How to Live on Mars – March 2019

OAS Society Talk ~ March 2019 ~ Colin Stuart FRAS

The talk started with the noise of a rocket launch. Now noise is something we don’t normally have as a background to our talks but this presentation started with a rocket launch to Mars and we needed to have a sense of the occasion, so Colin Stuart had factored this in to the overall experience. As a result, my normal note taking of the presentation went out of the window fairly early on as I was captured by the launch and the occasion of the start of the seven month imaginary flight to Mars. It’s important that I flag this up early on in this report, as from now on this is from memory and purely subjective to me ~ you may have seen and heard something slightly different!

Colin Stuart has visited and spoken to us before. He is an astronomical speaker, presenter at the Greenwich Observatory, author of at least seven books, contributor to newspapers, astronomy magazines and television programmes, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. In recognition of his contributions, he has an asteroid (15347 Colinstuart) named after him by the International Astronomical Union (IAU)!

On the last occasion he spoke about the history of The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, at the end of which I bought his book ’13 Journeys Through Space and Time’. Similarly, I bought his book ‘The Universe in Bite-Sized Chunks’ at the end of this latest talk. Strictly, this book wasn’t about the Mars trip but he has an eclectic, lateral and easy to listen to presentation style which has resonated with me and I figured the book would do the same ~ and it’s about the vastness of the Universe, my favourite topic, so what’s not to like? Anyway, back to Mars!

The talk was very topical as Mars has been a major target of exploration for some time and some say, I repeat ‘some say’, the only known planet technically inhabited by robots (my presumption not Colin Stuart’s) as there have been quite a few missions, with many failures, but I count at least eight successful lander or rover robots having made it to and/or around the surface.

However, whilst this means that ‘robotically’ much is now known about Mars, the more nuanced discoveries will probably need manned missions in the future. Essentially, we are moving towards the position covered by the old adage of ‘Why do we need to go there?’ ~ ‘Because it’s there’! Colin Stuart’s talk was all about whether a crewed mission to Mars was possible.

A brief run through the history of telescopically looking at Mars took us to a more detailed look at the pros and cons of the Moon v Mars as an appropriate exploration target, the advances in rocket technology (particularly those in the private sector), the physical features of Mars and the challenges this would produce for those going to be the first to walk on the planet.

One of the main problems would be the exposure to radiation, both on the outbound trip and whilst there and the planet’s lack of an effective atmosphere along with no global magnetic field will make this a continuing problem for the long term health of the pioneer astronauts. Making their home below ground at an early opportunity would probably be a necessity for the first timers to shield them from this deadly onslaught.

A year date 2025-2035 target for a Mars flight might be possible and a pre-journey long-term plan, possibly as long as a decade, of automatic flights, just to put enough stores on Mars to see the astronauts have a good start when they arrive, is a high probability strategy. This means that likely crew members are currently children still in school; this is a next generation proposal!

The after talk Q&A session brought interesting questions about the potential of terraforming Mars ~ not really possible without a stable and strong atmosphere ~ and the viability of growing plants to subsidise food ~ experiments growing food on Earth but in Mars soil conditions were progressing but, as in the film ‘The Martian’, using human waste as a fertiliser on a group basis was to be avoided!

The general overall conclusion was that a manned Mars trip was very ‘doable’ technically. However, many problems remain to be resolved, such as the cumulative effects of the low gravity on the human body (aside from radiation), and the ethics of what is potentially a ‘one-way’ mission were still debatable.

A thoroughly topical, informative and interesting presentation; do come back soon Colin Stuart.

Hugh Alford FRAS

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