4 years after Mangalyaan launch: A look at NASA, SpaceX plans to colonise Mars | science | Hindustan Times
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4 years after Mangalyaan launch: A look at NASA, SpaceX plans to colonise Mars

ISRO’s celebrated Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on Sunday completes the fourth anniversary of its launch.

science Updated: Nov 05, 2017 16:05 IST
HT Correspondent
An artist's rendition of SpaceX's new mega-rocket design on Mars.
An artist's rendition of SpaceX's new mega-rocket design on Mars. (AP File Photo)

Getting humans on Mars seems to be the new milestone, or lightyear-stone, in space exploration.

Even as the ISRO’s celebrated Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) completes the fourth anniversary of its launch on November 5, 2013, space agencies have begun working on plans to colonise the Red Planet.

In September, SpaceX chief Elon Musk presented an elaborate plan at a press conference in Australia for a mega-rocket to transport astronauts to Mars by 2022. A year ago, he had unveiled his grand scheme in Mexico, describing a 106-metre-tall rocket and announcing that the private space company aims to launch two cargo missions to Mars in 2022.

HT interactive: Ride the Mangalyaan

American space agency NASA also aims to send humans to Mars with the help of its “powerful” Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft by the 2030s. Here’s a look at their plans:

Getting there

SpaceX plans to “cannibalise” its existing rockets and spacecraft to make way for a single type that will do all the work, including down-to-Earth applications, a report in The Business Insider said.

Musk wonders that if one can build a ship capable of going to the moon or Mars, why can’t it be used for high-speed transport back at home? He proposes using the rocket – code-named BFR for ‘Big F****** Rocket’ – for taking passengers from destinations such as New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes flat.

The BFR is still in the design phase.

This artist's rendering made available by Elon Musk SpaceX's new mega-rocket design on the Earth's moon. (AP Photo)

NASA is also charting its own path to what it calls the “Deep Space Gateway”, beginning with expeditions in the vicinity of the moon in the 2020s and eventually culminating in Mars.

Astronauts will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft that will be “carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket” in the not-so-distant future, NASA says on its website. But an Orion mission will first (in the 2020s) send astronauts to explore an asteroid for testing new technologies before transporting humans to Mars.

Rockets and finance

SpaceX intends to finance its $10-billion Mars endeavour by using a rocket that’s smaller than the one outlined last year. Fewer engines would be needed: 31 versus the originally envisioned 42. Its lift capability would be 150 tonnes, more than NASA’s old moon rocket Saturn V.

The spaceship, according to Musk, may be long and cylindrical with small shuttle-like wings. It could also held establish a lunar settlement as a possible fuel depot in the Earth’s orbit.

Musk wants a single kind of booster and spaceship to replace the reusable Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, which currently delivers cargo to the international station. This way, the company can put all its resources in the new system, and the revenue from launching satellites and sending supplies as well as crew to the space station could pay for the new rocket to Mars.

Mars City Opposite of Earth. Dawn and dusk sky are blue on Mars and day sky is red.

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Passengers to Mars

According to Musk’s vision, the SpaceX ships would have 40 cabins – ideally with two to three people per cabin for a grand total of about 100 passengers – for the approximately six-month one-way trips to Mars. He foresees the Mars city growing, and over time becoming “a really nice place to be”.

“While the timeline and capabilities are certainly ambitious, I’m bullish on the US industry’s ability to carry out challenging and far-reaching goals,” former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun told AP in September. “It’s great to see the private sector lead in this way, and I hope we see more of it.”

Sustaining life on Mars

Much of NASA’s focus is also directed on developing the systems that will help sustain life on the fiery planet after landing. It doesn’t have certain basic factors that we otherwise take for granted – such as fuel, oxygen, food, shelter and protection from radiation – and ensuring their availability is a question that needs to be answered before humans can imagine a life in Mars’ hostile atmosphere.

The agency says it is working on recycling water from all possible sources, including urine, hand-washing and oral hygiene. Breathable air can be produced through an Oxygen Generation System, currently used on the ISS, which splits water molecules to create oxygen. They are also looking at ways to grow food on Mars and manufacture space suits that can withstand radiation to make life sustainable on the planet.

This artist's rendering made available by Elon Musk shows SpaceX's new mega-rocket design at the International Space Station. (AP File Photo)

But many detractors believe Musk’s plans to send hundreds to Mars are too “big and fantastical”, the president and founder of Mars Society Robert Zubrin told The Guardian.

Instead, Musk should be thinking of sending just ten people for setting up an agricultural base, Zubrin said. “He can then send 20 more people and so forth to develop capabilities for making steel and eventually create institutions like schools.”

A Business Insider report also said Musk hasn’t detailed plans on how to keep the Martian explorers alive. SpaceX declined to answer queries regarding its work on long-term life support systems for Mars.

It remains to be seen if human civilisation succeeds in his dream to breach the final frontier.

Watch | Detailed SpaceX plans for multiplanetary life

(With agency inputs)