The Martian environment

25 January 2017

Interview with

Stephen Patranek, author of How We'll Live On Mars

Mars is hostile, there's no getting around that so how will humans survive? Stephen Patranek believes he has the answer, as he explained to Graihagh Jackson...

Stephen - On Earth, you need food, shelter, clothing and water to survive. On Mars you need, food, shelter, clothing and water and oxygen. So the only thing that’s really missing on Mars, basically, is oxygen. You have some other problems like you have significant radiation on Mars so you have to shield yourself from it. You have to shield yourself from solar radiation - you’ll get a terrible sunburn in about five minutes on Mars. You have to shield yourself from solar radiation. That’s a simple problem of just having walls that are thick enough. Or staying out of the sun, building your environment underground, building your environment in a lava cave, building your environment on the side of crater wall where the sun doesn’t shine on you.

You have another significant problem which is cosmic rays. These are very highly charged particles and by that we mean they’re moving with a lot of energy at a high rate of speed. So you’ve got protons, neutrons and electrons, basically stripped out atoms, and we don’t even know where these things come from for sure. But we know that they’re consistent in the universe and then everywhere you go we’ve got them. And they’re a big problem because when the pass through your body they’re causing a lot of damage so you have to be shielded from them. It takes a lot of shielding - 6ft of solid steel is probably not enough. You don’t have a magnetosphere on Mars like you do on Earth that protects you from cosmic rays. Your atmosphere on Mars is one one-hundredths as thick as Earth’s, so you don’t have an atmosphere blanket. So you have to build in your own protection on Mars from radiation. That is a physical problem that is solved by having walls of your environment thick enough. Not a big problem.

A big problem is breathing - you can’t breathe the CO2 on Mars so we have to create our oxygen. Actually, a guy in MIT named Dr Michael Hecht invented this machine called the ‘MOXIE,’ that’s an acronym that I can never remember what it stands for but it’s basically a reversed fuels cell that strips carbon out of the CO2 in the martian atmosphere and leaves you with pure oxygen.

So in 2020, we’re launching the second generation of the Curiosity rover to Mars. On that rover, there’s going to be a little MOXIE box (and I mean little) that will create enough oxygen to keep one human alive indefinitely. That design  - MOXIE - that little box is designed to be enlarged and upscaled by a factor of 100. So NASA’s intentions were to use it to make rocket fuel, because you need oxygen for oxidised rocket fuel, on Mars for a return trip from Mars. So NASA had plans to send a large version of MOXIE to Mars, with storage tanks, let it sit there for two years before humans came and make a lot of oxygen for rocket fuel. Well, it turns out that works very nicely to give us something to breathe, and that solves the biggest problem on Mars.

The next biggest problem is you need a lot of water. There’s a lot of frozen water on Mars - tonnes of it. There may be unfrozen water relatively not too far below the surface of the planet that we will be able to drill and access. But water is not a problem unfreezing it and getting and getting enough energy to unfreeze it is a little bit of a problem but, basically, these are not high-tech problems, these are low tech problems.

Graihagh - So you’re confident then?

Stephen - Very confident.

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