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We've Got The Ice--Let's Have A Party!

That's apparently the NASA reaction to the news that a vast undergound ocean of ice has been discovered on Mars. There had been rumors of this last week, for anyone who's been reading Nasa Watch. I hadn't pointed it out because a) I'm not that interested in Mars and b) I didn't think that most people would find it as significant as they apparently do. I'll explain why in a minute.

Apparently, NASA is going to use this as an excuse to commit to a manned mission to the Red Planet. It will be interesting to see how much this has been coordinated with the Administration and the Hill, and what their response will be. The agency still has little credibility when it comes to managing and estimating either future, or current, costs on major programs like this. I still think that before they're given carte blanche to go to Mars, they're going to have to somehow demonstrate that they won't screw it up.

If they want to make it an international effort (as the State Department will certainly want to do), then they'll have to wrestle with their past history of such activities. There's no evidence that making ISS an international effort saved us any money, and quite a bit that it cost us, and slowed down the schedule.

And the Europeans are going to have to think long and hard before signing up to such a joint endeavor, because the US track record in terms of keeping up our end of such agreements is atrocious, including the current brouhaha about how many crew ISS is going to support. The Europeans are rightly complaining that we've gone back on our pledge to have at least seven crew available at the station.

Now, as to why I didn't (and still don't necessarily) think it's that big a deal.

One of the reasons that are being stated for its significance is that it will allow much less water to be taken along on the trip, making the flight cheaper. The other is that it dramatically improves the prospects for finding life there.

I'm not a planetary scientist, and I don't even play one on the Internet, so I'm not going to state an opinion on the latter point, other than that water is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Life As We Know It, and while the discovery may improve the prospects for finding it, it doesn't necessarily make the probability large. And if oceans of water ice are good, oceans of water liquid should be better, but I don't see any rush by NASA to send out a manned mission to Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), which has just such an ocean under the ice layer on top.

As to it making the Mars mission easier--yes, it does, but not all that much. A manned Mars mission has many technical hurdles, and the need to carry water is the least of them. In fact, carrying water en route actually helps one of the other problems--what to do in the event of a solar storm. Radiation is a problem in general on such a long-duration deep-space mission, but if the crew were to get caught in a period of intense solar activity, it would kill them before they even reached the planet. The only real solution to the problem is extensive shielding. It turns out that water, in sufficient quantities, does a pretty good job of that, if it is carried in tanks, inside of which the crew can go as a "storm cellar."

The main benefit of finding water is that it eliminates the need to have to carry the water for the return trip on the outbound trip, which can in turn save tremendously on propellant costs.

It's also possible that the vehicles could use it as a propellant, by setting up a plant to electrolyze it into hydrogen and oxygen. But Zubrin's concept already exploits a different, and perhaps better, concept--using methane and oxygen generated from the Martian atmosphere. These propellants have advantages for long missions, because you don't have as much of a problem with boiloff as you do with the low-temperature liquid hydrogen, for long missions. Use of cryogenic fuel would have penalties of additional refrigeration and insulation, to keep your fuel from boiling away before you reach the destination planet.

To me, as a systems engineer, what this means is that all of the trade studies on how to do manned Mars missions have to be revisited, because one of the primary assumptions on which they're based--a lack of easily-obtainable water--has just evaporated. So everything we think we know about going to Mars may be wrong.

Finally, I'm concerned that this will become another Apollo, and that in our rush to get to Mars, we will once again neglect the real issue, which is the cost of access to low earth orbit. I hope that there will be some serious discussion to coming up with innovative ways of tackling this fundamental problem, before we design mission concepts that require us to redevelop the Saturn V.

[Thanks to Mike O'Ronain for the heads up]

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2002 11:15 AM
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Three feet! Am I overreacting? I would be excited to hear they'd discovered a single underground source three miles below the service (making it less than accessable) but three feet?

With water and sunlight (well, and of course air) you've got food and the basis for a permanent base (assuming environmental toxins can be managed.) This is exciting (even with NASA involvement) it could lead to economic and competitive forces opening up the Sol system.

Sometime after Mars gets going (am I jumpin' the gun?) I bet we find two more habitable planets as our next destination...

Ok, I'll calm down now...

Posted by ken anthony at May 26, 2002 11:48 AM

Scientifically, life is a much more interesting than geology. Machines are better than humans for the task at hand. Send machines to look for life. If you can send humans, then you can send several tons of machinery. Humans wouldn't be able to do much without machinery.

Water makes it easier to colonize Mars. I think that we should practice colonization on the moon first. If something goes wrong on the moon, you can bring people back in 4 days. There is a potential for Lunar tourism. At some future date, you could choose between spending $100 million to live on the moon or $1 billion to live on Mars. I would expect the Lunar colony to grow faster, because it's cheaper.

I'm bored with low Earth orbit. If China gets into low Earth orbit, then there will be too much competition there. Low cost to the moon would be much more valuable than low cost to low Earth orbit.

Posted by Michael Alexander at May 26, 2002 01:04 PM

You're not going to get low cost to *anywhere* without low cost to earth orbit. It's not something that can be bypassed, and expect to have significant, sustainable space activities. That was the failure of Apollo.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2002 01:21 PM

You won't get low cost to orbit unless you have a need to send a lot of stuff into space...that means either a large base or a colony. Mars is certainly the best place for that, since the moon has far less water and lacks many of the elements that are necessary to modern industry. (Not to mention that you can terraform Mars, but not the moon). 747s were not developed until a lot of people needed to cross the Atlantic.

Posted by James at May 26, 2002 02:14 PM

Or orbital (and later, lunar) tourism. That's a high-value industry that can pay for itself.

It's not clear how a Mars colony can justify the billions upon billions that would be required to sustain it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2002 02:16 PM

How much is a world worth? I say we subdivide!

Could the sale of real estate finance the adventure?

What's the legal status of ET property rights (and how could it be enforced?)

Posted by ken anthony at May 26, 2002 06:30 PM

Those are all better questions for Glenn, as an expert on space law, than me.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2002 08:18 PM

Is there a cosmic connection between the discovery of ice on Mars and the fact that two huge icebergs have broken off from Antarctica?

Posted by Tony D'Amato at May 26, 2002 10:48 PM

I wonder if launching small pieces to assemble Mars ships in LEO might be part of a core market for a private launch industry.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at May 27, 2002 12:20 AM

A great deal of water is important for long term colonization.

NASA will not be the instrument of that effort.

For good or for ill, NASA has evolved into a bureaucratic cargo-cult that is trying to recreate Apollo via Mars.

This is something to be avoided.

Posted by Trent Telenko at May 27, 2002 08:15 AM

I agree that NASA is looking for the next Apollo, since this will save and/or create a lot of jobs in the organization and justify a new spending frenzy...I hope that the same people who were in charge of ISS are not involved in any Mars effort (but they will be, if they aren't yet retired). NASA will never colonize Mars. It will either be other governments, large corporations or wealthy individuals. However, NASA already has the technology to send the initial, exploratory missions, so theoretically they are still the fastest option for sending humans.

I agree that orbital and lunar tourism will generate a demand for low access to orbit. However, Mars is a vastly better place to situate a colony since it has huge amounts of water (which we now know is very close to the surface), an atmosphere, all important elements (although the amount of nitrogen is still unknown), a day/night cycle that is very similar to Earth's, and a delta-v that is not much greater than that which is needed for the moon. Obviously the moon's proximity makes the moon a better spot for tourism, but any establishment there will never be truly self-sufficient.

Incidentally, I don't believe that the Outer Space Treaty will really hold in the next century. It's amazing how the United States can support such a socialistic document. (Although we know that NASA makes its own foreign policy...)

Posted by James at May 27, 2002 09:01 AM

A Mars mission could indeed provide a large market for private space transports (and private space construction workers), but NASA doesn't issue contracts unless they can specify the job down to the last bolt, and use their own astronauts.

Maybe someone can force that to change, but I haven't (yet) seen any signs in Washington that there's any will to do so. Particularly when the people running the committees responsible for the funding are perfectly happy with the way that NASA does business, other than the cost/schedule management. After all, those astronauts are voters in their district.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 27, 2002 09:13 AM

Sad but true...NASA will never develop cost-effective launch vehicles since doing so would amount to political suicide for whoever was responsible. As an optimist, I hold out hope that developments in carbon nanotubes will allow us to make orbital launch vehicles obsolete in the next few decades through the use of a space tether or a full space elevator.

Posted by James at May 27, 2002 02:43 PM

Here's a guy asserting property rights...

Discussion of space property rights...

Publicly traded company intending to assert property rights...

This combines the idea of tourism and property...

Well that's 30 google pages (minus the crackpots/con artists that will sell you a piece of nothing for thirty bucks.)

Posted by ken anthony at May 27, 2002 07:17 PM

Thanks for the links!

Posted by James at May 27, 2002 08:43 PM

Actually, I thought it was Ganymede that was a water planet, not Europa (although I've been wrong before, and doubtless will be again)


Posted by Dorrin at May 28, 2002 07:46 AM

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