22 August 2019
Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of establishing a colony on Mars.  But is it feasible? Photo: Mars One
Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of establishing a colony on Mars. But is it feasible? Photo: Mars One

So you want to see what spring is like on Mars?

Two years after a Dutch company announced its plan to establish the first human settlement on Mars, more than 200,000 people from 140 countries have applied to be part of the first manned, one-way voyage to the Red Planet, tentatively set to take place just over a decade from now. Only four will be chosen.

The people behind the Mars One project, led by a 37-year-old entrepreneur named Bas Lansdorp, insist that the plan is feasible “with existing technologies” as it “integrates components that are well tested and readily available from industry leaders worldwide”.

Obviously, those who want to join the interplanetary mission are taking Lansdorp’s word for it, or simply have an enormous spirit for adventure.

But according to a new study, prepared by a team of engineering graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Mars colonists would start dying off after just 68 days.

Using a computer model based on the Mars One plans, the researchers found that there is something fundamentally wrong with the plan to create oxygen from the food crops that will be grown in the same space where the humans will live.

Once the wheat grows to maturity in about 68 days, oxygen levels will surge, creating a fire hazard. So in order to eliminate the risk, oxygen will have to be sucked out. But in doing so, the colonists will also lose their supply of nitrogen, which is vital in maintaining high air pressure inside the habitat. (There is yet no venting system available that can differentiate between the two gases.) 

That leaves the colonists with two choices: either to die of suffocation or to let their colony turn into a huge ball of fire.

According to the MIT researchers, it would be cheaper and safer for the colonists to bring their food supply rather than grow it on Mars.

“Bringing food along would remove any issues with crop-derived excess oxygen consumption, and any risks with sub-optimal growth yields and crop failure,” Sydney Do, one the the MIT researchers, told The Huffington Post in an email.

But that brings in another problem, namely logistics. The cost of delivering supplies, including spare parts, to the colony would be prohibitive, the researchers note.

“The continued operation of the International Space Station is dependent upon regular (and even unplanned) resupply of replacement parts from Earth, and in the event of an unrecoverable system failure the crew have the option to quickly return to Earth,” according to the report. 

“On Mars, resupply logistics will be much more challenging and there will be no feasible option for the crew to return to Earth in a timely manner.”

Dr. Olivier de Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, notes that the study is not saying that the project is not feasible.

But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path,” De Weck said in a statement.

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