Is interplanetary travel possible? — It has been talked about and dreamt of before by so many in the field of astronautics and everyone has their sights set on Mars as one of their immediate destinations. There has been a lot of study and research into the habitability of Mars and whether or not it is possible for it to serve as a secondary home for future generations of humanity.
Research and studies are still ongoing and there is no ‘definitive’ answer right now with regards to Mars’ habitability but with foreseeable future and further advancements in technology, we would be able to send manned expeditions to mars to get a better sense of its viability to sustain life and if it does, terraforming might just be the next step.
So the question remains, what does it take to build a spaceship to send other people Mars or other possible planets? Sending ships up into space has been done before. Space Station servicing missions, space probes, land rovers. Spaceship capable of sending people to Mars currently do not exist due to safety concerns and cost. SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk recently did a presentation detailing their plans for building a interplanetary transport system and show us insight into the future of space exploration and colonization.
First Off, Why Mars?
If we look at the table above, we can see that out of all the planets in our Solar System, Mars has close resemblance to our own planet not just in proximity but also in other key elements.
- Having approximately the same land mass as Earth means that there is no shortage of space to build any number of structures and homestead on.
- The number of hours in a day are basically the same as it is on Earth so there will be very little adjustments to time, if any.
- Being rich CO2 levels, with compression, Mars’ atmospheric composition is very conducive to sustaining plant life and eventually other lifeforms.
- Having 37% gravity compared to Earth, it would have its own merits in certain applications, not to mention the fun acrobatic stunts and ‘incredible’ feats of strength. Mars’ gravity can easily be regulated under a controlled environment to better replicate the same gravitational conditions as on Earth.
- The only major concern is the colder climate of Mars but that too can be addressed possibly by artificially warming up the planet.
The Multiplanetary Transport System
We have established Mars as a viable candidate as our next planetary home so how do we go about sending people there? Short answer, build a spaceship suitable to send people to Mars. Long answer, build a spaceship suitable to send people to Mars while taking all current day limitations such as cost, logistics, construction and safety into consideration to arrive at the best solution possible. The presentation touch on four major talking points.
The biggest concern in building a spaceship to send people to Mars is cost. Right now no person can afford the trip to mars for infinite amount of money. The end goal here is to take the price of admission from virtually impossible to something that is achievable which in this case is roughly amounting to two hundred thousand US dollars ($200,000) per person. This is still a large sum of money but with enough people who would want to go and can afford to go, the project sees this as something that can be done.
In order to achieve this, the four conditions above must be met.
- Full Reusability – Trips to Mars will only occur every 26 months or roughly 2 years so it is of utmost importance to determine which aspects of the system should development focus on to reduce as much cost while still maintaining performance. Out of all the components needed, the spaceship or cabin part which will transport the people and the cargo will require the most attention in performance and safety. It should be able to achieve a good number of 2-year expeditions to Mars before reaching its end-of-service cycle to justify its cost.
- Refilling In Orbit – One way to reduce cost and maximize reusability is to perform refueling in orbit rather than sending the cabin part of the ship to space every time which would save on time and costs. This way, the tanker – which carries the fuel – and the booster – which is responsible for propulsion – can be utilized to full extent and can do multiple refueling and servicing trips to orbit as needed.
- Propellant Production On Mars – After sending the spaceship to Mars comes the second half of the equation – sending it back to Earth – to be serviced and used for other expeditions. It would be counterproductive to have a graveyard of ships orbiting on Mars and do nothing with them. The first priority would be to build propellant plants on Mars. This is done by utilizing the planet’s unique atmospheric composition which is rich in carbon dioxide and ice water to produce deep-cryo methalox.
- Right Propellant – As mentioned above, the propellant of choice for this mission is deep-cryo methalox. After much consideration based on production capability, availability, cost and other factors, it became the logical choice of propellant for the spaceship. Most importantly, it can be produced easily both on Earth and on Mars.
This is the entire process at a glance. All the logistics and technicalities involved aside, it is a fairly simple and straightforward process. Realistically speaking, there are more pressing concerns about the state of our planet and how it will gradually change due to natural and/or man-made influence. Earth will be home for the immediate and foreseeable future for us and for many more generations to come after.
Consider this as a test of our capabilities as humans and thinking ahead for our future as a species. Big ideals and good intentions such as this are always wrought with peril and criticism but it is a necessary step in order to move forward. There is no right time for these things. What matters is taking that first step and really, that is all any of us can hope for in our time.