TECH
17/02/2015 05:05 GMT | Updated 17/02/2015 15:59 GMT

Mars One: How Realistic Is It? Here's What We Don't Know.

The five British ‘hopefuls’ for a private (non-profit) manned mission to Mars have been announced.

Based on current technical, logistical, financial and practical considerations... it's unlikely any of these people are going to Mars.

That is not because going to Mars is impossible. It isn’t. NASA still wants to do it by the 2030s, depending on a massive boost in funding and a lot of new inventions. And for Mars One to send astronauts to Mars by 2024 would therefore be an incredible, beautiful feat.

Sadly, it looks pretty unlikely.

Sydney Do at MIT told Popular Mechanics recently after the publication of its controversial, but detailed feasibility study into the Mars One mission:

“One of the biggest claims made by the Mars One team is that absolutely no new technology needs to be developed for the success of their mission, which is setting up a colony on Mars. We found that there are several cases for systems like the environmental control and life support where thats just not true.

Even if some of these technologies did exist, we discovered that over time, the Mars One mission would become exceedingly expensive and unsustainable.”

Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, posted his response to the MIT study shortly after its publication. The authors of the report also hosted an AMA on Reddit, which you can read here.

Here is a brief list of the questions we don't have specific answers to surrounding any manned mission to Mars, ahead of a meeting to discuss exactly that taking place in May 2015.

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The proposed cost is... thrifty.:

The Mars One team says that a mission to put four people on Mars for the first time will cost $6 billion, plus another $4 billion for subsequent supply missions. A landmark MIT study into the feasibility of the Mission said that this is wildly optimistic. If the astronauts on Mars were to be kept alive with resupply missions for any length of time the ongoing costs would be (literally) astronomical, the study said. Mars One says it has based the cost estimate on extensive feasibility studies. It also says it can cut costs compared to governments. By comparison the International Space Station, which has kept humans alive just 350 miles from Earth for 14 years has so far cost closer to $150 billion.

The TV show would have to be really, really profitable:

Mars One maintains a large part of the cost of the mission will be funded by a reality TV show. By comparison, American Idol (by some measures the most profitable reality show on TV) makes about $6.6m in advertising revenue per half hour. There is currently no announced network partner for the Mars One show.

The craft doesn't currently exist:

There is no such thing - at least available for public scrutiny - as a spacecraft able to take humans to Mars. The Mars One project says it will use a 20,000 kg craft for the 210 day trip, having already sent supplies, rovers and habitats to Mars on prior missions - but currently there are no detailed specs available or real-life tests planned for the manned ship. The first manned Mars One mission supposedly leaves in 2024. That is not very long to design and build the greatest feat of technical mastery in human history.

What rocket?

There is currently no operational rocket which could send a manned human team straight to Mars. It would actually take many launches to assemble a craft of the right size, and with enough fuel to make it to Mars, probably in orbit around Earth. Some estimates say it would take dozens of launches, which is expensive. NASA's new Space Launch System (first test 2017-ish) would make this easier, as would the new Space X Falcon Heavy, but these rockets are currently untested.

Fuelling a manned Mars mission is harder than it sounds:

Some estimates say around 80% of the mass required to be lifted into space for a manned Mars craft would be fuel. In Earth orbit fuel is tricky, not just because it is heavy but also because it has a tendency to leak, and explode if not vented regularly. For ISS-based fuel storage systems that means a loss of at least 4% of hydrogen fuel a month, which if the same thing were true for a Mars craft being built in orbit would mean losing half its fuel in only a year.

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Radiation:

There is lots of radiation in space, both from the Sun and cosmic rays. You would need to protect astronauts from this for very long periods. We know roughly how to do this - the new NASA Orion capsule is specifically built to have increased radiation protection over the Apollo craft - and it's not impossible, but the systems have not been built or tested yet.

Sleep And Insanity

The psychological strains of a very long, very cramped mission to Mars have been tested in a number of simulated missions and studies. Many of them have identified large problems, including sleep deprivation. This is a crucial element of sending a team to another planet, and it is debatable whether or not we have the procedures or tests in place yet to make sure they aren’t a problem. Mars One wants to run some of its own.

Food, Toilets, Showers

Keeping humans clean in a can with no fresh water is hard. The ISS requires constant resupply missions to do this, and sends its waste back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. On a Mars mission lasting for 210 days there would be no way to throw away that waste without using more fuel (which is a problem already, see above). In addition, we don’t currently have the sanitation system ready to go that can use the same limited amount of water for up to two years. Again, this is far from impossible - but that's not the same thing as having already been invented.

We don't know how to land:

Many Mars landings crash. All of the landings that have succeeded so far are much, much, much easier than landing a crew and supplies would be - largely because of weight. Light things can land on Mars with parachutes. The Curiosity rover (the size of a small car) landed with the help of a retrorocket-boosted 'sky crane'. Mars One has said it might use retrorockets to land the crew -- but the weight involved is enormous, and there are no detailed plans on how to do this without avoiding massive problems with turbulence. We just don’t know how to land a human safely on Mars.

There is no such thing as a ready-made Mars Habitat:

As far as is public, no one has invented, tested and built a Mars habitat with the required life support systems, durability, protection from radiation and shielding against meteorites that would be needed to survive on Mars for any amount of time.

What spacesuit?

No one has tested and built a Mars-capable spacesuit that would last for long periods, again as far as we know. NASA has designs, and Mars One knows the issues involved... but that's all we know so far. As astronaut Chris Hadfield said last year:

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What rover?

No one has tested and built a Mars rover designed for long-term operation by humans, including the necessary fuel systems. Mars One plans to launch its rover to Mars in 2020. That's five years away.

Gravity sickness

The lower gravity on Mars - let alone the zero gravity experienced on the way - would cause huge physiological changes and problems for any astronaut. Part of the reason for NASA building the ISS is to test and explore these issues. Those questions are still open. The longest any human has spent in space at one time is about a year, and on returning to Earth gravity they were severely incapacitated due to muscle loss, calcium degradation and thinned bones. New missions for astronauts to spend even longer in space are taking place this year. But the answers remain unclear. It is possible that by the time the Mars One crew got to Mars, they wouldn’t be able to stand up, and might also be blind. It might be possible to counteract this, but we don’t know how.

You might starve

The MIT feasibility study said the Mars One team would require four times as much food as they previously thought. Mars One disputes those figures, and the debate on this technology is complex, but there are still questions remaining on exactly how enough food would be produced long term to support the crew.

You might get Martian Plague

As far as we can tell there is nothing living on Mars. But there is a slight chance that something there could be virulent and could kill us. Worse, there is a high chance that we would contaminate anything interesting and organic that is still there by landing without proper procedures to protect against that.

You might drown in dust

Mars is essentially a giant dust bowl. This dust is caustic, possibly carcinogenic and might cause allergic reactions. It slowly degrades any machinery on its surface and would require constant supply drops of equipment and tools. (Here is Mars One's response on dust).

So - is Mars One impossible? No. Not even MIT says that:

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible,” Olivier de Weck, of MIT, said last year. “But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they've made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.”

The point is that to claim the five UK Mars One candidates are "going to Mars" is - at best - optimistic. We are inventing our way to Mars - gradually. But we're not there yet.