SpaceX Dragon makes use of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion (SRP) to land on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Dragon makes use of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion (SRP) to land on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk and his SpaceX rocketeers are blueprinting a plan to land humans on Mars in 2025 and to land payloads onto the Red Planet’s surface at each 26 month opportunity starting in 2018. A similar timeline may be pursued by other players.

That as a given, a specially convened “ePanel” of Mars experts recently tackled a specific question:

“If humans do land on Mars in 2025 what do we absolutely need to know from the surface of Mars before that time and specifically what measurements and demonstrations need to be done with the 2018 and later precursor landers to make that possible?”

SpaceX Red Dragon on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Red Dragon on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX

Clear and pressing issues

The report, now in draft form, is called Essential Precursor Activities for a Near-Term Human Mars Mission. It is the output from an independent virtual panel of researchers sponsored by Ceres Robotics of Montara, California.

The exercise had neither encouragement nor approval from SpaceX nor NASA. The initiative was led by Michael Sims, leader of Ceres Robotics and a Mars Exploration Rover co-investigator.

In its pages, the draft report underscores the fact that there are a number of “clear and pressing issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible.”

Tight timelines

The ePanelists for this inquiry were:

Christopher McKay (NASA Ames); Carol Stoker (NASA Ames); Margaret Race (SETI Institute); Andrew Schuerger (University of Florida); Penelope Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute); Pascal Lee (NASA Ames; SETI Institute; Mars Institute); Charles Cockell (University of Edinburgh); and Michael Sims (moderator) from Ceres Robotics; Mars Institute.

“There is a great deal that needs to be tested and evaluated on the Mars surface on very tight timelines to be properly prepared for a near-term Mars mission. Clearly a mission within a decade can be considered near-term although even a considerably later mission will require expedience and a focused effort,” the report notes.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Primary concerns

In the view of the ePanel experts, primary concerns are:

– Crew safety

– Dangers to crew from exposure to surface materials and toxic chemistry

– Dangers to crew from possible pathogens

– Contamination of Mars surface by crew transported organisms from Earth

– Danger to Earth from return of (unlikely but possible) pathogens that are damaging to Earth’s biological balance

– Availability of resources useful for human activities including life sustaining materials.

Search for life

In terms of the search for life on the Red Planet, the report explains that it will not be possible to fully demonstrate the absence of life on all of Mars in any near-term basis “unless we find overwhelming evidence of its existence.”

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Furthermore, scouring the planet widely in this search is likely to be a slow process, the report adds. “This is probably the highest scientific goal for Mars exploration in the long term and it is reasonable for this science exploration be concurrently with the expansion of human presence on Mars. However, unlike the Moon, Mars does theoretically have many possible niches for life and hence as we continue the exploration of Mars we must also continue the search for extant Mars life far into the future.”

Initial gauntlet of views

As identified in the report, the ePanel experts made a number of suggestions, an “initial gauntlet” of views for further in-depth discussion. These are:

  • If possible, land all future precursor missions to the single site of human landing. In addition to the value to future explorers of landed resources at this site, this also gives the best chance of evaluation of the local toxicities and a search for any extant Mars organisms at that site.
  • There are no tricorders for life – even on Earth, but especially for life that might have a distinct genesis. We need to exercise a number of different instruments on the Mars surface to look for indications of extant life at the landing site. Those instruments need to be applied at a number of areas (niches) around any landing site. Confidence will grow in our outcome as the number of tests and sites increase.
  • Although after 40 years we now believe we understand the Viking life on Mars experiment results, we need to be prepared for future surprises and uncertainties to come with our experiments. This leads to a preferred strategy to treat these life-detection instruments as an ongoing development (across precursor and human missions) of more refined instrumentation in search of indicators of extant life.
  • Until we understand the extent of extant life on Mars (if it exists at all) then one reasonable approach is to exercising a zoned approach to planetary protection.
  • We need to characterize the chemistry and especially toxicity of the surface and near subsurface materials at the landing site. We also need to demonstrate techniques for mitigation of those toxicities that are compatible with human crew use and safety.
  • Resource needs for the crew and minimizing the burden of keeping a crew safe are parameters to be evaluated in the base site selection. If the case can be closed on pumping water and oxygen and other trace gases out of the atmosphere then that approach has the advantage of ease of crewed operations and relative location independence of the base landing site.

    Scene from “Mars,” a National Geographic Channel miniseries due to air in November. Credit: National Geographic, Imagine, RadicalMedia, Robert Viglasky

    Scene from “Mars,” a National Geographic Channel miniseries due to air in November.
    Credit: National Geographic, Imagine, RadicalMedia, Robert Viglasky

5 Responses to “Note to Elon Musk: New Report Flags Mars Need to Knows”

  • Rick Anthony says:

    *Since the 70’s, the Vikings have been on the Martian surface collecting microbial and possible pathogen life. Not unlike sunken ships that collect marine life after a period of time. So with this in mind… it appears we need to send a vehicle (such as a mid sized rover) to drive up to them and test for these life forms. I’ll leave the ‘how’ to the engineers.
    *As far as venting gases… since gases are vented here on Earth all the time… it’s possible these gases will have little, if any affect on Martian life.
    *I do agree with the study of pathogens locked up in the permafrost or salt brines recently seen on Mars.
    *Concerning the transportation of Mars Microbes and Pathogen based life back to Earth, it seems likely the returning crew might need to remain in quarantine for a number of months. There could be, say a Bigelow system put in orbit to accommodate these astronauts. So having artificial gravity on the way back home would be essential. We certainly don’t want these Martian crews returning to Earth as a new ‘Squid-life-form.
    *Keeping the Mars crew confined to a single zone is kind of a strange request… seeing as we’ve already landed on different areas of the planet. I do believe we should be discreet in our exploration of Mars, however, staying in one area would kinda defeat the purpose of the mission. With today’s technology… we’re probably going to be limited by logistics anyway. Future missions will bring the necessary tools for determining whether life exists underground. So I just don’t believe we’ll be killing off any advanced lifeforms by landing on the surface.
    Just a thought…..

  • GregH says:

    So, no mention of any of the other obstacles to a Mars trip like human tolerance to radiation during voyage, health effects of zero gravity during voyage, likelihood of growing any food or recovering energy from Mars’ surface.

    Putting the cart before the horse doesn’t seem like a great start.

  • Nick says:

    We are not going to Mars as protectors of the environment, but to expand science, explore the potential resources and colonization. Contamination will take place.
    Think big, dynamic, we have to explore space because Earth is getting too small for us.
    I don’t see anything about human aspect of such a long trip (gender, relations, giving birth, leadership, politics…).

  • Stephen Uitti says:

    Apollo astronauts were in quarantine for something like 40 days. This requirement was dropped for later missions. Well, it took 3 days to get back from the Moon. It will be much longer than 40 days to get back from Mars. Perhaps that’s quarantine enough. We’ll be measuring the astronaut’s health anyway.

  • Kye Goodwin says:

    I think that a good requirement to fulfil before human exploration of Mars would be to achieve a good understanding of the RSLs (recurring slope lineae). These features are so active and so mysterious, that they alone make it clear that we don’t fundamentally understand the planet. We could make a lot of progress on this with Curiosity by investigating the thousands of active slope features clearly visible in the rover images. These have much in common with RSLs and are just as unexplained.

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