Category Archives: space travel

Bootprints on Mars

There has been a long-running disagreement among those involved in space science over which are better at exploring the Solar System: robots or human beings. The former, obviously, despite their huge price tags, are cheaper. But humans are far more flexible and effective. And now that Curiosity is on Mars, the robot proponents are going to feel pretty smug for a while.

The problem is that there’s a bigger picture to take into consideration. Yes, we could populate the other planets with robots and learn some fascinating and important science. But that still keeps us tied to this planet, and we’re in very real danger of making our home world untenable. It’s not the pioneer spirit that demands we start sending people to visit and settle the other worlds and moons of the Solar System, it’s survival. And we’re not going to get anywhere close to a position to do that if we keep on sending out robots.

True, at present our technology isn’t quite up to a crewed Mars mission. We could build the rockets and get what we need into orbit, we could send it on a transfer orbit, we could even land it on the Martian surface. But we don’t know yet how to effectively keep the human payload alive during the months-long journey through interplanetary space. And then there’s the cost. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. A crewed mission would cost quadrillions, and require the sort of long-term investment and political will no government would ever countenance. And, to be honest, given that cost, the mission would have to be something special…

Source: NASA

Which is not that difficult to achieve. Most mission profiles would require a stay of months on Mars, perhaps even a couple of years. The Red Planet is not the Moon. It’s not a three-day flight, spend as long as you can on the surface, and then head straight for home. The orbits of the Earth and Mars, and the millions of kilometres between the two which increase and decrease due to those orbital paths, mean departures from each planet have to be carefully scheduled. An conjunction-class mission would launch when Mars is on the other side of the Sun to Earth, would require between 250 and 300 days for journey there, and give a stay time on Mars on 60 to 90 days. A opposition-class mission, however, which would launch while the two planets are close, would take 450 days to travel there and give a stay time of up to 500 days. The conjunction-class mission requires less energy than the opposition-class mission.

Keeping the crew alive in interplanetary space for almost a year is not something we really know how to do yet. There have been experiments with Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems, but a Closed Ecological Life Support Systems is beyond us. Because a year in space without resupply either requires huge amounts of supplies, or near-perfect recycling. And every kilogram of those supplies is going to cost well beyond its actual price because it needs to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well and taken along to Mars. Even in situ replenishment on the Martian surface might prove too difficult, so the mission will need some sort of CELSS which can operate for the full length of the mission.

I freely admit I would be delighted to see a human being on Mars during my lifetime. But, realistically, I don’t expect it to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it took until the middle of next century before we got further than the Moon. At present, the only way we’re going to get there is via our imaginations. Which is pretty sad, when you think about it.



Filed under space, space travel

Curiosity on Mars

The Curiosity rover landed successfully on the surface of Mars this morning. It’s an impressive achievement but, to be fair, the US and the USSR have been doing this – with varying degrees of success – since 1971. There’s a good infographic explaining this on here. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is only the latest, and most sophisticated, of these. Putting an astronaut, or cosmonaut, or taikonaut, on the surface of Mars, however, would be a spectacularly impressive achievement. Curiosity cost around $2.5 billion; a crewed mission to Mars would cost several orders of magnitude more. For one thing, there’s the return journey to account for. Unless, of course, the space travellers are intending to settle the Red Planet…

Source: NASA

Mars has held a particular fascination for science fiction writers throughout the genre’s history, and there are countless treatments of missions to Mars – from Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday to Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Robinson’s trilogy is often considered the definitive sf work on the topic, though it is more about the political and social development of the Red Planet than it is the nuts and bolts of settling it. For the latter, Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is perhaps more realistic; as is William K Hartmann’s Mars Underground. No Man Friday, on the other hand, is pure Robinsonade (that’s Robinson Crusoe, rather than Kim Stanley Robinson), though its early scenes, in which a team of British scientists secretly built a rocket in a disused water tower, holds a certain period charm.

Mars also proved a popular locale for stories submitted to Rocket Science, and three set on, or en route to, the Red Planet made it onto the table of contents: ‘Dancing on the Red Planet’, Berit Ellingsen; ‘The Brave Little Cockroach Goes to Mars’, Simon McCaffery; and ‘A Biosphere Ends’, Stephen Palmer. All three stories deal with human beings on Mars, however.

Nonetheless, let’s not forget that 900 kg robot currently sitting on the Martian surface, on Aeolis Palus on the floor of Gale Crater. At present, it’s the closest we’re going to get to another world in real life – and if there’s one thing science fiction rarely depicts it’s the sheer difficulty and danger of travelling through space and landing on alien planets. We need to be reminded of that more often.


Filed under space travel

Red Stars in Orbit

Shenzhou-9 landed safely on 29 June, bringing back to Earth three taikonauts, including the first female one. The taikonauts had spent thirteen days aboard Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. The name means “Heavenly Palace”, which I must admit is a more poetic name than “International Space Station”. China plans to send up another module to their space station in 2013, and then further modules over several years. The finished space station will be smaller than the ISS, perhaps similar in size to the US Skylab of the 1970s.

While the US tries desperately hard to create some sort of libertarian commercial space capability, the Chinese are just cracking on with an ambitious government space programme. You can’t help but wonder if they’d been doing this thirty years ago, they’d have put a taikonaut on Mars by now.

CNSA, the China National Space Administration, clearly has ambitions, which is more than can be said for the US Administration, or indeed the ESA or Roscosmos. True, a number of private sector firms in the US have proposed expansive plans – SpaceX wants to go to Mars, Planetary Resources wants to mine near-Earth asteroids… But I’ve yet to be convinced that the profit motive is a powerful enough driver for the exploration and exploitation of the Solar System. In these days of “shareholder expectation management”, the only true motivation for business is generating sufficient EBITDA to keep investors and shareholders happy so they continue to keep the whole financial house of cards propped up. None of this money is going toward anything socially, technologically or scientifically useful. It requires government intervention for that to happen. Like in the Apollo programme; and the pre-Glasnost Soyuz programme; and the CNSA’s current Shenzhou launches.

Space is not the Wild West, it is not the Final Frontier. It may well be the future of the human race, given our present willingness to destroy our biosphere in the name of an economic system which plainly doesn’t work and is unsustainable. Sadly, there’s no running away from the mess we’re making. We can’t simply chuck our worldly goods into a Conestoga wagon and head out into the wild blue yonder. Space isn’t a survivable environment – technological assistance is an absolute necessity. Even on the shores of Earth, so to speak, in LEO, the safest off-Earth place in the universe – if you fall, you land on Earth; plus, you have the Earth’s magnetosphere to protect you from all the nasty radiation – even in LEO, it’s a constant battle to stay in place and survive. The ISS was originally intended to deorbit in 2016, though it’s likely it will last much longer. All those billions of dollars spent on something that won’t even last twenty years…

What’s needed is a steady and regular programme of small steps which will take us out to the other planets in the Solar System. A monolithic government agency is the only way this will happen. People may baulk at the cost… forgetting that the US put twelve men on the Moon for a cost of approximately $10 per year per taxpayers over a decade. How can that not be a useful and noble way to spend tax revenue? Instead, western nations would sooner spend trillions on military adventurism. How is that justifiable?

It seems to me the Chinese have got their priorities right. And if it’s a taikonaut who first lands on Mars, then don’t be surprised if you see me cheering along and waving the Wǔ Xīng Hóng Qí.


Filed under general, space, space travel

Here Be Dragons?

Now that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully delivered supplies to the International Space Station, does that mean the future lies with the commercial space sector? Well, I’m not convinced. There’s certainly plenty to exploit out there in the Solar System, from the minerals in asteroids to the hydrocarbons in comets to Helium-3 on the lunar surface, and so on. The returns are potentially huge. But so is the capital investment required. And no twenty-first century corporation, focused primarily on managing shareholder expectations, is going to sink billions of dollars or euros into a project that may or may not give a return on investment for decades.

Source: National Geographic

There is no cheap way to get into space, and no cheap way to remain there. At present, the vast budgets required are justified by the science – because the immediate benefits of science are incalculable, but the nature of scientific enterprise means there’s always a golden egg just over the horizon. The only organisations with pockets deep enough, and that will take a long-term view, are public agencies. People cavil at the cost, and rue the opportunity costs – conveniently forgetting that in terms of individual contribution, the price is insignificant, and that saving money in one place rarely means it will be spent where it’s most needed. The Apollo programme, for example, cost $25 billion between 1962 and 1972, or $2.5 billion per year. Given a population of around 190 million over that period, and assuming approximately half paid taxes… that’s about $13 per taxpayer per year. People spend more than that per year on bubblegum.

At present, Low Earth Orbit is desirable real estate, but it is difficult and expensive to reach. Should any company find a cost-effective way of putting hardware into LEO, they will have customers lining up at their door. Commercial satellites are expensive to build, and expensive to put in place, but they make money. Lots of money. Indeed, the services they offer can even be pre-sold to offset the development costs. SpaceX, however, has said it plans to go further. Planetary Resources Inc also intends to move beyond LEO.

The problem is that space is not the Wild West. Back in the day, you spent your savings on your wagon and supplies, and lit out into the great yonder. Once you’d found a suitable spot, you settled down and became self-sufficient. You can’t be self-sufficient in space. LEO is about as safe as it gets in space, and even then living there is an ongoing cost; and an expensive one at that.

I’m not convinced the commercial exploitation of space, given present and foreseeable technology, is possible. I don’t think corporations would even find such projects desirable or sustainable. It needs government, or supra-governmental, involvement. It needs a redistribution of resources and capital that is politically anathema in today’s neoliberal economies. Given the prizes that could be won, it seems to me self-defeating to put our all our hopes in the private sector, which can only chip away ineffectually at the low-hanging fruit.


Filed under space, space travel

Red Planet fail

I tried rewatching Red Planet last night. It was one of two films released in 2000 about a trip to Mars. Red Planet stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss and Terence Stamp, and was directed by Antony Hoffman. The other Mars film was Mission to Mars, starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle, and directed by Brian De Palma.

But, Red Planet. I lasted half an hour before I gave up in disgust. At the time of release, Red Planet was considered the inferior of the two movies, and I remember thinking it not very good at the time… What I had forgotten was quite how bad it was. It takes place in 2056, and details a mission to Mars to investigate why the algae which they had been using to terraform the planet had failed. Their spacecraft is called Mars-1, which somehow possesses internal gravity. In fact, the spacecraft’s interior more resembles a spaceship from Star Trek or Star Wars than it does a spacecraft from fifty years hence.

The crew are no more plausible. They appear to have been cobbled together at the last minute – when it’s usual practice to train for years together for such a mission. At several points, Val Kilmer, the “mechanical systems engineer” (there’s no “electronic systems engineer” aboard, incidentally), leers creepily at his captain, Carrie-Ann Moss, which is disturbing and unprofessional. The crew’s geneticist, Tom Sizemore, uses his lab to build a still, and then they all sit around getting drunk on his moonshine. True, John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3 against orders; but that’s not quite the same as getting pissed in an environment in which the slightest mistake could prove fatal.

But, still – magical technology spaceship rather than mid-twenty-first century spacecraft, unprofessional crew, even the brainless conversation in which Terence Stamp declares that “science can’t answer the interesting questions”… it’s Hollywood. You accept it for the sake of drama.

Except… On arrival in orbit about Mars, a solar flare strikes. According to Wikipedia, a solar flare “ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space”. You can’t see “electrons, ions and atoms”. They do not sparkle and provide a pretty light show, as they do in the film. And if the systems aboard your spacecraft explode as a result of the huge input of energy from these “electrons, ions and atoms”… Gah. It’s completely stupid. A solar flare is a known form of event. Any spacecraft would be built to weather one – the most fragile elements aboard are the crew. (See ‘A Ray of Sunshine’ by Bill Patterson in Rocket Science for more information.)

So I gave up on the film. Maybe I’ll watch the rest of it another day. Instead, I watched the first episode of Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, a BBC mockumentary about a Grand Tour mission. It’s much, much better. The scenes set aboard the spacecraft Pegasus look to have been filmed on the “Vomit Comet”, so they’re in real “zero gravity”. There’ s a real scientific basis to everything visible on-screen, and the writers manage to evoke drama and tension out of something as seemingly simple as a one-hour mission to the surface of Venus. The scenes set on Mars are also more convincing than those of the Hollywood film.

So if you’re going to watch something realistic and authentic about humanity exploring the Solar System, watch Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets. Not Red Planet.


Filed under space travel

Rocket Science fiction or Rocket Science fact?

Last week, a group of billionaires unveiled plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and minerals. Planetary Resources, Inc. was founded by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, co-founder of space tourism company Space Adventures, with investors including director James Cameron, and Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google. On April 24, at a press conference in Seattle, USA, Planetary Resources said it aims to dig up metals such as ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum from asteroids; and also water, which it will then sell as spacecraft fuel.

Initially, Planetary Resources plans to throw the first privately-owned space telescope into Low Earth Orbit, which they will use to spot likely targets for mining. By adding propulsion to a space telescope, they will then be able to send it on an intercept mission. They also plan to hunt asteroids further afield.

All this will be familiar if you’ve read Iain Cairn’s story, ‘Conquistadors’, in Rocket Science. That too deals with a private company – in Iain’s story, a Mexican mining corporation – which sends a mission to mine a near-Earth asteroid.

The only question is: which story in Rocket Science will be the next one to turn from science fiction into science fact?


Filed under space, space travel

The sky’s the limit

Since first coming across the concept a couple of years ago, I’ve felt that air-launching rockets is a pretty cool idea. Put basically, you chuck a launch vehicle out of the back of an aircraft at high altitude.

This gives a number of benefits. For a start, the rocket is already partway to orbit. Also, should the engines not fire, for whatever reason, then out pops a parachute and the payload can safely return to earth. Not to mention the fact that the actual launch can take place anywhere the carrier aircraft can reach, and so is not constrained by local weather conditions or the orbits reachable from fixed launch sites. And should anything catastrophic occur during launch, then it all happens miles away from anyone.

Unfortunately, the system is constrained by the weight that can be lifted by the carrier aircraft. The Antonov An-225 Mriya is the world’s heaviest aircraft and can carry up to 250,000 kg of cargo. The Saturn 1B launch vehicle weighs more than that double that… without payload. The Ariane 5 rocket weighs 777,000 kg and the Soyuz-2 weighs 305,000 kg. Of course, any rocket designed for air launch would not need as many stages, and so would be somewhat lighter. But no one had ever gone as far as to actually design build such a rocket…

But now they might.

Paul G Allen of Microsoft fame and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites have just announced a new venture, Stratolaunch Systems, which aims to do just that. They plan to build a huge carrier aircraft, powered by six Boeing 747 turbofans, which will be able to lift a a specially-designed SpaceX booster which will launch at high altitude.

Given the expense and difficulties of getting to orbit, a move into space in any kind of useful numbers is unlikely in the near to medium future. An orbital elevator would certainly make travel to orbit both cheaper and easier, but construction of one is well beyond our present capabilities – or companies’ abilities or willingness to invest. An air-launch system could be an excellent interim system. It might actually be the system that makes the commercial space transportation sector a very real alternative to national and transnational space agencies.


Filed under space travel