100 miles long, 125-310 miles wide and as deep as 4 miles. To compare it, it could stretch across almost all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic here on earth. The floor of it has very few craters, indicating that whatever formed it happened relatively recent. (Graham) Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the solar system. It is about 75,000 feet or 16 miles tall and its base is 550Km across. (Mars on Encyclopedia.com) That's more than 2.5 times at high as Mount Everest and the takes up land mass equal to the entire state of Missouri. Many believe that it has been inactive for at least a billion years, before which the entire northern hemisphere may have been lava.
One major problem with any mission, manned or not, is the weather. Mars is known to have major sandstorms that can cover much if not all of the planet. They reach an average of 50 km up and are much like the winds of a hurricane or tornado at winds of 100 miles per hour. (Astronomy) This would have less effect on an object because of the lower surface pressure and lower gravity. They mainly form during its perihelion, or when it's the closest to the sun, and usually last about 100 days. However, an astronaut may not survive one without some form of shelter. The sandstorms have eroded away the firm impression of certain geological features such as craters and canyons. The interior of the planet is similar to ours, with a core, mantle and crust. Mars has no magnetic field, which scientists blame on a solid iron-nickel core whereas Earth's is believed to be liquid. This would also account for its lack of volcanic activity. Because it has no magnetic field, solar winds are open to attack Mars. (Graham)
Its polar caps, when viewed from space or earth, are white. Probes have indicated conflicting information. A few of them say they are made of carbon dioxide while all others show that they are ice and water with dust blown over them. Those saying that they are ice indicated that they are a few miles thick. This is enough to cover the entire planet a couple meters deep. (Graham) Mariner 6 and 7 in 1969 concluded that there was carbon dioxide but that it was dry ice. During summer, the pole closest to the sun shrinks in size while the other one grows. (Mars on Encyclopedia.com)
The two probes also found the presence of water in the clouds near the equator. Even though the Martian air contains 1/1,000 of water compared to ours, there is still enough to condense and form clouds near the equator. (MarsNews.com) Over the past two years, the Mars Odyssey has turned up evidence of ice or water being mixed up with soil as close as 18 inches from the surface. This was found by using very sophisticated instruments to map the makeup of the planet's surface. Most of it is near the poles, but not all of it.
NASA's new hypothesis for water on Mars is that there is a layer of water/ice building up pressure under the surface. This layer is building up in concentrated areas and escaping quickly. The water has a chance to do a number of things before the atmosphere and UV sunrays take care of it. First, it often erodes soil leaving darker soil exposed. The second thing is: now that it is exposed to such cold temperatures, it freezes where it has escaped, plugging it from further eruptions. (Lahrer)
Early last year, the Mars Global Survey took images of dark streaks on the surface on the slopes of Olympus Mons. The dark streaks begin at high elevations and widen as they slope downward, just as if there was water flowing. This is a result from underground ice deposits that are large enough to allow erosion of some of the soil, revealing previously unseen soil. NASA believes that remnants of geothermal activity or volcanic heat are the cause for the melting. The surface temperature dictates that it would be too cold; but NASA believes that the ice contains salt, allowing it to be in a liquid state at colder temperatures. (Whitehouse) This would present further proof that Mars was once a planet with precipitation, runoff, and an ocean.
The Mars Global Survey also took pictures of gullies that previously were not present. Some of them are a mile long and a quarter mile wide. NASA has stated that only a quick flood of water would be able to have done this. From the pictures, scientists say that the sides have collapsed in much like a new river being formed. (Lahrer)
In March of 2004, the Opportunity rover detected chlorine and bromine, indicating that there once was a salty sea that had slowly evaporated over time. It also found crisscrossing layers of sediment in the rock, which told that they had formed beneath currents of moving water. This further proved the past existence of water. The lines were earlier interpreted simply as that there was once water that soaked the surrounding area. It gave no hint of salt. Scientists became sure when they discovered bromine, which is an essential component of salt.
Additionally, they found festooned layers which are "smile-shaped curves produced by shifting, rippled shapes of loose sediments under a current of water." They show that sediments had grouped together in ripples that were at minimum 2 inches deep. This also would mean that the water would be moving about 1 mile per hour by scientific calculations. (Britt "Salty sea...")
Another discovery recently made in February of 2004, was the finding of hematite, which forms when iron is exposed to water and oxygen. Hematite is essentially rust, which helps give Mars a red appearance. However, most of Mars' hematite is gray. Gray hematite on earth forms around standing water or hot springs, the most likely place for life to start. This is just more information concluding that Mars used to be covered with water and full with oxygen. (Britt "The Growing...")
During the time that the U.S. is sending probes to Mars, our policy for selecting sites undergoes several steps. First, scientists compose a large list of sites in which we could search for water, find evidence of where past water has gone, or research important geologic aspects. The engineer responsible for the mechanic aspect and getting the probe or rover safely on the planet then eliminate those they feel cannot end with a successful mission. This usually eliminates most of the candidates. NASA then lets community groups voice their own opinions about the sites, and they are taken into consideration. NASA Headquarters decides from recommendations from all of the groups to compose a final, very short list of candidates. Probes, like the Odyssey, now in orbit then spend time photographing each site, letting scientists know more specifics of the sites. After discussion, NASA and the Lead Scientist for Mars Exploration then decide the final spot and announce it. (Q_A_37.pdf)
There are many missions already planned or being planned. The first is to launch in August of next year. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will use a type of camera/radar that will be able to analyze the composition of the soil several meters deep. Once it has scanned the entire planet, it will become a communications link. France will send a rover late in 2007. A rover laboratory will be sent to what NASA believes would be the most habitable place for a future manned mission in 2009. (Williams) Missions and technologies for drilling several hundred feet are being developed and are to take place within the next ten to fifteen years. President Bush announced that it would be our government's goal to set up a permanent colony with missions between 2015 and 2020. (Planet Mars)
This could very well be the most important mission that will take place. If water is never found, colonization will never occur to any high degree. From next year's rover, scientists will be able to choose drilling sites. If these drillings find water, then it is excruciatingly important for manned missions.
A manned mission would only be available about once every two years because of the different speeds of rotation around the sun. Experts say that the longest the trip would take is about 180 days. A major problem is that Earth would have little contact with the crew once on the ground. If something wrong was to occur all we could do at home is watch. The crew would have to endure the harsh environment for a minimum of two years before a trained replacement crew could be sent, because lack of launching opportunities. (Shaw)
Once we started colonizing and perhaps finding of water, terraforming becomes a possibility. Dictionary.com defines terraforming as, "To transform (a landscape) on another planet into one having the characteristics of landscapes on Earth." To do this would be too complicated to even try to explain step by step in detail. It would involve producing an extreme amount of greenhouse gases hopefully producing an atmosphere and ozone layer to block harmful UV rays. If enough could be produced to raise the temperature enough, plants of some type would be planted on the surface by using the water. The plants in turn would release oxygen into the air and increase the atmosphere even more and eventually making enough air to support humans without space suits. Even if there is water on Mars, there may not be enough to be sustained permanently, for it would require a great amount of it to transform the entire planet. (Kluger)
Mars is the nearest habitable place in the solar system for humans and is the only real candidate for future human exploration and colonization. Mars gives us the opportunity to utilize its air for the astronauts and fuel for our surface rovers and other vehicles. Mercury and Venus are far too close to the Sun and too hot with too much radiation. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune don't have a surface to land on and Pluto is extremely too far and cold. The same is true for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. (MarsNews.com)
It is important to explore Mars for several reasons. First of all, Mars is the next logical step in the expansion of the human race into the stars. We as a race have always been curious about things, always expanding the limits of our habitat. By understanding Mars and its evolution, we can better understand Earth's. An international Mars exploration mission has the promise to bring about a global unity as never witnessed before. The advancement of new technologies for the mission would boost the lives of everyone on Earth while encouraging tech industries. The mission would test our technological abilities to the maximum. The ingenuity of our best and brightest would be challenged and our accomplishments would serve to inspire future generations. A common focus will unite people from around the world as we expand what we can achieve. The cost of a Mars exploration mission is cheap when compared with certain costs of other expenses. Finally, it is also important in case a catastrophic event was to occur on Earth, potentially wiping out everything. This could be such things as the destruction of the ozone or an impact from an asteroid or comet.
Mars is the next human jump to the stars. Money needs to be spent to find out if there is water, how much, and if we can use it. If we find nothing, then we will know for sure and money can stop being wasted. If we find everything, much more will follow. The prospects of Mars might hold the future for all of mankind. Our generation will never seep any benefits or see any gigantic change; it will be at least hundreds of years before major colonization can occur, but the start of something great has to start somewhere.
"Astronomy (Mars)" Mars. 23 Feb. 2004.