Thursday, July 26, 2012

8 Science Fiction Movie Must-haves

I am a fan of science fiction, especially stories that take place in space.  I enjoy reading, but I really enjoy movies.  I remember when I was very young I recorded Star Wars off HBO on my Betamax.  I watched that tape so much I warped it.  It was so fun to see people having adventures among the stars.  When I was in college, I wanted to learn all I could about science, so I could invent a way to travel like they do in the movies.  I took classes in astronomy, theoretical physics, biology, and chemistry.  By far my forte was astronomy and theoretical physics (even though my major was human biology).  I learned a great deal about space that rather zapped the idea of space travel from my mind, but I still enjoy science fiction movies.

I finally settled down into a more practical career, and I found myself working as a journalist (a good majority of that as a photojournalist).  One of the things I learned very quickly was that most people didn’t share my fascination with science, and that many of them became writers.  Some of these writers worked in television, but most wanted to work in the motion picture industry.  Then I discovered that many of the people who were in that industry who are producers, directors, actors, and so forth were similarly less nerdy when it came to science.   I, of course, don’t mean to say that everyone in TV and movies are ignorant of scientific principles (David X. Cohen is much smarter than I am, and he writes Futurama).  I mean that, for the sake of dramatic presentation, most of what is shown on major entertainment is bad science.  Seeing that bad science is all over big entertainment, I have come up with several rules that almost all mainstream movies seem to follow that defy reality.

Space trips have to be fast

Movie Examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Men in Black, Prometheus, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, and many others.

By far the most irksome problem with movies is that the overwhelming distances between any celestial bodies can be easily traversed.  Usually this is resolved by creating some method of FTL (faster than light) travel.  Warp, hyperspace, light speed, FTL, and other forms of shortening the length of time between worlds is used to travel from point A to point B very rapidly.  Douglas Adams lampooned this with his use of the Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  

I totally understand why any science fiction writer has to use an FTL.  If they didn’t use this plot device there wouldn’t be a story.  Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, any interstellar travel would take eons using our current technology.  Traveling at, or near, the speed of light poses all kinds of problems, which prevent any craft from reaching this tremendous speed.  Even when they try to make things more realistic, there are huge problems.  An example of this is the recent film Prometheus (I actually enjoyed this movie so much I saw it three times in the theater).  They travel to the Zeta Reticuli system in two years.  This system is approximately 39 ly from Earth.  This means that the ship they traveled in would need to travel 20 c (c is the scientific constant used to represent the speed of light in a vacuum).  Only Avatar had travel that roughly approximated sub-light speed. With the journey only taking, three years to get to Alpha Centari which is roughly 4 ly from Earth.

I suppose this plot device can be forgiven, but I find people tending to believe this type of travel is possible.  In effect, science fiction is interpreted as science fact, and that is dangerous when it comes to people believing that we can continue to use Earth in a disposable manner, but more on that later.

Communication is instantaneous

Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Fifth Element, others.

Have you ever noticed that people can have long conversations, even when they are on opposite sides of the galaxy?  If you have ever seen a news report, where the reporter is live from halfway around the world you will notice that there is a delay if they have to respond to a question.  This is because the signal from the satellite uplink has to travel 26,000 miles into space and then back down to Earth.  Because multiple satellites may be necessary for the signal to reach its destination the delay could be considerable.  This is mildly irksome to the viewer, but impossible to avoid.  The delay increases as the distance increases.  A signal to Mars could take as long as 22 minutes to get to Earth.  At that point, it becomes impossible to have a conversation, yet you see Pickard conversing with his superiors on Earth when he is light-years away.

Radio/Television signals are universal

Movies: Contact, Independence Day, Star Trek, others
This one really raises my hackles.  I work in Satellite TV, and I have to tell people that getting a TV signal isn’t easy.  While it is true that there are television stations all over the world, they aren’t all the same.  If you took a television sold in the US and tried to use it in France, or the UK you would find that it wouldn’t work.  The US uses NTSC, the UK uses PAL, and France uses SECAM.  All three are television signals, but they aren’t compatible.  That has been the case since the early days of analog television.  Digital television is even more complex.  There are many variables that have to be programmed exactly, or you won’t be able to decode the signal.  There are different radio bands used for various purposes, different frequencies, modulations, error correction, data rates, symbol rates, broadcast standards, and potentially encryption methods.  There is a reason why you can’t just take any old satellite dish and rake in the Pay-Per-View fight they advertise on Dish, or DirectTV.  

In the movie Contact, a TV signal, imbedded with complex schematics, is received and shortly decoded and analyzed.  Analyzing video signals takes expensive sophisticated equipment, and even with the right equipment, it might not be possible to decode all the information imbedded in a signal.  It would take years of careful analysis by experts in multiple disciplines to do the same thing that one know-it-all guy could do in a matter of moments.  I could write a whole blog about how implausible it would be for us to receive the latest soap operas from Omicron Persei 8, but it boils down to the fact that they probably use PAL-N and all they have at Arecibo is NTSC.  I’m not really touching the fact that even if we could find compatible equipment, the signal would be so weak we would be watching mostly snow.

Spacecraft are impregnable

Movie examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lockout, and others.

Many space battles take place inside ships with lots of ammunition missing its intended target and striking the bulkheads without penetrating.  In all reality the materials used in aerospace is very light.  The primary materials are aluminum, titanium alloys, and carbon composites.  These materials are very strong, but not to things like bullets and explosions.  The main reason they are used is weight, but in order to do that they have to be thin.  In the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) used for the Apollo missions, the skin could be as thin as a couple of sheets of aluminum foil.  An errant foot or punch would be enough to cause a hull breach.  The impact of a bullet or concussive force of an explosion certainly is more powerful than that.   Any breach to the hull would immediately allow the pressurized atmosphere to vent into space, and could kill the crew in seconds.  In the movies, this never happens.  It just bounces off or just scorches the wall.  An explosion just sends people flying, but most of the time it doesn’t have any lasting impact.  

Spacecraft can fly like Airplanes

Movies: Star Wars, Lockout, Battlestar Glactica, Armageddon, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, others

I have had my share of piloting small aircraft.  I have flown everything from bi-planes to helicopters, but not spacecraft.  One thing I do know is that there is a huge difference between flying in an atmosphere, and piloting in a vacuum without gravity.   You don’t stop on a dime, can’t just shut off an engine to stop, or maneuver like a fighter jet.  I will give some kudos to Battlestar Galactica for having fighters that acted more like spacecraft, but they still flew more like aircraft than spacecraft.
All spacecraft have a number of thrusters to control pitch, roll, yaw, and forward and aft thrust.  The largest thrusters on any spacecraft is the primary thruster on the back, but there are several on the nose of the craft, as well as several maneuvering thrusters on the back.  Maneuvering is done slowly so the amount of fuel used to perform the maneuver is minimized.  Any change in attitude requires thrust to get it there, and then thrust to null the rate.  Since all of this maneuvering uses precious fuel, it is kept to a minimum so there is enough to last through the entire mission.  Unfortunately, space battles wouldn’t look nearly as cool if the spacecraft behaved like it is supposed to.

There is always gravity on the ship

Movies: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Prometheus, Alien, Sunshine, Lexx, Lockout, Serenity, Galaxy Quest, others

I understand why this is done this way.  Space, as I’ve pointed out earlier, is difficult and expensive to get to, and movies don’t have an unlimited budget.  Since movies are filmed on Earth, we have to have gravity on the spacecraft in our movies.  Simulating microgravity or zero gravity environments can get tricky, and expensive.  It also means that you can’t ramp up the action by having Captain Kirk run all over the Enterprise to prevent the next crisis.  

When they filmed Apollo 13 they used a KC-135A to film the scenes set in space.  This got a little pricy, because of the amount of time spent filming, since they only had about 25 seconds of weightlessness per parabola.  Most filmmakers would rather just skip the realism and have gravity on the ship. 

Scientists are either evil, dumb, or know-it-alls

Movies: Prometheus, Alien franchise, Star Wars, Star Trek, Sliders, Stargate, Indiana Jones, Batman Begins, Blade, and many others.

This is particularly evident with the Alien franchise.  In the latest film, Prometheus, the scientists don’t really behave like scientists.  As soon as they land, they promptly run out to the nearest structure and explore it like a bunch of amateur spelunkers.  No one really analyses it to see what kind of material it’s made of, its structural integrity, or any other properties it may exhibit.  They don’t even investigate the entire outside.  They just walk up to it, and waltz right in like it’s their local shopping mall.  As soon as they find a breathable atmosphere, they take off their helmets and breathe in deep.  There isn’t any thought about alien virus or bacteria, or gas their instruments weren’t calibrated for.  Then they wander around aimlessly despite the fact that they deploy mapping probes.  They go around touching substances that they can’t identify, and act like they have no idea what scientific disciplines they studied.  The geologist, doesn’t seem to take any interest in the rock formation, and can’t even read the map that his probes made, so he gets lost.  The biologist isn’t even remotely interested in the alien remains they find, and when confronted by a creature that looks and acts like an agitated cobra he tries to approach it like it was an unfamiliar dog he wants to pet.  Worst of all no one seems to be doing any sort of documentation.  It isn’t like finding evidence of extraterrestrial life is some sort of monumentally important scientific discovery worthy of meticulously documenting.  When one of the anthropologists gets sick, he just keeps it to himself, and doesn’t mention the fact that he saw a worm like creature in his eye to anyone so he could be placed in quarantine to spare the rest of the crew from infection.  None of these “scientists” behaves as if they made it past their undergraduate programs, let alone their doctorate.  

On the flip side, the scientists in the earlier films go out of their way to bring an alien life form back to earth, even after they determine it to be a dangerous organism.  Either these scientists are deluded into thinking they can domesticate this alien, or they are incredibly evil.  

The worst are the know-it-all scientists.  These people seem to know everything about everything.  In my experience, specialists are just that, specialists.  They study one particular aspect of their field, and don’t really worry about science that is outside that field. 

An example of a scientific specialist is Dr. Martin Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham.  He appears on YouTube in the Periodic Table of Videos, and has remarked several times that he isn’t as versed in every chemistry related subject, like organic chemistry, because his field of study is fundamental chemistry, particularly supercritical fluids.  When the subject goes into an area outside his expertise, he often refers Brady, the photojournalist behind the videos, to another member of the staff who specializes in that particular kind of chemistry.  This doesn’t mean that Dr. Poliakoff isn’t a very smart person or that he doesn’t understand chemistry very well (quite the contrary).  It means that he understands his primary specialty better.  It also means that Dr. Ploiakoff wouldn’t be my first choice for an in-depth discussion on string theory, but I would love to take a chemistry class from him. 

In most movies, there is always one guy that knows everything about everything from biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, every language ever spoken, and how to pilot alien spacecraft he has never seen before.  There is also at least one person that can easily learn any alien language no matter what the circumstances.  There are many smart people out there, but I have yet to meet a person that was so smart that they knew everything about everything.  Most scientists know a lot about very little, and then there are people like me, who know a little about a lot.  

Space junk just floats around

Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, others

When the fleet was destroyed over Vulcan in the latest Star Trek reboot, and when Alderaan was destroyed in Star Wars the remains just floated around, posing little or no real threat to anyone.  In reality space junk is a very real, and very dangerous problem.  Space junk doesn’t just float around harmlessly through the void.  It moves very fast.  In most cases, the debris can move 17,500 mph.  That is faster than a bullet.  Spacecraft travels at similar speeds.  That means that if a spacecraft hits a piece of space junk moving in the opposite direction the impact speed could be in excess of 35,000 mph!  At those speeds, the impact would be catastrophic, even an object as small as a simple fastener could punch through the bulkhead of a spacecraft, and obliterate anyone or anything in its path. 
In reality, the Death Star would sustain crippling damage from the destruction of Alderaan, and the Millennium Falcon would be destroyed when it encountered the debris field.  The same thing would happen to the USS Enterprise when it dropped out of warp over Vulcan.  The Romulans wouldn’t have had to fire one torpedo to destroy the Enterprise.  It would already be pulverized by the remnants of the fleet.

I doubt that TV, movies, or books will ever be able to tell stories that more closely resemble reality, because the simple fact is that reality isn’t nearly as exciting as fiction.  It’s our own fault things are this way.  I don’t watch NASA TV because it’s about as exciting as watching grass grow.   Perhaps if we get Michael Bay to take over NASA we could have the excitement of watching a rocket lift off, with the added bonus of several car chases, lots of explosions, and a scantily clad Megan Fox trying to defuse a bomb that threatens to spray confetti over the audience when the countdown clock reaches zero.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reality of Martian Living. Part 2

Courtesy NASA
I like creative story telling.  I also like movies and TV.  Not everything Hollywood produces is good, but people have different definitions about good and bad.  I won’t get into a discussion about your preference in entertainment.  That is a short way of saying I like Archer (FX’s animated spy comedy).  If you do, or do not, like or watch Archer is not the point.  What is the point is that for the Season 3 finally of Archer they did a two-part story in space.  One of the central plot points revolved around tricking the female protagonist into accepting the mission so she could bear the children of a mutinous crew on an orbiting space station that was being hijacked to Mars.  

The reasoning mutineers used was soon Earth would be overpopulated, in constant war, but using the lessons learned on the space station; enlightened explorers could terraform Mars, and then explore the stars.  That is fictional entertainment on television.  However, it isn’t a dream held by a single writer of a television show.  Many people would jump at the chance to live Mars.  I am not one of them.  I used to be, but then I learned a few trivial facts, and promptly changed my mind.  

Mars One is a Dutch organization trying to get people to invest in the dream of launching, not just a manned mission but, a permanent colony on our little red neighbor planet.  The idea is highly intriguing, until you learn more about their plan.  It involves sending four people every two years to live on mars.  The catch is that you, and your remains, will stay there forever.  Once you leave, you’re never coming back.  This fact puts a damper on things.  Even pioneers of the American West had the option of going back where they came from if things didn’t work out.  While the idea of visiting Mars is laudable, permanent residency is not quite as feasible as you might first think.   

Let’s get one thing straight.  I am not saying that a mission to Mars is impossible, impractical, or insane.  I am simply stating that this isn’t reasonable to believe that establishing a colony there makes any long-term sense.  I could use this blog to single out one particular proposal, like Mars One, but that would be missing the point.  This is about permanent living on Mars, not any particular proposal.

Mars is not Earth, and there are key things that differentiate the two.  Earth has an abundance of life.  It’s so abundant that we haven’t even cataloged it all.  We are still looking to see if Mars has EVER had even rudimentary life.  Earth has an oxygen rich atmosphere that supports that life.  Mars has an atmosphere, but it is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.  Earth has liquid water in abundance.  The only water we have found on Mars is in ice form.  Earth has a protective magnetic field, but Mars doesn’t.  Temperature is a different story.  Mars can be quite nice with temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), but can see temperatures as low as -190 F.  Earth also has abundant resources that Mars does not appear to have.  All of these factors make life possible on Earth, and yet not Mars.

Let’s start with the atmosphere.  Humans need oxygen in order to live.  Without it, we will die in minutes.  Mars has oxygen in its atmosphere, but it is a fraction of the minor gases that make up only 1% of the air.  On Earth, oxygen makes up around 20% of the air.  Carbon Dioxide (CO2) makes up 95% of the air on Mars.  With the atmosphere being so much thinner, humans must use pressurized space suits, buildings, and spacecraft in order to live on the surface.  Making the atmosphere breathable would take an enormous volume of gas.  We wouldn’t be able to transplant enough of our own air onto Mars to make both planets habitable, so terraforming would have to use resources already existing on the planet, and everything we have learned about Mars suggests that sufficient quantities of those resources do not exist.  Since Terraforming is impractical, residents would live their lives in the limited confines of whatever colony they could build.

Water would be the next priority.  Without water, humans can only live about three days.  There is water on Mars, but scientists can’t agree on how much is actually there, or if it is even in a potable form.  There are indications that it might exist in liquid form, but there hasn’t been conclusive proof.  The polar icecaps have seasonal water in the form of ice, but they are primarily composed of ice in the form of CO2 (dry ice).  There is water ice just underground but it's unknown just how much is there.  Without a sufficient source of water, any settlement would be impossible to sustain.  It wouldn’t be just for drinking either.  Large quantities of water would be needed for sanitation, cooking, manufacturing and, most critically, irrigation.  What is unknown is how much would be lost to the soil or atmosphere.  You could make things as efficiently as possible, but you would still lose a percentage to the environment.  Over time, this percentage would significantly affect the colony, and it would need to be replenished.  Since any colony would be required to be as self-sustaining as possible, Mars would have to be the source of that water.   The only problem I can see is that we don’t fully understand the water cycle on Mars, so we don’t know how finite the existing supply is.   This would be a barrier to any permanent outpost.

By far the greatest barrier is the lack of a magnetic field.  Evidence suggests that Mars once had a magnetic field, along with a thick atmosphere and water.  Some scientists theorize that four billion years ago it lost the magnetic field, and along with it, most of its water and atmosphere.  Magnetic fields are extremely important to life bearing planets, because they keep the solar weather from affecting the surface.  

Sun Storm! Courtesy NASA
CME from SOHO. Courtesy NASA
At this point, I need to emphasize that the sun creates weather.  Every planet with an atmosphere has weather because of the energy of the sun, but the sun’s weather doesn’t stop at the edge of a planet’s atmosphere.  The sun continually loses a staggering amount of mass every second, and since matter can’t be created or destroyed it has to go somewhere.  It streams away from the sun out into the solar system in the form of charged particles that we call the solar wind.  Sometimes the sun loses mass in the form of a solar flare.  Solar flares are storms on the sun.  Sometimes these flares spew out a wave of charged particles in the form of a Coronal Mass Ejection or CME.  These storms hit any planet in their path, and can affect it with varying intensity.  Some storms are more powerful than others are.  A single solar storm, such as one caused by and X class flare (most powerful); can hit planets with billions of kilowatts worth of energy.  The vast majority of that is deflected or absorbed by our magnetosphere and upper atmosphere.  On Earth, we get beautiful auroras, but the more dire consequences involve disruptions to our communications, electronics, and power grids.  The Carrington event in 1859 sent auroras as far south as the Caribbean, caused disruptions in telegraph operations, including shocking operators and sparking fires.   

The surface of Mars is affected by solar weather, and solar storms become an additional hazard to anyone living there.  Granted, the solar weather isn’t as strong by the time it reaches Mars, but it is still powerful enough to be a significant risk.  It would be imperative for any colony to keep close tabs on the sun’s weather, so they could take appropriate precautions.  If the storm was powerful enough, it could pose serious risks of radiation exposure, damage electronics, cripple power systems, and destroy life support.  This would be an extremely rare event, but one that would be a crisis that could put lives in jeopardy.

Solar storms don’t happen all the time, and occur in cycles.  Sometimes the sun is quite active, like it is now, or it can be quiet, going long periods without any CME’s.  Colonists wouldn’t be exposed to higher doses of radiation only during solar storms, but they would constantly be bombarded by radiation greater than they would on Earth.  This wouldn’t kill the colonists outright, but it would increase their risk of cancer.  How great that risk would be isn’t an exact science.  Population studies would have to be done over time to determine the statistical probability that people would get cancer. 
Unfortunately, we don’t have any data on the risk of cancer, because we haven’t conducted any experiments regarding this outside Earth’s magnetic field.  No one can say for certain what the risks of this exposure would be over a prolonged time.  We have educated guesses, but nothing concrete.  All we can say is that the exposure will increase, and take as many precautions as possible.  

One thing I haven’t mentioned up until now is soil.  We normally don’t think of soil as being anything other than earth, but it is more than that.  For soil to grow plants, it needs nutrients, particularly nitrogen.  Although much of the nitrogen modern farmer’s use is synthetic, most nitrogen used by plants is made by symbiotic organisms.  Mars doesn’t have these organisms, which means that the colonists would have to do one of two things.  1) Import fertilizer from Earth, or 2) Import the organisms and seed Mars.  

This brings us to the issue of human impact on the planet.  Our current standard of living leaves a significant impact on our planet.  We mine minerals, use non-renewable resources, and create pollution.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try, it is inevitable that any colony will have an impact on Mars.  The colonists will produce trash, sewage, and gaseous emissions.  Of course, they will do their best to limit all of that with recycling and frugal practices, but pollution in some form is inevitable.  They will have to use resources like Martian soil, and available minerals for anything that is manufactured or produced.  As scarce as water is on Mars, they will be forced to use what is available to supplement their long-term supply.  All of that will have an impact, but what that impact will be is anyone’s guess.

If microbes are introduced to the Martian soil, to facilitate the nitrogen cycle for crops, it will change the planet.  It is something that would need to be addressed, and the obvious ethics of introducing a foreign organism would have to be answered.  Unfortunately, we don’t even know if that is even possible.  There are indications that the soil could be used to grow food, but no one knows for sure.  They don’t even know if microbes could survive the conditions on Mars.  It’s only theory at this point.

What are these colonists going to do with their time, other than just try to survive?  Certainly, there is a lot of research that can be done, but research is only as valuable as its results.  Private industry will only support research they can use to produce a product or service they can sell.  Pure research is usually funded by governments.  This is because pure research does not produce a product or service, but it makes those products possible.  

Since research won’t support the colony alone, something else has to finance these expensive ventures.  Mars One hopes to pay for it by selling broadcast rights.  Being in the broadcast industry gives me a little bit of insight to this, and I’m not sure this will bring in as much money as they are counting on.  I could write an entire blog about broadcast programs and audiences (a required course for my BS in communications), but what I won’t in this article.  All I will say is that all TV shows eventually run their course.  TV shows have their audiences, and what plays in one country, might not be successful in another.  That leaves the exploitation of Martian resources as a possible means of revenue, but that raises all kinds of environmental and ethical questions (which I’m not going to discuss).

Government funded projects are subject to the whims of politics.  Projects can fall out of favor, and expensive ventures can lose funding if they become unpopular.  Governments have to fund projects that are most likely to produce the most useful data.  A colony funded by a nation, or a coalition of nations, would likely last for a little while, but would be under constant threat of losing its funding.
That begs the question of who will ultimately fund an outpost on Mars.  I don’t believe that the private sector or governments will be able to manage to pay for a colony as separate entities.  More than likely, it will have to be a combination of both private and public funds that will need a comprehensive and profitable business model in order to sustain a permanent colony.

What is unknown is the long-term viability of a colony.  Even if it manages to overcome the environmental and financial hurdles, how long can it maintain itself?  What happens when it runs out of financial backing on Earth?  Could it sustain itself completely independent of Earth?  While it may be possible, I highly doubt it.  When and if the colony fails what happens to the colonists?  Will society mount a rescue mission, or do we let them fend for themselves?  Who will pay for a rescue mission if it is a bankrupt private enterprise?  If the expedition were to go bankrupt there would be no choice, but to send a rescue mission financed by government.  I am of the opinion that it isn’t a matter of if the venture would fail, but when.

The most daunting problem is one that is difficult to quantify.  How the will all the difficulties encountered affect the colonists on a psychological level?  Certainly there have been numerous studies on the effects of isolation and living in a confined space have on humans, but all of the tests have either been on Earth, or based on a finite amount of time spent in space.  No one has ever ventured beyond the moon, or left Earth permanently, so we don’t know.  We don’t know what it will be like to struggle every day for the most basic needs, like breathable air, potable water, and a reliable food source.  How do you cope with the fact that you will likely never see your relatives face to face again?  What happens when someone suffers a mental or emotional breakdown?  Can any person remain sane under conditions that force you to solve complex problems just to survive?  Eventually the day-to-day struggle would wear on the most stalwart individual.  A single colonist suffering from crippling depression, PTSD, or a psychosis would threaten the colony.  You could try to weed out the individuals most likely to suffer from a mental breakdown, but you wouldn’t be able to eliminate the risk.  There is simply no way of knowing what will push a person over their individual psychological limit.  There are just too many examples of people that have done things that were uncharacteristic of their normal behavior.

A permanent colony is a nice thought, but I think it will never be a practical reality.  There are just too many financial, environmental, ethical, and physical barriers to make living on Mars a reality.  There is only one planet in our solar system capable of sustaining life in a manner that isn’t a daily struggle for the most basic needs, and it isn’t Mars.  As much as we may want to find a new planet, and start civilization off with a clean slate it just isn’t practical.  We might be able to support an outpost on a short-term basis, but permanent won’t work.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Moving to Mars? Reality of Martian Living.

Courtesy NASA
Mars is going to be news in a big way in the near future, with a new NASA mission.  In keeping with my recent space theme I thought I would bring reality to something I read a couple of weeks ago.  This article wasn’t involving the NASA rover, but a more ambitious effort to put a man on Mars... permanently.  But, I'll get to that in a moment.
A new NASA rover, Curiosity, will be landing on Mars with a mission to determine if the planet has, or ever had, microbial life.  Everything we know from previous missions leads us to believe the surface is a lifeless, cold, barren, desert.  There is evidence of liquid water, but no proof.  There has been speculation of microbial life, but nothing conclusive. 

Living on Mars has been the stuff of science fiction since Edgar Rice Burrows penned his pulp fiction classic “A Princess of Mars”.  Sending a manned mission to Mars began the second Neil Armstrong planted his foot on the dusty surface of the moon.  At that moment, I’m sure that someone in mission control said: “Can’t wait to see them step on Mars.”  The moon, after all, was only supposed to be a stepping-stone.  When it was determined that Venus was inhospitable to all forms of life, as we know it, Mars became the obvious choice for a manned mission.  Unfortunately, every time the idea is brought up, it’s shot down, probably for good reason.

I think sending a human to explore the surface of Mars should be a priority when it comes to manned space flight.  It is a worthy mission with some extremely challenging engineering obstacles.  The reality is that it will probably never happen with our current technology, but that doesn’t stop people from dreaming big.  Now I could write a novella on this subject, but that would get tedious in blog format, so I’m going to break it up into two parts.  The first will focus on the journey, and the second will concentrate on actual colonization.

Let’s start with getting a spacecraft to Mars.  It will cost a ton of money to start with.  It will require a spacecraft large enough to accommodate astronauts (in the case of Mars One it’s four, and NASA has toyed with six to eight) for the entire trip.  In the case of a NASA mission, it would be three years round trip, with eighteen of those months spent on the surface.  

Earth and Mars are separated by millions of miles, and any expeditions between the two planets have to be timed precisely.  If you launch at the wrong time your journey could take significantly longer than if you had waited.  

The idea of waiting until the travel distance is ideal is something that is foreign to most of us.  The distance between New York and London is 3,458 miles by air (provided the carrier is flying direct).  This distance may vary by inches year to year, but isn’t likely to drastically change (unless you believe Ronald Emmerich).  This isn’t the case when it comes to planets.  Mars is, at its closest calculated distance, 54.6 million kilometers (km) from Earth (according to  The reason why I say calculated is that no one has actually observed this in practice.  The furthest it can be from Earth is 401 million km.  The average is 225 million km.  It takes light roughly 14 minutes to reach Earth from Mars, and can take up to 22 minutes.  It means that, unless you time it right, you could take sixteen months, or more, to reach your destination.  That is why missions are timed to make the travel time as short as possible.  

They are developing VASIMR rocket engines to decrease the travel time to around forty days, but there are issues that make this kind of propulsion tricky.  The primary obstacle is power.  They are experimenting with a 200 kW engine configuration (two 100 kW engines), however the entire ISS space station (where they would run the practical tests) produces a maximum 200 kilowatts of electricity using its solar panel array.  Obviously, you can’t use it continuously or there would be no power for the rest of the vital electric components, so you use a battery system that charges until it’s full, and then you can use the engines until the batteries die, or you can bring along a nuclear reactor capable of generating enough electricity to run everything. 

Nuclear reactors have been considered as sources for rocket propulsion since 1952 with the NERVA project.  One of the major drawbacks is radiation.  Space is a rather hostile environment, and exposes the crew to more radiation than they would normally get on Earth.  If you add a reactor in close proximity to the crew, it makes it even more dangerous.  In order to reduce the exposure to radiation you have to use adequate shielding and distance to separate the crew from the reactor.  The shielding required for this increases the overall weight significantly.  The NERVA rocket weighed 393,130 pounds, and required a Saturn V rocket to launch it into space.  Technology has improved significantly since the early 1970’s, when the project was cancelled, but a reactor would still be a lot of weight.  There is also the potential for a core meltdown or catastrophic rocket malfunction that could contaminate a large area with radioactive debris.  That doesn’t preclude the use of nuclear powered rockets, but it presents a significant environmental hurdle.

Radiation exposure isn’t the only health hazard crews will face.  Microgravity and zero gravity can cause health issues too.  There is a reason NASA will only take people in good health.  The moment you enter space your body begins to adapt to its environment.  Since bones are only as strong as they need to be, your body begins to reduce bone density, because there isn’t any reason to have strong bones when you’re weightless.  Even after you arrive on Mars, the gravity is such that your bones continue to lose density.  All that extra calcium builds up in deposits in your kidneys, and you get kidney stones.  If the stones are too large for you to pass, you could die.  This is one of the primary reasons for the ISS crews being limited to six months in space.  The other is muscle atrophy.  Because your body isn’t fighting gravity, weight isn’t an issue (objects have mass, but weight is dependent on gravity).  This means that you don’t have to exert yourself as much in space as you would on earth.  Since your muscles are only as strong as they have to be, you begin to lose muscle mass.  Crews have to stick to a comprehensive exercise program the entire voyage, and even then, some atrophy is inevitable.

Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing.  Putting a spacecraft on the darned thing is next to impossible, particularly for a manned mission.  Let’s start with the atmosphere.  The “air” (we’ll use that term loosely) on Mars is a hundred times thinner than on Earth.  It’s thick enough that you have to deal with it, but not thick enough to allow techniques that work on Earth.  The thin atmosphere won’t slow you down enough if you try to use air-breaking maneuvers alone, and parachutes won’t be enough either.  You can’t rely solely on rockets like the Apollo missions used on the Moon, for the very reason that there is an atmosphere.  Forget about using the airbag techniques of previous Mars rover missions.  There are simply too many G’s encountered to allow a human to survive that method.  You can’t land a shuttle like spacecraft on the surface, because there wouldn’t be enough lift.  At the surface, the air on Mars is roughly the same density as Earth’s at nearly 60,000 feet.  Most planes can’t fly that high because of the lack of airflow over the surface of the wing, not to mention that there aren’t any suitable runways on Mars in the first place.  You would have to use multiple techniques to land safely on the surface of Mars.

Mars rover Curiosity. Courtesy NASA
Curiosity will be the largest rover ever to land on the surface of Mars.  It is roughly the size and weight of the average passenger vehicle.  The landing sequence is almost as elaborate as anything Rube Goldberg could imagine.  First, the entry vehicle will use the atmosphere to slow it down.  Then it will deploy the largest supersonic parachute ever designed.  Then it will use rockets to slow itself down further, and then twenty meters above the surface the rover will be lowered using a sky crane.  If there is one error in that entire chain the $2.5 billion project will come to an abrupt crushing end.  This is all to make sure a well-engineered machine can roam around on the surface.  It would be even more complicated if there was a human on board. 

Manned missions increase the difficulty significantly because of the increased weight of the landing craft, and the potential for loss of life.  You have to be able to get the lander and crew on the surface intact.  The sheer volume of food, supplies, fuel, equipment, spacecraft, and crew make a safe landing extremely challenging, but it is entirely doable.  You would have to be extraordinarily careful in the final 20 or so meters from the surface, which is why Curiosity is using a sky crane to lower it.  The reason is all the dust that is kicked up using rockets.  

Mars is a dusty place, and it’s everywhere, and gets on, and into, everything.  We don’t know exactly what the effects of Martian dust will be on people, but there have been studies on Lunar dust.  Lunar dust became an issue on Apollo 17 when the astronauts who landed on the surface, tracked the fine powder into their spacecraft, and it caused respiratory problems all the way home.  Manned missions would need to have OCD when dealing with it, and a permanent colony would have to make it an official religion (complete with prayers and goat sacrifices).  If they didn’t, equipment would cog/break or wear unusually fast.  There is also evidence to suggest that the soil is slightly pH basic (caustic) causing more issues.  Unfortunately, a sky crane would be impractical with a spacecraft large enough to service a manned crew for eighteen months, so you are left with using a main thruster all the way down to the surface.  You would just have to deal with the aftermath as best as you could.

The easiest way I can see to getting there safely is by having two spacecraft.  One would consist of a heavily shielded nuclear reactor and engine assembly at the end of a very long boom which would act as buffer between the crew and the reactor.  That way the reactor could be left in a parking orbit above Mars, and you wouldn’t have to deal with the extra weight during landing.  The orbiter could also contain a living section that could rotate on its axis and provide the crew with some form of artificial gravity during the journey there, and mitigate some of the effects of the zero gravity environment of interplanetary space.  This, of course, presents its own set of obstacles due to the torque caused by the rotation, which would affect the spacecraft’s navigation.  The orbiter could also function as a communications satellite, and orbital instrument platform (like have a space telescope or surveying equipment on board).  The lander could consist of enough room to accommodate all the supplies necessary to complete the mission on the surface, and possibly even be configured to provide larger living spaces after landing (similar to RV pullout’s).  This way you aren’t eating up precious cargo space for the food, supplies, and fuel used for the interplanetary portions of the voyage in vehicle used to land on the surface.

Since the atmosphere of Mars is primarily CO2 (95.5%), you can use the time on the surface to separate the oxygen for use as fuel for the return trip, as well as providing enough O2 to supplement the astronaut’s air mixture while on the surface, and the return trip to Earth.  The reason I say supplement is that 100% O2 can cause health problems if is breathed over a long period.  Too much of a good this can be bad for you.  

I would jump all over this, if I liked the idea of being cooped up for three years in a small metal tube with people who may not get along, but I get tired of being cooped up when I'm on a transatlantic flight.  I can't even imagine two to nine months in a confined space.  If I could stand the trip I would love to be one of the first people to step foot on Mars, but I wouldn’t want to make it my home.  It would be more like a working vacation.  Visiting would be nice, but moving there is something entirely different.  But, residency is a topic for another day.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Perils of Asteroid Mining.

Let me start by saying that when I was young I wanted to be an astronaut.  I was always fascinated with space travel, and envisioned myself as an intrepid spaceman like Captains - Kirk, Picard, Buck Rogers, Malcolm Reynolds, or Han Solo.  Flitting about the galaxy to visit far off planets, and have harrowing adventures... *sigh*.  Sadly, I went to college and studied science, and those dreams were dashed by the stark reality that separate science fiction from science fact.  I still dream, as a science fiction author, but I’ve grown to a point where I can understand the difference between reality and fantasy.

Recently I read several articles about various people and private organizations who want to make reality out of what has been, up to now, science fiction.  I was very interested in these concepts initially, but I’ve had a chance to think them over, and I have to shake my head that seemingly intelligent people are behind these ideas.  What’s more troubling is that people like Neil deGrasse Tyson have publicly endorsed some of these ideas.

As I’ve said, I like to dream too, but seriously think about things more objectively.  Ideas like mining asteroids for minerals, establishing a permanent colony on Mars/Moon, or building a working starship Enterprise.  The mind fairly boggles.

The sanest of all these schemes is mining asteroids, but even then, I don’t think people really have thought things through.  Before you jump up and down and rant about how this is totally possible understand that I’m not saying that it isn’t just isn’t very practical.

Let’s start with the whole mining thing.  Mining is difficult in the most ideal conditions here on earth.  This is where we have an oxygen rich atmosphere, so humans can do the labor needed to dig, plant explosives, remove the mineral rich rock/earth, and repair equipment.  It is hard, dangerous work.  Equipment breaks all the time, and needs constant upkeep to keep the industrial strength equipment working properly.  This is a lot easier in warmer parts of the world, but in the far northern regions of the world, (I’m looking at you Canada) equipment breaks due to the extra stresses caused by bitter cold temperatures.
Space is very cold, or very hot...depending on how the sunlight hits you (more importantly how close you are).  That is the reason why spacesuits are so bulky.  Not only do they have to have a lot of insulation, but also they need a cooling system to keep the astronauts from getting heat stroke.  Even the space shuttle had to rotate its thermal shielding tiles to the sun and open the bay doors so the excess heat wouldn’t roast the crew.  That’s heat, now for the cold.  

Once you’re out of the direct light of the sun, the temperature drops precipitously.  It can get near absolute zero in some spots, and even if it decides to be on the warm side, it can be -250 F and colder.  Even at those relatively warm temperatures tungsten carbide drill bits used for mining can shatter like glass. 

Asteroids, of course, do not just sit still.  They rotate, and orbit, so they are constantly moving from one temperature extreme to another, similar to a roasted pig on a spit.  This causes constant expansion and contraction of, not only the asteroid, but the robots sent to do the mining.  Oh, didn’t I mention the robots?

To my knowledge, not a single asteroid has an atmosphere.  That means that sending humans requires a lot of oxygen be shipped up with them, and that gets so expensive that billionaires can’t even afford to finance the mission, so a robot has to do the job.  These robots would have to be made of some of the most expensive, and durable materials available in order to do their job, because there isn’t anyone that can fix them if they break.  You see, even as cute as the self-repairing robot Wall-E may be, we haven’t made anything that can function like that.  With no humans around to fix the darn thing if it hits something hard, say a vein of pure carbon crystals (diamond, or even worse aggregated diamond nanorod) a multimillion-dollar robot could turn into a multimillion-dollar boat anchor.  

Now I’m certain the engineers on this project have thought of that, and have made the thing as tough as possible.  Their jobs depend on their ability to solve problems like the effects of wild temperature variation, and mineral density and hardness.  There is still the matter of micro gravity.  I know you’re saying weightlessness, but that isn’t entirely correct.  Even with small 4 m asteroids there is some gravity, but it isn’t enough to keep a robot from flying off uncontrollably into space if it did something like apply a drilling/digging or trying to anchor itself with gas propelled grapple guns (think Batman).  This is all due to this little known law in physics called Newton’s Third Law of Motion.  I think it was something about a force having an equal and opposite reaction, but I’m sure the engineers have thought of this too.  Although, when I saw the concept graphic it showed tiny little robots munching away at the surface of an asteroid like a Roomba on steroids, and nothing really anchoring it.  I’m sure that the CGI animators forgot that little detail when they made the clip.

Then there is the matter of fuel.  Rocket fuel is expensive, and takes up space.  The engineers say they have this problem licked.  When they arrive at the asteroid, they mine it for water, which can be turned into rocket fuel.  This is where I start to get skeptic.  First, pure water is a rare thing.  It’s so scarce in space that it’s worth more than gold.  That’s because it isn’t usually found in liquid form, except in a narrow zone around a star’s colloquially called “Goldilocks Zone”.  Water is usually found in the form of solid ice, but in this habitable zone, it’s liquid.  The asteroids being considered generally spend most of their time in this orbit.  While it would be possible to mine the water, and separate it into oxygen and hydrogen, it is difficult and very dangerous.  I’ll explain soon.  Second, water is a universal solvent, meaning that any minerals it meets can dissolve.  This changes the water into a solution that can be quite entirely not unlike water.  Thus, when the robot attempts to separate out the hydrogen from the oxygen, there are contaminants that can alter the chemical composition of the fuel, making it worthless as a propellant.  Now for the real kicker...

Water is a simple molecule.  It is two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom.  Separately they are very reactive atoms.  When the two combine to form water, the reaction is energetic.  There is so much energy released that it makes it a great rocket propellant.  It’s highly combustible nature makes it extremely hazardous when not handled properly.  After the reaction occurs, the resulting byproduct water is a very stable non-reactive solvent.
The easiest way to transform water into the two separate gasses is to apply an electric charge to an anode and a cathode.  This causes the bonds holding the molecule together to break, and you get hydrogen and oxygen gas; then you can use them as fuel.  Using electricity in this process presents its own set of challenges.  All it takes is one spark in the right place and you have a detonation that could cripple or destroy the rover.  There are other methods of breaking the molecular bonds, but they still create a highly explosive pair of gasses.  

This is all assuming that you have a pure source of water to begin with.  Unfortunately, pure water doesn’t exist in nature.  Most water on the earth is saturated with mineral salts.  We call it seawater.  Fresh water also has dissolved minerals in it, so it also has contaminants that can make it useless as a fuel. The only way to get pure water is to distil it, and that is very difficult in a microgravity environment, but not impossible.  Then there is always the possibility that there won’t be enough water to convert to fuel to get the spacecraft back to earth.

All of this discussion is moot if there isn’t water on the asteroid in the first place.  Unfortunately, you won’t know for sure until you arrive, and even then, the water may be impractical or impossible to get.  If you send a mission to an asteroid that has no water, or you are unable to get to the water, you’ve just wasted hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars with no way of recouping the cost.

Now let’s just say that we’ve managed to overcome all the obstacles in mining, and we have our payload of ore.  Now we have to get it back to earth – without killing anyone on the ground, or losing it in the ocean.  Bear in mind that our strongest re-entry parachutes can only handle 40,000 pounds.  That’s a lot of ore, but no where near the 320 tons that a single Komatsu 930E (the dump truck used by Rio Tinto at their Kennecott mine) can haul in a single load.

The last major obstacle is the most obvious – cost.  What is the point of going to mine these minerals if you can’t recoup the cost of the expedition, and make a profit in the process?  Let’s start with the upfront cost.  The general rule of thumb on space travel is to take the weight of the payload (robot rovers) and then get the same weight in gold. That’s right, gold.  As of 7/16/2012 (the time this article was written) gold was valued at $1,596.10 per troy ounce (31.1034 grams).  An Atlas V (the one used to send rovers to mars) can lift 8,750 – 28,660 pounds into geosynchronous orbit (where communications satellites are sent, or roughly 26,000 miles above earth).  It doesn’t list the maximum weight for interplanetary missions, but let’s assume that it is halfway between the minimum and maximum for geosynchronous orbit.   Let’s use 19,910 for the sake of this discussion.  That means that the payload is 318,560 standard ounces.  Although gold is sold in troy ounces (1.097 standard ounces) I’m going to use the standard ounce for the sake of this discussion and convert straight over (yes, I’m aware of the mathematical inaccuracies of doing this).  That means that our payload will cost $508,453,616 to launch.  This price does not include the cost of the rovers; it’s just to send them to space.  Assuming that the rovers will cost about the same amount to manufacture, that brings our total to around one billion US dollars.  Now our 40,000 pounds of cargo can be sold.  

Since gold is the most precious metal on the NYMEX exchange we’ll assume that our ore is 100% gold (highly unlikely, but let’s be generous here).  That means that our maximum return will be $1,021,504,000; not much profit on a billion dollar investment.  Now let’s look at a profitable terrestrial mining giant like Rio Tinto.  In 2011, they reported a Consolidated Sales Revenue of $60,537,000,000 with $36,260,000,000 in Net Operating Cost.  Anyone looking at the comparative balance sheet would instantly choose the more traditional, and considerably more profitable, terrestrial based mining operation.  

Although it isn’t profitable on the financial side, the cool factor is off the charts.  Unfortunately, cool only goes so far.  In the end, everything revolves around money.   Even though it’s financed by billionaires, they still expect a profit.  They didn’t get to be billionaires by squandering their money on losing enterprises.  This basic principal can’t be overlooked, even in science fiction (Dune’s central plot focused on the economics of a single rare commodity).  Even if they could charge more for minerals that were mined in space, they would have a tough time making it competitive.  Like any commodity, it is what people are willing to pay that dictates its worth.  Gold’s value changes day to day based on how much people are willing to pay for it.  It doesn’t matter where the gold was mined.  Gold mined in space will have to sell for the same amount as gold mined here on earth, because what you’re essentially paying for is the metal, not the mining method.  

Remember that I’m not anti-space travel.  I’m just pragmatic when it comes to reality.  There may come a time when space mining will be more economically viable, but it’s just too expensive right now.  Once we have a method of propulsion that can reduce the cost to launch and subsequently recover the minerals it will be viable, but right now the cheapest method is chemical propulsion.  What we are left with is an expensive endeavor that will unfortunately wind up costing more than it's worth, and that means it won't be around long after it takes off (I'm sure that's a pun somewhere). 

There is always the environmental issue of space junk, but I’ll leave that subject for another post.