Yes it could actually happen. But would be a scientific disaster, almost certainly a death sentence for the participants, probably within a few months, and would be a miserable experience for them before they die. Yet with a change in the mission profile, it could so easily be turned into something much more positive and interesting simply by focussing on an orbital mission exploring the surface by telepresence instead of immediately going to the surface right away.
Related blog posts:
Space habs could house trillions
Value of Pristine Mars
Terraforming Mars needs great care
International Outer Space Treaty
Hardly anyone ever points out that any manned mission to the surface of Mars violates the international Outer Space Treaty provisions for planetary protection, and the COSPAR guidelines which all Mars surface missions follow, to avoid contaminating the planet with Earth life.
The treaty and guidelines were drawn up for a good reason. Introduce life to Mars and you are now studying a planet that has been contaminated by modern Earth life, and it will be extremely hard to find out if it had life already before you got there, and whether or not you have made the existing life on Mars extinct by introducing modern micro-organisms from Earth.
There are different categories of mission according to the guidelines with the Moon category II Mars orbital missions in category III, and Mars landing in the far more strict Category IV. (For more about this see end of this article)
It seems reasonable that they could update the guidelines to permit human orbiting missions to Mars, with appropriate care taken to make crash landings on Mars just about impossible, but can’t see how they would ever in near future update them to permit surface missions until much more is known about the planet.
Before you can legally send humans to the surface of Mars then the Outer Space Treaty and the COSPAR guidelines will need to be modified. If you attempt to get it changed to permit the expedition, then I am sure at this stage you will get massive opposition. The working groups that advise on the COSPAR guidelines continually advise to make it more strict, not less, as we learn more about the amazing extremophile capabilities of many ordinary seeming Earth micro-organisms.
Diversity of organisms in skin flora and human surroundings
If anyone thinks it is possible for humans to go to Mars without introducing new organisms to it, reflect that the skin flora alone of a human being has 1000 species in 19 phyla, some not well known yet, and over a trillion individual organisms. Just your skin. And that’s 19 PHYLA - same level as chordate one level above creatures with backbones in the evolutionary classifications.
That’s not taking account of your gut, food, air you breathe, water - we are surrounded by trillions of organisms and many especially of the “uncultivatable archaea” are still so little understood that all we have of them are fragments of gene sequences. Any human occupied spacecraft is like a giant package of these micro-organisms - and even many multi-cellular organisms too. And keeping all that within the spacecraft, is simply not possible as soon as you permit the astronauts to go out of the door in spacesuits.
Extremophile niches on Mars
More and more species are turning out to be extremophiles, with hidden capabilities, don’t need to live in extreme places at all, just capabilities that they have from the past. Many are primary producers so can survive e.g. on no more than rock, and a little moisture or salty brine. There is increasing modern evidence that some of these species could survive on some niches on Mars just as it is now without any terraforming of Mars and without any special adaptation of the organism. Just transfer the organism to Mars and it could survive “as is” and colonize all available niches on the planet quite quickly.
That is if the niches exist - but - e.g. thin salty films sub surface (which may well exist in places on Mars though no-one yet knows for sure), or the water vapour that briefly condenses in evening and morning from the air on Mars - both have been shown to be possible habitats or existing modern micro-organisms. And many organisms form spores that are amazingly resistant even to everything that Mars can throw at them.
Rapidity of spread of micro-organisms on Mars if a suitable habitat is found
Carl Sagan once calculated that if you started with a single micro-organism, and it reproduced once a month (very slow for a micro-organism) then you could get a microbial population equal to the soil population of the Earth within a decade. Of course that is not going to happen on Mars because it is not hospitable enough to support such a large population.
But by the same reasoning it is entirely possible for all suitable habitats on Mars to be colonised within a few years, if the habitats exist at all and are reasonably common on the surface. The exposed rocks slightly moistened by the morning and evening dew, and the possible thin subsurface layers of brine are both types of habitat that could be widespread on Mars. These don’t even need to be near the human settlement, it just needs an endospore imbedded in a dust grain to be carried to one of them during the global Martian dust storms.
Hard landings immediately violate COSPAR and the Outer Space Treaty
The COSPAR guidelines require that Mars be protected in the event of a hard landing of any spacecraft sent there. A hard landing on Mars of a human occupied spacecraft would deposit human bodies directly on the surface - immediate huge Mars contamination, hard to see how that could ever be reversed.
This is not just an issue for scientific exploration of Mars. It could also be a major issue for terraforming if that is ever decided to be a good thing to do. For instance one way to terraform Mars might involve use of photosynthesising organisms to generate the oxygen. But what if you have already seeded Mars inadvertently with micro-organisms that just love oxygen, and will immediately eat it all up as soon as you create it? After a human visit there would be spores of such organisms just waiting to wake up when the conditions are right.
This could prevent a balanced atmosphere ever forming in the first place. Our planet needed a stage of solely oxygen producing organisms, without any animals to consume the oxygen, and needed to remain in that state for a long period of time to develop an oxygen rich atmosphere. After that, many cycles and feedback mechanisms developed. On Mars this is a major challenge; to try to do that. To introduce aerobes right at the start before you even attempt it might make it impossible to do it at all.
The online Mars One community seem uninterested in any of these issues except the legal matter of the treaty
I tried to point all this out on the Mars One forum some years ago, but the people there showed little understanding or interest in what I said so I gave up. The only thing that I said that I felt had some impact was when I mentioned that it would break current international legal treaty in the Outer Space Treaty.
But though they acknowledged that it was a legal issue, they didn’t appreciate the underlying reason for the treaty, which is far more important than just understanding that it breaks the treaty. Like - okay - the law has to be changed so we can go there - so what - kind of attitude. Just acknowledged it was an issue but then no more discussion at all after that.
Analogy with Antarctica
Antarctica is protected by the Antarctica treaty, and if a private company set up an expedition to colonize Antarctica and introduce life from other continents to do so, there would be an outcry. It would be far far easier to colonize Antarctica, and indeed the Moon, than Mars.
We know so little about Mars, and so much of value to learn - to destroy all that potential knowledge when your only reason for destroying it is so that you can have humans set foot on Mars sooner rather than later is so sad.
Orbital colonies of Mars.would be fine, and are a perfect solution that should make everyone happy apart from the trivial thing of being able in person to “plant your feet on Mars” (and so contaminate it irretrievably).
I tried to persuade the Mars One people via their forum to turn it into an orbital colony of Mars. That would be fine as far as contamination issues are concerned.. It’s also much more interesting for the would be “colonists”. An easier place to live, inspiring, no dust storms, easier to keep warm, can have any level of gravity you like via tethered spacecraft including Earth normal gravity, the whole of the Mars surface available to you every orbit via telepresence for exploration via remote controlled rovers, also of course direct observation with telescopes, list goes on and on.
Seems the only motivation of Mars One for going to surface rather than orbit is so that humans can set foot on the surfac
But they just said - this means it is no longer the Mars One mission profile, and moved the thread to another forum about other topics not directly related to Mars One. Basically it doesn’t have the media and visceral impact to go into orbit around Mars rather than for humans to set their feet actually on the surface, that is what they were saying.
For them that is the trump card in all discussions that seems to immediately override any scientific or moral issues you have with the mission. That’s the point where I gave up discussing it with them.
I have yet to see a single reason given for humans to go to the surface of Mars that doesn’t work far better as a reason for going to the Moon or to orbit around Mars.
That is except for ability to say “I (or a human from Earth) stood on the surface of Mars”.
Advantages of telerobotics for space missons
Telerobotics is a rapidly evolving field. It is used increasingly for remote geological exploration, and even for surgery, operations on patients on one continent by doctors on another continent. It’s being explored by NASA for future space missions. It has many advantages
- Teleoperated robots are more agile than humans in space-suits
- No need to put on the space suit - it takes 45 minutes for an astronaut to don a spacesuit in the ISS (not including the extra hour spent in the suit breathing pure oxygen before you go out).
- Safer for humans, as they remain within the hab
- Enhanced vision included automatically, and can make the surface of Mars seem earth like and easier for humans to understand.
- Everything humans see is live streamed so can be automatically recorded. Same for everything they do so if something goes wrong you can play back the recording to see exactly what happened.
- Costs less - much easier to land robots on a surface than humans
- More exploration done for the same cost - each human can control many rovers, and they can also continue semi-autonomously doing things when the human releases control
- Rovers are left on the surface when the human mission leaves, and can continue to operate for years later
- Rovers can be sterilized for exploration of surfaces that can be contaminated by life. Humans cannot be sterlized in this way without killing the human
For more about this with a good overview, see Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think
Hostility of the surface of Mars for humans
Most people have no idea quite how hostile the surface of Mars is. It is a near vacuum, the atmosphere would count as a laboratory vacuum on Earth. It is very cold, same average temperature as Antarctica but day to night swings far greater meaning it gets much colder than anywhere on Earth at night, and that’s at the equator.
Dust storms that last for weeks on end that would blot out the sun.
Everything a muddy reddish grey colour - the photos of Mars are adjusted to simulate Earth lighting to make it easier for geologists to interpret. To human vision there would be hardly any variation in colour.
Here is a photo of Mount Sharp as it would look if you took a photo on your smart phone. Here is the same photo after white balancing. Here is another photo showing the unprocessed, natural and white balanced versions.
The photos you see in news reports about Mars are invariably white balanced and don’t give a clear idea of what Mras is like to the human eye.
It would just be so depressing for the “colonists” on the surface. You can only get out of your hab if you go through several hours every day of putting on and taking off your spacesuit and making all the checks to make sure you do it safely (if not you will probably die of a simple mistake).
When you get out, it is dull reddish grey barren landscape stretching out for miles in all directions. The first couple of times it would be interesting and exotic and after that - for non scientists just depressing.
Small - but not zero - chance Mars could harbour dangerous micro-orgamisms
There is also the possibility of reverse contamination too. No-one knows for sure that there is no life on Mars, indeed that would almost be a bit of a surprise given what we know about how quickly life formed on Earth. If there is life on Mars, there is a small but certainly not zero possibility that it might be hazardous to humans - because human diseases can develop without any animal host. It is rare but does happen, legionnaire’s disease is an example. We would lack any immunity to it if such existed on Mars, and that too could kill all the colonists. Maybe slowly too over years rather than right away. It is low probability probably but we don’t know how to assess the probability.
And could also be life with a different basis from Earth life (scientifically most interesting of all) e.g. assuming carbon based - uses something maybe a bit like our DNA but not quite exactly the same. Whether that is something not to worry about at all, or extremely hazardous to DNA based life - again knowing nothing about what is there and what it might be like, we have no way to assess.
Possible toxic effects of Mars dust on colonists
The silicates, and perchlorates in Mars dust could be hazardous to humans if breathed in. Other materials in the dust such as gypsum could also be hazardous.
It would probably be impossible to avoid bringing the Mars dust into the habitat in a working colony. This is a problem they attempted to solve with the Apollo missions with limited success in the case of the lunar dust. See .Toxic Mars dust could hamper planned human missions
Another idea (this is my own idea not seen it published anywhere): the dust is not yet studied on a microscopic level and so what ift humans have allergic reactions to it - and of course not had any opportunity to build up resistance to it?
It might just be a minor nuisance, so the colonists might suffer from continual severe hay fever type symptoms. Or, in the case of a severe allergy it is even possible that they could lead to death. For instance if there is some form of life spores on the dust that we are allergic to.
Life in an orbital colony around Mars
Contrast life in orbit. You see the whole of Mars spread out below you, and as astronauts have found on the ISS, then life in orbit is interesting for humans. You would have gravity too because a Mars orbital colony would be spun up to achieve gravity.
You would be frequently in demand by scientists to drive their spacecraft over the surface of Mars, or pilot their gliders and balloons - the main reasons the existing spacecraft travel so slowly is because of the long round trip light speed delay when controlled from Earth, the other issues such as having enough energy available for journey on the surface could be solved easily if there was anyone there who could drive them in real time.
You wouldn’t need to be a science specialist to do that, so it is a place where I can imagine non scientists being useful (working alongside scientists) - especially as you get more missions to the surface (and many institutions and countries would surely be keen to add them either alongside or part of a major orbital mission) - you would need people who are good and careful drivers able to drive the rovers safely around on the surface. Not necessarily the same as the best scientists.
You have a bigger habitat for less cost, because it costs much less to send materials to Mars orbit than to the surface.
Orbit around Mars easier to reach in terms of delta v than surface of our Moon
Less delta v is needed for Mars orbit than for a Moon landing, so supply of materials is much easier, a huge difference.This saves many billions of pounds, and hugely reduces complexity of the mission, and chances of things to go wrong compared with a surface mission.
It’s actually quite easy to return from Mars orbit as well, at the end of the mission, or with a sick astronaut for long duration missions. For surface missions such as Mars One, this is either omitted altogether or adds immensely to the expense.
Also you don’t have all the technological challenges of landing multi-tonne habitats on the surface. Charles Campbell, an aerodynamics expert at NASA, likened the challenge of landing a human habitat on Mars to the challenge of developing the space shuttle.
In site resource utilization for orbital colony
You still have resources you can utilize on the spot, Mars orbit is as good as the surface in that respect, possibly better. I’m thinking of Phobos and Deimos - but for that matter also near earth asteroids too. A mining company in operation in the space close to Earth could more easily send its materials to a Mars orbital colony than to the surface of the Earth. So as space industry develops, a Mars orbital colony would be able to access those materials more easily than almost any other place apart from orbits around Earth itself (months or years of time delay not a big deal for supply of water, minerals etc from comets and asteroids).
Moon for first steps for colonization
Having said that, I’d recommend a first colony mission to the poles of the Moon. That’s because it is a lot closer to the Earth. On Mars say that your main heater packs in, or your oxygen supply is damaged, or any of a thousand small issues that could kill all the astronauts. Maybe you have a backup but it goes as well.
Then, it is at least six months travel time before you can get a replacement sent from Earth. And that’s possible only every two years.
On the Moon then it is just a matter of days to get a replacement sent, and there is at least a chance you can cobble something together that will work at least until it arrives
The same applies to vital personnel, if for instance the only doctor on your mission dies. On the Moon a new doctor can be sent with a few days notice. On Mars it could be a year or two before the replacement gets to you.
Difficulties for techy specialists on Earth attempting to assist Mars missions with real time emergency issues
If you have ever tried helping someone with computer problems via a telephone line - imagine doing something much more technical than that - and with a 44 minute delay to wait for them to say anything (22 minutes for your advise to get to them, 22 minutes for their reply to get back to you). Now imagine that the people you assist are non techy and may not be able to articulate their problems well in ways that the support scientists and technicians can understand instantly. Many hours could easily pass before you can assess the situation on Earth and communicate even simple instructions to them.
That is what tech support from Earth of ordinary people at the distance o Mars, even in a Mars orbit colony would be like. And this might be an emergency situation where they need to find a solution within minutes.
This could be for engineering or computing support. Or medical support. And for astronauts on Mars or in Mars orbit, they live in a potentially dangerous environment and could easily be a life and death situation where minutes count, and at the same time, the smallest error in following your instructions could also lead to death.
So techy specialists needed as a major part of the crew for orbital missions to Mars
You must have specialists there with them. It is okay to have people who are artists and poets and composers etc as part of a larger crew even if not trained in computers or maths or science or piloting spaceships etc - but not on their own without any specialists with them - that is just a death sentence at the distance of Mars!
So - I say - go to the Moon first for colonies with people in less than prime health and non specialists. There we can work out the issues and find out how such a mix of personnel works in practise. For Mars - start with orbital missions - which need to be small groups of highly trained individuals, and include doctors on hand in an emergency, not just people able to do first aid.
It needs to be a tight crew in the early Mars missions, all highly skilled in some way or another well able to deal with highly technical scientific issues. Also needs at least some scientists, some engineers, and some people who thoroughly understand the spacecraft and equipment, right on the spot in an emergency (think Apollo 13)..
At the distance of Mars, a long term mission of many years or decades needs multiple redundancy of the specialists in case of death - if your doctor dies for instance then it may be a year or two before a replacement can be sent.
Can have people with no prior space training at all as well, I really like that aspect of the Mars One mission. That’s great so long as they are very healthy, and highly skilled in some way.
On a larger mission (with enough scientists, doctors etc to make it viable) including poets and composers too, not just scientists, create new works of art, describe what they experience in ways that resonate with us back on Earth. You will of course need excellent gardeners too, to look after the plants so essential for long term survival (and great for moral as well). That’s possible when you get to dozens of people. As the colony gets larger it gets easier to include a higher and higher proportion of less highly trained “ordinary folk” and a greater diversity of skills.
But on their own as a small crew - with no scientists or engineers - or doctors etc?
Not six months away on Mars. Not now. Not on their own. Just possibly on the Moon that might work. On Mars as part of a larger expedition with most of them specialists, again could work, a bit like the way that happens sometimes with the ISS. But for in any hab at the distance of Mars, you are talking about something as complex as the ISS; but so far from the Earth it requires six months travel time to get there at the best of times, and often much longer. And up to 44 minutes light speed delay just to communicate your problem to Earth and back again. And you have no possibility ever of a normal free flowing two way discussion with specialists on Earth.
Mars One ideas
Their ideas are great, as far as they go - and for stimulating discussion - and they obviously are good at generating publicity for them. But if only they had a bit more appreciation of science and understanding of it, to match their enthusiasm and ideas.
It’s the idea that’s terrible, not the Mars One organisers
In my conversations on their forum then the Mars One enthusiasts came over as honest enthusiastic people of integrity, who happen to believe that the most important thing is for humans to land on the surface of Mars as soon as possible. They seem currently unable to consider any other alternatives except a surface mission.
That is what makes the project such a terrible idea in my opinion, as I’ve explained. The rest of it - the things most Mars One detractors focus attention on - I think much of that is great and am all for diversity in space missions :).
If they just change the profile to focus on an orbital mission first, and accept the necessity for keeping to the international Outer Space Treaty and accept it is not going to be changed just to permit their expedition to the surface of Mars, then I’d be all in support of them. The need for large expeditions and to include a mix of many specialists at the distance of Mars I think will become clear as planning progresses.
Article IX of the internationally approved Outer Space Treaty
"Article IX: … States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose…
Details about the COSPAR guidelines
There are four categories of location for the COSPAR guidelines depending on the capability of the destination to support life (leaving out category V which is to do with sample return)
- Category I: Any mission to the Sun, Mercury, other locations not of interest for studying prebiotic chemistry or the origin and evolution of life.
- Category II: Any mission to the Earth’s Moon, Venus, comets, Jupiter, Pluto/Charon, Kuiper Belt Objects, other locations of interest for studying prebiotic chemistry and the origin of life but for which there is an insignificant probability of contamination with Earth life.
- Category III: Flyby and orbiter missions to locations with the potential to host life and for which there is a possibility of contamination by Earth life; e.g., Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus.
- Category IV: Lander or probe missions to locations with the potential to host life and for which there is a possibility of contamination by Earth life; e.g., Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus.
(quote from Wikipedia article: Planetary Protection - Categories)
The Moon is category II. The asteroids category I or II. Mars category IV. That is why the current law would permit colonies in space, and on the Moon too, with a bit of care taken, but would not permit colonies on Mars. Orbital colonies around Mars would be category III so need more care than a Moon colony - the risk there is of an accident leading to a human occupied spaceship crashing into Mars. For instance use of aerobraking by a human occupied ship to Mars for capture into a Mars orbit would be especially risky from a planetary protection point of view
My attempt to raise these points on the Mars One Forum
You can read my Mars One discussion here:
Orbital Colony around Mars instead a planet-based one, similar to NASA HERRO mission?
The post that lead me to give up discussing things with them (politely) was when a “supermoderator” wrote on page 3.
"It really is an interesting and valid approach, but I beg you - don’t make this topic a personal obsession.
We’re about to make Mars One get through the way it was proposed, with a human base on the Martian surface.
That’s what’s debated at this forum and what determines the fate of mankind in Space for the years to come.
So I moved this thread to the General Mars Discussion forum - we only want to discuss topics directly related to Mars One at the project forum.”
References and background material
For references and background for the things I say here, and all the scientific details and references to papers etc, you can start here:
Manned mission to Mars - Critiques
Could have peppered this page with links to the background supporting material but I thought go for something easily readable and not interrupt the flow. It is all thoroughly backed up by the scientific literature.
See also my blog posts: The Value of a Pristine Mars and its Uniqueness to Science and Humanity in its Current State and Space habs could house trillions of people in the future - planetary surfaces can never match that
Online discussions of this blog post
See this discussion at nasaspaceflight.com
Also this discussion at reddit.com
This post itself started as a reply to a discussion of Mars One at spacengine.org
Related blog posts:
Space habs could house trillions
Value of Pristine Mars
Terraforming Mars needs great care
Surface mission to Mars, terrible idiea, easily made wonderful