25 July 2013

How to put humans on Mars, and get them home safely again

Younger generations haven’t experienced staggeringly monumental historic events like older generations have, such as World Wars or landing on the Moon. Our historic events so far — mostly related to personal technology, such as the rise of he PC and the internet — are more of a slow, incremental burn. However, a team of UK scientists from Imperial College London are aiming for that staggering historic event that the younger generations can experience, and have designed a mission to land three humans on Mars.

The mission consists of two spacecraft, the first of which is a Martian lander equipped with a heat shield that will send the crew off into Earth’s orbit. The second craft would be a habitat vehicle, which is the craft that the crew would live in during the voyage. The habitat vehicle would consist of three floors, and measure in at around 30 feet (10m) tall and 13 feet (4m) in diameter. So, while the habitat might be a little cramped for three humans, it should do. The astronauts would be situated in the lander during takeoff, and would move to the habitat when the dual-craft reaches Earth orbit. Once the astronauts are safely within the habitat, a rocket would shoot the dual-craft off on its journey to Mars, which would take a shorter-than-you-thought nine months at minimum.

Perhaps sounding like something Jeff Goldblum would think of when attempting to save the planet from hostile aliens, the dual-craft would then split apart by around 200 feet (60 meters), but would still be attached by a tether. Then, thrusters from both vehicles would spin them around a central point, creating artificial gravity similar to Earth’s in the habitat for the astronauts. Not only would this help the astronauts feel at home for the better part of a lonely year, but is thought to reduce the bone and muscle atrophy that extended periods of weightlessness cause. If the craft required increased maneuverability, such as due to incoming emergencies like a solar flare or large debris, the tether can be retracted, and the craft can be better piloted.
Body atrophy isn’t the only threat facing the crew, as nine months in cramped quarters would drive anyone insane, so the team will have to look for ways keep the astronauts occupied. The craft would have to be well-stocked with medicine, and the crew would have to be trained to use it, as practically no one remains in fine health for nine months straight. Superconducting magnets, as well as water flowing through the shell of the craft, would be employed to help reduce both cosmic and solar radiation.

Perhaps the biggest positive to the concept is that each stage of the mission has been proven to work in an individual capacity.

Once the dual-craft reaches Mars, it would tether back together, and the crew would move back into the lander, detach from the habitat, and descend to the Red Planet’s surface. The mission would involve sending a habitat and return vehicle to Mars before the astronauts arrived, so the crew would have shelter upon landing as well as a way home. The crew would spend anywhere from two months to two years on Mars, depending on the goals of the mission and the distance between Mars and Earth (which would dictate a faster journey). On the way back home, the mission would dock with the ISS, then take a craft back to Earth from there.

Unfortunately for space enthusiasts, there is no real timetable for this mission. However, considering every individual step of the mission has been proven to work on its own, the proposed overall journey could work. Hopefully the current young generations will see this kind of voyage take place in their lifetime, as they’re surely not impressed by the rise of smartphones and the internet anymore.

(Image credit: gdefon.ru)


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