MIT engineers found technology proposed by Mars One wouldn't sustain a crew on the Red Planet for more than a few months

Mars One settlement would perish in weeks

The technology forming the basis of a proposal by Dutch non-profit organisation Mars One to create a permanent colony on Mars is flawed and wouldn’t sustain the crew for more than a few months, engineers have concluded.

A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has analysed the Mars One concept and found multiple shortcomings that would ultimately lead to the death of the crew members.

The ambitious venture, which is already in the process of selecting volunteers for the one-way trip, wants to send the first group of four people to Mars in early 2020s and claims to be able to do so with already existing technology. However, the MIT engineers said Mars One would do better to reconsider its concept.

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is unfeasible,” said Olivier de Weck, MIT professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems. “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.”

According to the MIT analysis, the first Mars One astronauts would perish about two months into the mission due to unsafe levels of oxygen in the habitat resulting from huge amounts of crops grown inside to provide food for the crew.

As part of the study, MIT graduate student Sydney Do simulated day-to-day life of the Martian colonists using a specially developed software tool. He found that in order to remain healthy, the crew members would have to consume about 3,040 calories a day. He further calculated that to provide this amount of food by growing crops locally as Mars One envisions, a 200-square-metre growing area would be required, which is four times the size estimated by Mars One.

The crops, including lettuce, beans, peanuts, potatoes and rice, are expected to be grown inside the habitable units. However, the amount of plants would produce so much oxygen it would exceed the fire safety threshold. To make up for that, nitrogen would have to be continuously pumped into the indoor atmosphere, which would eventually lead to the depletion of nitrogen reserves. With not enough nitrogen stored, the habitat would not be able to compensate for gas leaks, leading to a gradual loss of atmospheric pressure. In such an environment, the first crew member would be likely to suffocate within 68 days.

Alternatively, new technology would have to be developed to extract excess oxygen or the crops could be grown in a separate greenhouse. The team even considered using nitrogen extracted from the Martian atmosphere, but found that doing so would require a prohibitively large system. Surprisingly, the cheapest option found was to supply all the food required from Earth.

“We found carrying food is always cheaper than growing it locally,” Do says. “On Mars, you need lighting and watering systems, and for lighting, we found it requires 875 LED systems, which fail over time. So you need to provide spare parts for that, making the initial system heavier.”

The transport and logistics of the project was identified as another major drawback.

Not only would a minimum of 15 not yet existing SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets be needed to deliver all the hardware and initial supplies required to establish the colony to the Red Planet, but the transportation of spare parts to keep the settlement going would present another major challenge.

With the settlement being expanded in accordance with Mars One’s plans, the quantity of spare parts needed would grow and would eventually make up to 62 per cent of payloads from Earth.

The researchers said that 3D-printing technology, frequently proposed as a solution for astronauts to manufacture spare parts on site, is by far not as advanced as would be required to produce complex and extremely reliable components needed for maintenance of a space station.

The MIT team introduced their analysis at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto this month. The researchers believe the software tool developed for the assessment could be successfully used to assess feasibility of other prospective space missions.

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