NASA is evaluating a first human stay on the surface of Mars that would last about 30 Earth days.
Scientists and engineers are debating how best to use this month on the Red Planet. the March are explorers planting a flag, simply trying to stay alive, conducting valuable scientific work, or prioritizing setting up equipment for the next human Mars landing team? However long this epic mission lasts, site selection will be key, and the transport of certain equipment on the first outing will likely set the stage for future human exploration of the Red Planet.
Last month, NASA hosted a Science Goals for Human Exploration of Mars Workshop to discuss the highest priority science goals for a crewed expedition to the red planet. The agency has also begun outlining several different potential operating concepts that will enable this science.
One of the results of the meeting is the identification of certain categories of scientific work that could benefit from a crewed surface mission, whether or not astronauts need to operate the equipment. It turns out there’s a lot of science that can be done, even if astronauts have to spend most of their time working to stay alive and healthy.
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Prepositioned robotic assets
“My impression from the workshop was that, although 30 days provides a very tight constraint on science operations, if we use the pre-positioned robotic resources effectively, we can potentially reduce the risk of achieving science objectives that is inherent in a surface mission that short,” said Paul Niles, a planetary scientist with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to better understand if the types of missions we’ve been discussing are feasible,” Niles told Space.com.
The workshop, held May 4-6 in Denver, brought together scientific and technical expertise, said Michelle Rucker, head of the Mars Integration Group that develops crewed Mars mission concepts at the JSC.
“We brought the communities together to discuss how to optimize the science return for a shorter duration mission,” Rucker said.
Mars: what we know about the red planet
‘A little nervous’
Rucker said the distance to Mars means that a crewed surface mission would last a total of at least two years round trip, and possibly longer.
“We never put anybody in space for two years. It’s a subtlety that people miss because they see human spaceflight now as routine,” Rucker said. “We have a few one-year data points. But the engineers get a little nervous when you go beyond their experience base.”
Over the past few years, Rucker and his colleagues have been challenged to find ways to get humans to Mars and back. as quickly as possible while performing substantial scientific work while crews are on the surface.
“We knew there would be a lot of concern that about a month on Mars wouldn’t be enough time to do much,” she said.
But scientific work should not stop when astronauts leave the Red Planet, Rucker advised.
“We will have pre-deployed cargo, so there will be robotic opportunities when the crew arrives to install the equipment,” she said. “And then once the crew is gone, we’ll likely have a lot of assets that we can leave behind. Humans are high maintenance. We need a lot of electricity, communications infrastructure…and all that infrastructure would be available to continue the science after the return of the crew Earth.”
Stephen Hoffman is a Houston-based senior specialist engineer for The Aerospace Corporation. He has years of experience designing crewed Mars exploration scenarios, having recently defined the daily activity schedules of two astronauts occupying the Red Planet for 30 Martian days, or sols. (A sol is just a little longer than a day on Earth, it lasts about 24 hours and 39 minutes).
“If you look at human spaceflight in the past, the first time you do something is never the most ambitious thing,” Hoffman said.
He pointed to the short stay on the lunar surface of Apollo 11 in 1969, contrasting it with later Apollo “J” missions designed for longer sorties by moonwalkers. Likewise, says Hoffman, the first spaceship The mission was a small 36-orbit flight that assessed vehicle performance, while follow-up shuttle missions were longer and multifaceted.
“This Mission 30 sol on Mars kind of fits the bill,” Hoffman said. “That’s long enough to test the first time humans have been on Mars, the first time we’ve had EVA [extravehicular activity] space suits on Mars, the first time we have pressurized rovers on Mars. There’s always a first time on Mars,” Hoffman said.
These new studies represent a departure, he added. Planners of potential astronaut missions to Mars have typically considered long surface stays on the first try – 300 sols or 18 months of crew time, for example.
What needs to be taken into account is that crews will not be carrying out work outside their habitats 24/7, the experts pointed out. First, the explorers of the red planet will have to adapt to Martian gravityabout 40% of that of the Earth’s surface, after a long journey through microgravity. (It currently takes about eight months to fly from our planet to Mars.)
Mars astronauts will also need to eat, sleep, talk to doctors, unplug and listen to music, and relax at the end of the day, Rucker added. “Is it important to just dip your toe in the water and start exploring, or wait for it to be perfect?”
Rucker perceives a “culture shift” between the scientific community, robotic exploration enthusiasts and the fact that Mars is becoming more prominent as a human destination. “I think the point is that we know more about Mars today than we knew about the moon when we first landed humans there.”
The recent Denver workshop was a step forward in forming a consensus that a month on Mars “isn’t a throwaway, not some sort of ‘plant the flag, take a picture, and go home’ thing. ‘” Hoffman said. A vital question to flesh out, he said, is what is being asked of this first Mars landing crew as groundwork in preparation for many more longer-term human sojourns on the Red Planet.
Leonard David is the author of the book “Moon Rush: The New Space Race”, published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime author for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).