Ice Ocean on Mars: What's Next?

We've got the ice —let's party! That's the reaction of many to the news that a vast undergound ocean of ice has been discovered on Mars.

There had been rumors of this last week, for anyone who's been reading Nasa Watch.

When the story first broke, much of the reportage included the prediction that NASA would use this as an excuse to commit to a manned mission to the Red Planet this week. But this was wishful thinking, or a misinterpretation of the preliminary rumors, on the part of the reporters. The agency still has little credibility when it comes to managing and estimating future, or current, costs and schedules on major programs like this. Before they're given carte blanche to go to Mars, they're going to have to somehow demonstrate that they won't repeat the Shuttle and station cost debacles.

If they want to make it an international effort (as the State Department will certainly want to do), then they'll have to wrestle with their past history of such activities. There's no evidence that making ISS an international effort saved us any money, and quite a bit that it cost us, and slowed it down.

And the Europeans are going to have to think long and hard before signing up for such a joint endeavor, because the U.S. track record in terms of keeping up our end of such agreements is atrocious, including the current brouhaha about how many crew ISS is going to support. The Europeans are rightly complaining that we've gone back on our pledge to have at least seven crew available at the station.

But even without such an announcement, it is still a significant story.

First, it means that it will allow much less water to be taken along on the trip, making the flight cheaper. It also dramatically improves the prospects for finding life there. But (fortunately, in my opinion) these reasons won't justify a renewed Apollo-like effort.

I'm not a planetary scientist (and I don't even play one on the Internet), but I would point out that water is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Life As We Know It.  While the discovery of water may improve the prospects for finding life, it doesn't necessarily make the probability large. And if oceans of water ice are good, oceans of water liquid should be better, but I don't see any rush by NASA to send out a manned mission to Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), which has just such an ocean under the ice layer on top.

Also, an increase in the chance of finding life will also increase the resistance to allowing people to go, for fear of contamination. There has already been a proposal to fence off the Moon from development.

As to the presence of water making the Mars mission easier — yes, it does, but not all that much. A manned Mars mission has many technical hurdles, and the need to carry water is one of the least of them. In fact, carrying water en route actually helps one of the other problems: what to do in the event of a solar storm. Radiation is a problem in general on such a long-duration deep-space mission, but if the crew were to get caught in a period of intense solar activity, it would kill them before they even reached the planet.

The only real solution to the problem is extensive shielding. It turns out that water, in sufficient quantities, does a pretty good job of that, if it is carried in a circle of tanks, inside of which the crew can go as a "storm cellar."

The main benefit of finding water is that it eliminates the need to have to carry the water for the return trip on the outbound trip, which can in turn save on propellant costs.

It's also possible that the vehicles could use it as a propellant, by setting up a plant to electrolyze it into hydrogen and oxygen. But Bob Zubrin's concept already exploits a different, and perhaps better, technique — using methane and oxygen generated from the Martian atmosphere. These propellants have advantages for long missions, because you don't have as much of a problem with boil-off as you do with the low-temperature liquid hydrogen. While it's higher performance, use of liquid hydrogen would have penalties of additional refrigeration and insulation, to keep the fuel from boiling away before you reach the destination planet.

To me, as a systems engineer, what this means is that all of the trade studies on how to do manned Mars missions have to be revisited, because one of the primary assumptions on which they're based — a lack of easily obtainable water — has just evaporated. So much of what we think we know about going to Mars may be wrong.

The most significant thing about the discovery is that it makes colonization and terraforming of the planet much more viable.

But my major concern is that this will become another Apollo, and that in our rush to get to Mars, we will once again neglect the real issue, which is the cost of access to low earth orbit. I hope that there will be some serious discussion about coming up with innovative ways of tackling this fundamental problem, before we design mission concepts that require us to redevelop the Saturn V. We were set back once by our wrongly-motivated haste. I'd hate to see it happen again.

Why Is This Day Different Than All Other Days?

Rabbinical scholars have been interpreting the Talmud for centuries, to provide a framework for applying its strictures to everyday situations, and guidance to rabbis who must answer questions from their congregation.

Purely theoretical questions aren't given as much priority, but they are often pondered as well, for intellectual stimulation, if for no other reason. But on the next Shuttle flight, the theoretical becomes real. An Israeli astronaut will be aboard, and he wishes to be observant. There have been Jewish astronauts before (Americans), like Judy Resnik, who was killed in the Challenger disaster, but this is the first time that an astronaut is going to attempt to "keep kosher."

So the question arises: when you're in orbit, and the sun rises and sets every hour and a half, and the stars are in view all the time--when does Sabbath begin and end?

He asked his rabbi, and the matter is under discussion.


On my commentary on the Ming Dynasty and its relevance to space, I got a lot more response, but most of it was positive. Peter Taylor of Houston writes:

You remind me of James van Allen's comments in the May 30, 1986 issue of Science regarding oft-heard analogies to Christopher Columbus, which he described as "massively deceitful." If you have not already read his commentary, I highly recommend it. I discuss it in my own commentary on the space program, , but van Allen is well worth reading in full.

Well, I've had my problems with van Allen in the past, because he seems to believe in "science uber alles," but OK.

Sher O'Brien opines:

Your article didn’t get my blood boiling, but did it get me thinking..."China owns the Moon” ?? Suddenly I feel very territorial. I don’t want anybody else to own the Moon… Your article pointed out the very real fact that whoever aggressively goes there with the intent of ownership could probably have exactly that. With all the threats of nuclear war (Pakistan, India, Middle East, USA, etc.), the Moon always seemed like a “safe harbor” for possible survivors. Not so if China owns it.

All that effort by the U.S. & Russia in the 1960s—what came of all that (other than some great exhibits at the Smithsonian and incredible techo advances)? We got just so far and….stopped!

By all accounts, Russia is the most obvious choice to “own” the Moon. Their millionaire moon trips are very entrepreneurial & opportunistic. In your words, “activities going on in space, involving humans in space, that bring more value back than is put into them.”  

Many feel the same way, Sher. For example, Dean Coons writes:

Very good article. You are right about the future of space being tied to individual interests. The moon will not be colonized until individuals can have a personal stake in it (ownership of property and return on investment). Unfortunately, our government can be short sighted too. Who is it that is allowing individuals to pay for trips to space? The Russians. We should be up in front getting the consumer involved. The computer industry is a good example of what happens when an industry becomes consumer driven. 

Jan Christenson from Denmark approves:

Well, for what its worth, I enjoyed your article, and I find I agree with your analysis.

It's always worth a lot, Jan.

From an industry insider in the Washington area:

You wrote an excellent piece of work (May 23) regarding China's future space plans, and the complacency of our nation's leaders with regard to space exploration and settlement. I agreed with every point you made, and I certainly appreciate it when articulate people can bring the debate down to Earth in an effort to remove the "Trekkiness" quality so apparent today.

I am tired of juvenile arguments for migrating into space, and find every opportunity to communicate my opinions on the matter when possible in an attempt to paint a more realistic picture of our future beyond Earth. Your article, and apparently your views, help the issue along.

Not everyone agreed. Tony Tranto notes correctly that:

Great article, I hope some folks on capital hill read it. I do have one observation. You said that the stated Chinese reason for moon landings is prestige. Actually, the Chinese official reason is mining the Moon's resources. The line "Correspondents say China's main motivation for space exploration is to raise national prestige, both at home and overseas" refers to the press' opinion of what China's motivations are. Let's hope that mining is the real reason.

Yes, it's true that the official reason is for mining, but there are economic problems with this that I'll describe in a future column. Because of this, I do agree with the "correspondents" that the real reason is national prestige, so my comments stand.

And a generic email from a Boeing employee, the kind that keeps me beating on the keyboard:

Just wanted to drop you a note to let you know I thoroughly enjoy your weekly commentaries. Keep up the good work! The space program needs more honest and vocal agitators like you and Keith Cowing.

I am cautiously optimistic about Mr. O'Keefe and his vision for NASA. I hope that Congress will give him the time needed to fix some of the major problems in NASA.

We all hope that, I hope.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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