Mars One has captured a lot of attention with plans to build the first colony on the red planet – but a new paper from MIT warns that the project has little chance of success. According to the MIT paper, the success of the mission in its current form relies on “in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and life support technologies that are more capable than the current state of the art.” While the volunteer astronauts in the Mars One program have all signed up for a one-way ticket, the paper reveals that there several unexpected deathtraps within the proposed habitat system, and that the first astronaut fatality could occur as early as day 68, simply due to low oxygen levels in the artificial environment.
The MIT paper based its assessment only on the habitation, life support, in-situ resource utilization and space transportation technologies of the program. Issues surrounding entry, descent, landing and communications were not covered in the study. The team discovered a number of likely system failures surrounding the proposed model of growing food crops in the same building unit as the astronauts’ living space, including risk of fire due to high oxygen levels, and suffocation due to low partial oxygen pressure caused by the proportions of nitrogen and oxygen in the air. As a result, they looked at a number of possible variables and found that the option to import all food from Earth was more effective and less risky than growing crops on Mars. They state: “Based on these results, the use of a [biomass production system] for food production does not pay off in terms of system mass within a reasonable time horizon. Even after two decades of operation, the BPS option still results in significantly more mass delivered to Mars than [stored food].”
The need for spare parts was also identified as a major issue for the project. Even if a way was found to sustain a Mars One habitat, the authors noted that “after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass transported to the Martian surface.” The need for spare parts would only increase as the project grew with each new influx of astronauts, due every 26 months. Similarly, the cost of the project would begin to blow out. They conclude, “In general, technology development will have to focus on improving the reliability of [environmental control and life support] systems, the [technology readiness level] of [in-situ resource utilization] systems, and either the capability of Mars in-situ manufacturing and/or the cost of launch. Improving these factors will help to dramatically reduce the mass and cost of Mars settlement architectures.”
The authors of the paper, Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens, and Olivier de Weck are quick to point out that they “have great respect for the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Mars One program has generated and our goal is not to detract from this, but rather to drive it forward – towards enabling affordable, sustainable Mars colonization.” Their criticism of the systems has already been rebutted by Mars One’s Bas Lansdorp, who insists the nonprofit has the concerns covered. However, there’s a lack of publicly available information on the technologies Mars One intends to use, and many of the technologies the company has revealed it will use have not been space tested. The debate is beginning to get quite heated online, so no doubt this is not the last we will hear of the matter. The students have also promised to publicly release the coding for their simulation modeling soon.
Images by Mars One