Imagined Colours Of Future Mars - What Happens If We Treat A Planet As A Giant Petri Dish?
    By Robert Walker | June 2nd 2014 10:00 AM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Kim Stanley Robinson in his famous Trilogy Red, Green and Blue Mars describes a science fiction future with Mars changing colour to green and then to blue. But what also about snowball white after a failed terraforming attempt? Or, what about purple, or black (or darker in colour)? Perhaps you can think of other colours it could turn as well?

    I thought this would be a great way to explore some of the complexities of planetary transformation, to imagine the possible future colours of Mars - depending on human actions, deliberate or accidental.

    I'm doing this also as a contribution to ideas for a possible future art event in Finland, on "Imaginary Colonialism", by the artist Egle Oddo and composer, artist, translator and poet Timo Tuhkanen, inspired by my articles here.

    Here are these six colours of Mars in a single slide, plus the last one which represents "none of the above" - it will make sense when we get to that part of this article.

    Mars: White, Red, Purple, Green, Blue, Black, Or None Of The Above

    These images are meant as visual coat pegs to attach the discussion to. I don't claim that they show scientifically accurate simulations of the visual appearances of possible future Mars.


    Partially Snowball Mars - it gets like this naturally when the axial tilt is very high. But if the amount of water and CO2 available on the surface increases it could be like this all the time, sometimes maybe completely covered in ice.

    I don't know of any study of this, but a snowball or partially snowball Mars seems perhaps the most likely effect of a failed terraforming attempt, if the attempt involved importing water and carbon dioxide to Mars e.g. by diverting comets to impact on it, or some method that involves liberating water and dry ice from deep below the surface of Mars and returning it to the surface.

    All that excess water and CO2 would have to go somewhere as the planet cools down again after the failed attempt - and that would create ice caps larger than those on Mars today. So that's what this image shows.

    Earth got out of its snowball Earth phases because of continental drift, which returns limestone to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. But Mars has no continental drift, and does have some volcanic activity, but not much, no currently active volcanoes (unlike Earth which has numerous active volcanoes every year). It is able to stay relatively warm mainly because it is so dry.

    With more water than it has now, and more dry ice, it would not be able to escape from a snowball phase in the same way that Earth did.


    This image is actually not a photograph, but a rendering in Orbiter

    This is the future if Mars is kept unchanged, just as it is. We decide not to colonize, not to land humans there, leave it exactly as it is.

    If Mars turns out to be interestingly different for life, perhaps this is what we'll do. Or if it turns out that life can survive there, but we see many issues arising if we introduce life to the planet, again we might decide to leave it pristine.

    There's no imperative to colonize Mars. If we want to set up colonies outside of Earth, then the most natural place to begin is close to Earth - easy to trade with Earth, provide useful things such as solar satellites to beam energy back to Earth, easy to return to Earth or get new supplies from the home planet in an emergency - and you can make surprisingly large colonies from not much material.

    A 300 meter near earth asteroid has more than enough material to provide cosmic radiation shielding for an entire Stanford Torus with 10,000 inhabitants. The cosmic radiation shielding, at 4.5 tons per square meter of surface area of the habitat, is the main part of the bulk of the materials needed.
    Video fly through of a Stanford Torus type habitat by Uzi Bento

    You could make a habitat like this using materials mined from a small NEO such as 4660 Nereus

    4660 Nereus, 300 meters diameter, NEO, easier to get to than the Moon, has more than enough material for the cosmic radiation shielding (main part of the mass) for an entire Stanford Torus with 10,000 inhabitants.

    If we used all the materials in the asteroid belt we could make enough habitats to provide ground area of 1000 times the surface area of the Earth - and that's just the ground floor of the colony. Typical colony worlds may well have many levels within that - which would not need additional shielding.

    This method of construction also makes it much easier to build large spacious habitats - imagine trying to build a Stanford torus on the Moon! The gravity would make it really hard to construct, and as for spinning it to generate extra gravity, that would be a major engineering challenge.

    For more about all this see my Asteroid Resources Could Create Space Habs For Trillions; Land Area Of A Thousand Earths

    So in a future solar system with space settlements, there won't be any pressure on Mars as a place to live, there will be plenty of living space for everyone in free space.

    This is a calculation that goes back to the 1970s and was the original reason why O'Neil and the team at Stanford and other researchers imagined their colonies in space rather than on the Moon or planetary surfaces. The situation is still the same today. Free space may well be the easiest place to build future settlements and certainly it gives more space to expand.


    I did this by adjusting the colours of stage 2 of MarsTransitionV by Daeen Ballard.

    Chris McKay has the idea that if there is interestingly different life on Mars then we might "Mars form" it - transform Mars to make it more habitable for the life already there. For instance if it needs more warmth or water, then adjust Mars to make things easier for it. Also you would take care not to introduce any Earth life to the planet apart from whatever microbes might already be shared between the planets - and he envisions us sending rovers to Mars to remove all the spacecraft already there or sterilize them, as well as sterilize any microbes that may have got into the soil in their vicinity (e.g. for the crashed spacecraft).

    In this image, I imagined, what if the indigenous Mars photosynthetic life is purple? There's no particularly strong reason for Mars photosynthetic life to be green. Its atmosphere lets through most colours - though it does block a fair bit of blue light through scattering of fine dust in the upper atmosphere, which is what colours the Martian sky. Purple pigments absorb yellow and green light and reflect red and blue light.

    It's not so surprising an idea. After all, we already have red photosynthetic pigments here on Earth for the halobacteria, which make the Red Sea red. When concentrated, you get a purple colour like this

    A salty pond in the Arabian desert, colored red due to the presence of Halobacterium salinarum.

    So, what if the dominant photosynthetic life form on early Mars, both on land and in the sea, was purple like this, and still survives there to this day? After making conditions hospitable for it to flourish again, it might turn the entire planet purple.

    Of course it might turn it other colours as well. This image is just a place holder for the idea.


    This seems possible if the terraforming scenarios worke - but Kimley Stanley Robinson's time-scale is accelerated compared with the ideas of the most optimistic terraformers.

    Here is how they envision it in the Mars Society

    Images from the Big Idea (National Geographic Magazine)

    See also, How we will terraform Mars - by Jason Shankel and Terrafprming Mars by Nicole Willet

    But there's much to go wrong. If you moved Earth out to the Mars orbit, all its oceans would freeze of course, leading to White Mars. So that has to be prevented. 

    (Image from Sunlight on Mars - teacher's resource which examines possibility of agriculture on the Mars surface)

    This landscape would need to be kept warm with some warming method such as artificially or naturally created extra greenhouse gases or giant mirrors or both.

    Then it could be other colours also, why should the vegetation that evolves on Mars be green as it is on Earth? Whatever you seed it with, evolution will cause new species to arise and spread over the planet. With the planet so different, it's likely to develop its own novel lifeforms, even starting with Earth life as the basis.

    Still - green Mars is a possibility, so this image is a placeholder for a future Mars that gets terraformed with plants that are reasonably congenial to human habitation, whatever colour they turn out to be.


    This is the one the terraformers would like to see:

    Mars society estimate a thousand years to reach this point, followed by several millennia to get to the stage where there is enough oxygen in the atmosphere to breath.

    Others estimate it would take a hundred thousand years to get the oxygen.

    But maybe all that can be solved with unlimited sustainable and controlled fusion power - or solar power beamed from space - and nano technology or mega-engineering.

    There are also issues with stability. How exactly do you keep the climate warm enough to stop the water freezing, given that Earth, moved out to Mars orbit, would go straight into a snowball phase? Do you rely on mirrors in space to achieve this?

    The Mars society suggestion has giant mirrors in orbit to keep the planet warm.

    Here is an artist's impression of a similar idea - this time to warm up a single spot on Mars.

    Images by Kel Guerin - for page of these images on his website - see Pervasive Futures

    To terraform Mars you'd need greenhouse gases, or many giant mirrors in space like that - or both

    But you'd also need to keep the planet warm once terraformed, or it would turn to a snowbal. So a future terraformed Mars would probably be surrounded by giant mirrors in space and rely on continually functioning mega technology to keep warm.

    There are many questions to answer here. Would the Earth cycles work in a third of normal gravity - which also needs three times as much CO2 and O2 to get the same atmospheric pressure?

    What do we do long term about the CO2 that gets trapped into limestone - is there a biological or engineering solution to return it to the atmosphere? Or does complex life on the planet end once all the CO2 turns to limestone?

    Would it stay terraformed long term without megatechnology? Or does the terraformed Mars depend on continuing high technology civilization through into the future for hundreds of millions of years?

    Would it unterraform - perhaps as quickly as it was terraformed, with extinction of its inhabitants if they lost the technology? 

    Or, will it remain terraformed for a few million years or tens of millions of years - but then unterraform? We are only separated from the future inhabitants of the planet by time - surely as the ones who started the process - we have some moral responsibility to those future inhabitants, whose world we helped to create?

    Can humans survive on Mars anyway with a third of normal gravity? Would they perhaps need spinning modules to live in to function normally and be healthy. Or are you talking about other creatures, perhaps created by us, with a fair bit of human DNA, or created through some process of speeded up evolution, but biologically adapted to Mars?

    Maybe we can solve all those problems in the future, I don't think we have the technology or knowledge to do it right now.

    But if it does turn out possible, this image shows the result.


    This is an imagined result of a contaminated Mars, a life form spreading rapidly over the surface after a human landing, turning the planet darker in colour.

    The idea behind this possibility goes back to Carl Sagan. He pointed out that the iron oxides would provide protection from ultraviolet light to microbes imbedded in a grain of dust. In this way, some forms of life might spread over the entire surface of Mars. He calculated that a microbe reproducing as slowly as once a month, if not limited by conditions there, could create a microbial population equal to that of Earth soil over the entire surface of Mars within a decade. 

    This calculation doesn't show that Mars would get a population of microbes like Earth soil, because it would of course be limited by the harsh conditions there. But if niches suitable for life were widespread, and if life could also get transferred to them easily in the wind, then there wouldn't be much to prevent life from colonising the entire surface within a few years.

    The main reason we are so careful about sterilizing rovers to Mars is because of concern that something like this might happen, either a dramatic change like this - or a more subtle, cryptic maybe (beneath soil surface or hidden in rocks), perhaps slower, but irreversible and pervasive change of the entire planet.

    This is just an old Viking photograph of the whole of Mars, adjusted to make it a bit darker, but it serves to illustrate the idea, that Mars could turn darker.

    If humans land on Mars then they will introduce many new life forms to Mars, as a typical human is host to a hundred trillion microbes in ten thousand different species, and you also have them in our food, plants and air.

    Most will surely die soon. but some may survive and spread. The DLR experiments showed that lichens, and cyanobacteria may well be able to survive on Mars even without moisture, in partial shade, using the hundred percent night time humidity.

    phoenix-globs-02.jpg (650×258)
    This polar lichen photosynthesized and metabolized normally through 34 days of simulated Mars - duration of experiment (credit DLR)

    You get morning frosts even in equatorial regions of Mars so there is water vapour there - it just gets evaporated each day to leave the surface totally dry, and freezes at night so is unavailable to life then either.

    Ice on Mars Utopia Planitia. This high-resolution color photo of the surface of Mars was taken by Viking Lander 2 at its Utopia Planitia landing site on May 18, 1979, and relayed to Earth by Orbiter 1 on June 7. It shows a thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil
    Viking 2 lander photograph of ice on the surface of Mars not far from the equator.

    But the DLR experiments show that some life can take water vapour directly from the atmosphere, and may be able to survive on Mars using the 100% night time humidity.

    Lichens can come in many colours including black.You can imagine black would be selected for, because black lichens would warm up more quickly and be better able to take advantage of whatever warmth there is. Now, lichens grow very slowly and spread slowly.

    But cyanobacteria also come in different colours including red and black. A micro-organism only needs to reproduce once a month to cover the entire surface of Mars well within a decade.

    Here, I've imagined that Mars gets rapidly colonized by a dark cyanobacteria or other dark photosynthetic organism able to take in water from the atmosphere, and requiring little else to survive except the CO2 trace elements, and nitrogen. The nitrogen would probably be the limiting factor actually, as it is rare on Mars - so - probably would be patchy, with sparse populations, rather than covering entire surface as in the image.

    Some of the differing colours of cyanobacteria, laboratory collection in the Laboratory of Ecotoxicology, Genomics and Evolution

    This is the fastest of the possible colour changes, this could be what Mars looks like within ten years of first human habitat to land on Mars, if one of the microbes finds Mars conditions to its liking and spreads out of control. We might be able to actually watch the life spread over Mars year by year. Would be fascinating to watch and see what it does - but a disaster for planetary science, especially exobiology.

    Before the Phoenix mission, six years ago, most scientists thought that the surface of Mars is so inhospitable that no present day life could survive there. But Phoenix discovered salts on the surface that could deliquesce, and drops of liquid (apparently) formed on its legs - and isotope observations of the atmosphere showed that Mars has substantial amounts of liquid water that exchanges oxygen with the atmosphere, in recent past, either continuously or in melting episodes.

    This got many scientists rethinking their ideas about possible habitability of Mars and nowadays many scientists think there may well be extant present day life on the surface of Mars - including, interestingly, Robert Zubrin himself, who said as much in a recent Space Show. Though, he thinks any Mars life is going to be identical to Earth life, and so that any introductions of life to Mars will have no effect on the planet (not many exobiologists share this view).

    For more about this see Might there be Microbes on the Surface of Mars?

    It might be a visible change like this - but we are talking about extreme arid desert conditions there - especially, limited supplies of nitrogen as well as water. So, perhaps it's more likely to be a subtle change you can only see easily on the ground, dark patches and smudges on the rocks and sand here and there in favoured locations

    As for the colour, black is only one possibility of course. Could be green cyanobacteria, or lichens for instance. Or, by analogy with the Atacama desert or McMurdo dry valleys, might well be cryptic life also, no visible change, but there are new layers of microbes you see if you dig into the sand or crack open a rock.

    Also some life in desert places grows extremely slowly. So, it might spread far more slowly than this - but once started would be an irreversible process.

    None of these versions of Mars is strictly speaking black, just darker, but the press would probably call it "Black Mars" if this happened.

    However it happens, quickly or slowly, obviously or as cryptic lifeforms in the rocks and sand, this outcome could potentially lead to extinction of extant species on Mars before they have been "discovered".

    It would make it much harder to study Mars as any experiments to search for biosignatures would find the amino acids and DNA of the black cyanobacteria - or whatever the contaminating life form is.

    Then the life form might be one that is a nuisance to humans or one that gets in the way of future attempts to terraform. Could produce toxic biproducts - after all green algae produce a toxic chemical that may cause Alzheimers on Earth - not through any adapatation to humans but just because the chemical BMAA happens to resemble a biochemical used by the human body L-Serine

    There are many other cyanotoxins that cyanobacteria could create on Mars. Or could be an allergen etc. Not because they evolved to kill humans, just it works out that way.

    The main problem here is - on Earth if we detect that a species, say of cane toad, is causing problems, there is a possibility of reversing it - if caught at an early stage. It's only when it gets too far, as happened with cane toads in Australia indeed, that it's next to impossible to do that.

    On Mars, with contamination by micron, or even sub-micron scaled microbes, then unless the contamination has only spread a very short way - say a few meters around a crashed spacecraft, then there is almost no chance of reversing it. Once hardy spores begin to spread imbedded in minute cracks in the dust, as Carl Sagan envisioned, it's really hard to see how we could do anything about it, even with possible future technologies we don't have yet.


    There are many other things that could happen to Mars. If we "Mars form" it then native life could be orange, cyan, yellow, many different colours, and change the colour of the planet accordingly.

    Then life could evolve in unexpected ways, or other things could go wrong during an attempted terraforming process. 

    For instance, Mars could develop an atmosphere rich in methane, created by methanogens as it gets wetter - or some species gets out of control not as intended, so instead of going green it goes another colour, whatever is the colour of the out of control species. 

    That then could make it just about any of the colours you get of living microbes on Earth - and possibly more colours unique to Mars.

    To get an idea of the range, check out the Microbial Art website - artworks created in a petri dish using microbes.

    Microbial art by Roger Tsien - using various bio-engineered fluorescent proteins - attempts to terraform Mars might also use bio-engineered organisms, which might then go "wild" and spread over the planet and evolve in unexpected ways.

    March 25, "My Little Pony Swirl" Photo: Klari Reis

    Check out Microbial Art for many more petri dish images - terraforming or Mars forming gone wrong could turn the entire surface of Mars into a giant petri dish with unpredictable results - and if it doesn't follow the exact course planned out for it by the terraformers, you could end up with species in almost any colours, dominating the planet.


    It might possibly create great art - but - expressing an opinion here - this is an opinion piece - we shouldn't use a planet as our canvas for accidental art like this. We can create giant habitats in space if we want to paint our experiments across a large canvas in space - using materials from the asteroid belt.

    When it comes to planets, especially planets with atmospheres, I think we need to know what we are doing, and why we are doing it before we alter them biologically. That's because planets are large, the surface is interconnected through winds, introduction of life to a planet is irreversible, and there are so few planets in our solar system. We have only one other planet capable of hosting life on its surface - or possibly two if the Venusian clouds can also harbour life.

    Whatever we might do to them biologically, it will have a strong element of unpredictability - unless we develop some revolutionary new understanding of biology and planet cycles.

    Certainly as we are now, when we have endless debates about whether or not 0.01% of CO2 is changing our climate, and what the effects are - we are far from the levels of understanding we need to predict what will happen to another planet when we introduce microbial life to it and let it evolve.

    Personally - I think that suggests that we recommend restraint and caution. We don't know which colour of Mars our descendants will want to have - or the detailed ecology they will want - will they want it Mars formed, Earth formed, or transformed in some way that is neither Earth or Mars inspired?

    Or will they greatly desire a pristine Mars so they can study the details of evolution of life there, or so they can compare Mars with Earth to better understand how the Earth life cycles work?

    We have made many ecological and biological mistakes on Earth with accidental, and sometimes deliberate, transfer of species between continents. We don't want Mars to be one of our biggest biological and exobiological mistakes so far - and written in the sky for all future generations to deal with.

    Even if we could somehow know what our descendants might want Mars to be like, a few centuries or millennia from now, then, on present day scientific understanding, we have no way of ensuring that it reaches one of these particular end goals rather than other ones.

    It's great to explore ideas for terraforming Mars, and just by doing that, we may learn more about how planets work, and get insights into how the planetary cycles work on Earth. James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, for instance arose out of study of planetary atmospheres.

    But - I think, personally, that we should think long and hard before commiting to any decision to treat Mars as a giant petri dish in the sky for an experiment, accidental or intentional, in transferring life to a new planet.

    Anyway, Timo and Egle, hope this gives you a few interesting ideas for the exhibition.

    As usual, if you have any comments, thoughts, ideas, corrections, anything you want to share do use the comments below.

    Also if you can think of any other interesting colours Mars could turn, depending on our actions, do say in the comments below.

    This is an "opinion piece" or "op ed" expressing a strong personal point of view on these issues for discussion. Do feel equally free to present your own points of view in the comments section, and let's get a discussion going, or at least, an exchange of views.


    For background material see my Science20 articles, such as



    Thought I'd add this as a comment, keep the article shorter, also many of my readers here will have seen this material already.


    If you've been following my other articles here you'll probably see the relevance immediately, but in case not, just to say a bit about it.

    First, of course there are many organizations planning or lobbying to send humans to the surface of Mars.

    With all these plans the idea is to land humans on the surface of Mars.

    You'd think, with so many plans to land humans on Mars, that there would have been a detailed examination and explanation of how they plan to solve contamination issues. But the problem just seems to be ignored for the most part. Have been COSPAR workshops on the topic, but with no definite conclusions about how the issues would be solved. The workshop reports generally conclude with various comments to the effect that more research is needed.

    Humans on Mars, clearly, would greatly increase the risk of introducing Earth microbes to Mars - especially if the spacecraft crash which is of course a distinct possiblity in such a risky endeavour. This is prohibited under the Outer Space Treaty as currently interpreted by COSPAR.

    None of these people, or organizations, even NASA, has ever explained how they plan to land humans on Mars without a greatly increased risk of contamination - or what change they think will happen, scientific, moral, or legal, to make it no longer an issue to contaminate Mars on such a short timescale as a decade, or a couple of decades from now.


    The only one I think to address this issue head on with a proposed solution is Robert Zubrin, together with a few other Mars colonization advocates who essentially repeat his views on the matter.

    He has said that it doesn't matter what we do -  that introduced Earth life can have no harmful effect on Mars or studies of life on Mars - and has presented various arguments for his view. If he is right there, then it's a non issue.

    But his is a minority view in this subject - not widely accepted by the specialists - and as such would need to be confirmed and verified by strong evidence. You couldn't say that it has been verified on the basis of his arguments so far.

    One of the things that makes Mars such a fascinating planet to explore, for exobiologists, is the possibility that Mars life, past or present, may be interestingly different from Earth life. Many would say that this also makes both Mars and Earth life at least potentially vulnerable to each other. Certainly that's the conclusion of all the past workshops and special reports on planetary protection of Mars and Earth.

    Also, obviously such an argument would need to be verified before a human landing on Mars. It wouldn't be sufficient to land on Mars first, and document the effect of your actions on the planet in the belief that this will verify Robert Zubrin's views.

    For more on this see Could Microbes Transferred On Spacecraft Harm Mars Or Earth - Zubrin's Argument Revisited.


    We can avoid all these issues if we explore Mars by telepresence from orbit. If we want to send humans to Mars, then rather than put human boots on the surface, put telerobotic boots on the surface, with the humans in orbit controlling them via telepresence. 

    This is also far less expensive, safer for the humans, and arguably gets more science done on the surface of Mars, and at any rate without contaminating Mars. Also the telerobotic rovers don't need to be encumbered with human life support and can explore regions of Mars that would not be safe for humans.

    There have been many proposals for telerobotic missions to Mars in the past, with humans in orbit - one of the most detailed being the HERRO plan, with others by Russia and Lockheed Martin. Yet for some reason these don't seem to catch the public imagination, or that of the politicians, or indeed many space scientists either - despite their many advantages over a human mission to the surface. 

    Perhaps that's something that can change though. After all telerobotics has advanced hugely even since the most recent HERRO plan just a few years back - and many in the general public are far more familiar with such ideas through games technology, and we also have the, to many, surprising level of interest in Curiosity, as a purely robotic rover on another planet.

    I plan a follow up article to this, to imagine what a future Mars telerobotic mission would look like. It would be a spectacular and fascinating mission to follow, in many ways far more interesting and exciting than a Mars base I believe. You can get some idea from the other articles here on the subject.

    For instance, 

    As a taster, here is a video I did, just a first draft, showing a futuristic spaceship, and no generation of artificial gravity, but this is the spectacular orbit you'd be in if you followed the HERRO mission plan for an early low cost telerobotic exploration of Mars - 

    Time here is speeded up a hundred times - each orbit lasts twelve hours, and you come close in to the sunny side of Mars twice a day, visiting the opposite side of Mars each time.

    You'd be operating telerobots on the surface - and perhaps with equipment like the Occulus rift - with  higher resolution, in a present day updated version of the HERRO plan.

    Then - it would be done with haptic feedback of course - and precise control after all telerobotics are already used for surgery on humans - and quite possibly also using something like the Virtuix Omni to move your telerobots around on the surface in a more intuitive way, so you just walk or run where you want it to go and the robot does whatever is needed to move in the direction you walked. 

    Personally, I think if you want to send human missions to Mars, this should be the sort of mission we should target, for science value, also public interest, if the idea is clearly explained so the reason for doing it this way is understood.

    You can get a first taste of it here:  Robert Walker's answer to: Mars (planet): What would it be like to live on Mars? - that will probably be the basis for my first draft for the article - some of my recent articles here have started off as answers on quora.
    Would realtime telerobotics really work in low gravity?
    Wouldn't the advantage of human intuition be lost because of the unnatural gravity, and wouldn't it be very difficult to "get a feel" for the new gravity environment if one isn't actually there in person? I imagine that the operator would be counter intuitively surprised by the reaction and movements of the materials handled.

    Has telerobotics ever been tried in microgravity?
    It could be simulated on a computer to train the operators. Actually, that might be a very doable mid-gravity experiment.

    Okay  first, yes it has been done, probably pretty much as you imagine, a simple first experiment with just a computer, mouse and keyboard not bothering with the VR stuff for now.

    This was from the ISS, so in micro-gravity, controlling a robot on the surface of the Earth in full g.

    Astronaut on International Space Station successfully controls K10 rover on Earth, supporting use of telerobotics in future deep space missions

    It worked well enough to be useful, and was first example of someone doing telerobotics on a planetary surface from orbit. 

    That much would already be a major improvement over controlling from Earth - if you had someone in Mars orbit able to control Curiosity like this they could get vastly more done than they can controlling it from the Earth.

    But the plan for HERRO was for the astronauts to be in Mars gravity - with the spaceship rotating to generate gravity. 

    That way they are in the same gravity environment as their rovers. The rovers are equipped with hands with haptic feedback. So the astronauts can pick things up with the hands, and feel them, move them around and they are in exactly the same gravity environment so should all be seamless.

    The HERRO mission images still shows them sitting at computers looking at computer screens as they do it. But they also had the idea of using binocular vision on the rovers, so I think they must have had VR sets in mind as well.

    If the hardware can be space hardened, I'd have thought it would be productive to use something like the Occulus Rift for vision. And if doing a lot of moving around on the surface - not driving type movement but just going from place to place e.g. picking up rocks in a small area - I'd have thought using an omnidirectional treadmill like the Virtuix Omni for walking around would be more efficient, just walk where you want to go and the rover automatically drives in that direction. Just ideas.

    Of course if you have the crew in Mars g all the time there's the question about - would that be healthy for them. That just depends on what we learn from zero / low g experiments, what types of tether lengths and spin rates are suitable etc so don't think can answer that. 

    If it did turn out to be an issue - it wouldn't be that hard to e.g. use full g on journey out to Mas, slow down to Mars g while exploring the planet, and use full g again on return to Earth. You are only talking about meters per second delta v changes there not km/sec, won't even be a noticeable hit on the fuel probably to change about between Mars g, and full g, if you don't do it too often. You can also do it by varying the tether length - with shorter tether and faster spin rate, same delta v for Earth g. 
    Gray Mars. MSL Curiosity has drilled and revealed that the red cover is very thin. I don't know how the red surface formed. Maybe there was a time before that when Mars was as gray as the Moon?

    Good point, yes. 
    Mars collects first bedrock sample article, Mars not so red beneath the surface. Also the Wikipedia article on Mars surface color 
    It might be a good idea to wait with contaminating Mars with human precense. But even so, Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct (or rather the modified version NASA Design Reference Mission 3.0) should be adjusted to become a telerobotic mission. Because his mission proposal could actually be realized within 10 years and within NASAs budget of today. Especially without human landings. Also, its architechture could be built upon later to land humans when suitable.
    - Switch the habitats on Mars to a set of rovers.
    - Keep the landing of a methane fuel factory on Mars (or even two for redundancy and for long term Mars build up of electric power and fuel factory infrastructure).
    - Then when the return trip fuel has been produced and is orbiting Mars, send the crew.
    - Could be done with Falcon Heavy, all major components of which is already flying today as F9. It might require two launches and one docking in LEO for a more comfortable 6 months ride. Plus a third or even a fourth Falcon Heavy for the rovers and fuel plant.
    - A crew of 3 is enough for a telerobotic mission.

    The HERRO mission proposed is massively more expensive with 7 heavy lift launches of 130 tons each and an activated thermal nuclear rocket in LEO. Robert Zubrin is quite right when he says that such a mission WILL NOT happen! It is designed to never happen.
    - Costs too much for NASA today.
    - Takes way too long time. The second administration will kill it because it would not have achieved any tangible results in the first 8 years.
    - Uses a thermal nuclear rocket enginewhich would meet extreme amounts of irrational public protests. And to operate an activated such in LEO seems to be an unnecessary hazard even to me who love that rocket engine type!


    Yes that all makes sense, the HERRO mission is an old one of course, built upon a 2008 design reference mission for Mars (same year as Falcon 1), and 6 years is a long time in the Space industry.


    The orbital mechanics is the same, as is the delta v budget, so I think their orbit is the main thing you'd probably keep for an early mission (with Robert Zubrin's double Athena fly by as a possibility for a precursor). 

    Yes using many elements of Mars direct, making fuel on the surface for the telerobots - I think that's a good plan. I'd go with that also :).

    Also think the Mars One idea of taking thin film solar panels to Mars to power batteries seems good also and worth exploring, it also seems like a way to generate a lot of power using a small weight to lift to Mars, clever idea to focus not on the efficiency of the panels, but the amount of power you can generate for the given amount of weight of panels to take with you. After all the astronaut's lunar buggy was pretty effective as an electrically powered vehicle using batteries only for power on the Moon, can imagine something like that working well on Mars also.

    Perhaps try both and see which works best in practise.


    For journey back - well the delta v to get back from surface of Mars to Earth is huge. But to get from the Mars capture orbit back to Earth - then again - that's not such a big issue.

    The round trip delta v for the HERRO mission is comparable to the round trip delta v to the surface of the Moon.

    The delta v from Mars Capture to Mars transfer orbit is only 0.9 km/second. And then you have aerocapture and parachutes to get back to Earth of course. So that's all you need, that 0.9 km/sec to return.

    Compared with LEO to Mars transfer of 4.3 km/second. And around 9 km/sec to get to LEO from Earth. I don't know what the delta v is from Mars capture to the HERRO orbit but can't be much, it's not like going to a low Mars orbit.

    So - I don't think you would need to add the extra step of making fuel on the surface to use in orbit. Just use it on the surface. 

    Instead use make fuel on the surface to have big reserves of fuel for all the ground operations on Mars.


    Instead of figuring a way to launch from surface to Mars orbit - I would send two habitats to orbit around Mars first, so you have redundancy in case of failure - and without the crew on board, have extra supplies as well and extra fuel. 

    That also gives two chances to find out if there is some major engineering issue with your habitat / spacecraft. Similar idea to Mars One but without the risky landing of course

    And - means far more space for the humans when they get their eventually.

    And - yes I think a key to this is to have precursors that do something useful, not just part of build up to the longer term mission. And the telerobots would be designed to work autonomously as well - with instructions for the next day like the present day ones - you'd do that anyway so one human can control several different landers at once as in the HERRO proposal.

    So - your first mission to Mars can land autonomous robots on Mars - including things like the enthomopter - testing the various kinds of avatar the humans could use on Mars. And is doing good science already - if slowly. Find out things that could be useful for designing e.g. best instruments for future telerobots to send even though you haven't got humans there yet.

    Also the habitats can double up as relay stations and orbital platforms for studying Mars from orbit with telescopes and other instruments - and relay stations for the rovers on the surface - obviously - since they are set up for telerobotic operation - so could also be operated from Earth via the habitats.

    So they are already doing something really useful before the humans get there - far more useful than a habitat on the surface.


    E.g. Exomars type searches for life, present day and past - if it finds interesting biosignatures for instance, that can inform the instruments you want to send next. So all that is building up more knowledge useful for the human explorers when they get there.

    They could do that just as with existing missions - have Curiosity type landers that are already off exploring for life. Then even if first mission is a double Athena type double fly by - still - the landers are already somewhere interesting and make the human missions more effective when they get there.

    So - even with the double Athena precursor, with just a few hours of close up telepresence - still - you can arrange things so those few hours are maximally useful, with all the landers in position where you can make best use of them.


    Meanwhile also while you do this exploring on Mars with the telerobots and the habitat relays and their orbital telescopes and instruments - to have the humans themselves doing a mission nearer to hand, I suggest to L2 position at far side of the Moon, controlling telerobots on the surface to build radio telescopes and explore the Moon + polar ice. So - lots of similarities to the Mars mission - obviously not identical, many differences also, but enough to be relevant - and also psychologically similar, can't see Earth - but easy to get back if problems develop.

    And make it so the L2 mission is designed to last for several years with no resupply from Earth, just as for Mars. So a low cost mission especially given the amount a human crew so close to the Moon could achieve via telerobotics in, say, 3 years. And if we can't do that yet, then we are nowhere near the level of technology needed for an interplanetary flight, so keep doing missions like that until we can do it reliably without any need to return the crew in between or resupply to them.


    Then when we've cracked that one, can consider an interplanetary flight. So - it's going to take at least 3 years - plus surely some earlier tests in LEO of the closed system habitat they are going to use at L2, and of artificial gravity (surely they'd use tether based artificial gravity as for HERRO - but what exactly, what's the best design)

    All of it good productive stuff, and new research, at every stage, reaching new frontiers of knowledge, you can see where it is going, and why you are doing it, so also good job satisfaction for the astronauts also - and doing good science as you go at every stage.

    So, I'd have a few more launches than you suggest, but at the same time, designed so they are all useful missions in their own right. That's mainly because I think there are many more challenges to be overcome.


    E.g. for Apollo 11 - well Apollo 10 nearly landed on the Moon but they chose to do it as a dry run, send a crew down nearly to the surface but not land. And was just as well they did as they found some issues there that could have been fatal and the Apollo 10 crew came within seconds of impacting on the lunar surface on their return journey. And were many other precursors testing all stages of the sequence - orbiting the Moon, docking, humans in space for longer and longer time periods etc. Even things like toilets in space, and eating, all that had to be sorted out before they could go to the Moon.

    We have to do the same for Mars I think, is such a step up - a thousand times further than the Moon - with the Moon a thousand times further than LEO, someone said recently can't remember who but it gives an idea, very roughly, of how it's - I think a Mars mission is several orders of magnitude harder than a Moon mission, just going to orbit around Mars. And then, a Moon mission - an extended one like a three year mission to L2 that is, without resupply from Earth - I think is also several orders of magnitude harder than a mission to LEO to pull off successfully without mishap to the crew.

    So we probably have quite a few orders of magnitude increase in difficulty to surmount to do this.


    So that's why I see it as something that would happen step by step, maybe over a period of a decade, at least a few years anyway.

    Plus also - supposing all this takes say a decade before you get humans there - that would fit nicely with a decadal review project for the US - well during that decade, then there'd be many other Mars missions - especially if the whole thing is designed as an international effort like the ISS, and as NASA proposed for human landing on Mars- then - while this is going on, then all the rovers landed on Mars by other countries - they'd add telerobotic handling capabilities, including things like hands with haptic feedback etc - in anticipation of the human mission we are all working towards. And probably with better power supplies also so they can be driven more quickly. So you get many more telerobotic capable rovers that way for the humans to use when they get there - and many more locations on Mars for them also.

    First, if contamination is used as an argument for delaying humans on Mars, then one needs to specify the criterea for when to give the green light. It is very difficult to strictly disprove life on Mars.

    Second, I recommend this 1½ hour podcast presentation at SETI/talks from yesterday(!):
    At 59:00 he starts to talk about missions to Mars orbit. The first hour is about the discovery history and science of Mars' moons.

    Concerning a realtime telerobotics mission
    An areosynchronous orbit (ASO) would allow constant contact with the rovers on one hemisphere. If they like the MSL and not operated (much) at night, the crew would have a day job and an Earth like daily rythm. Without shift work the crew wouldn't need to be larger than maybe 3 (if not for psychological reasons a one man crew could give most results per dollar spent). The ASO is between and close to the moons, but still quite stable AFAIK, and should give opportunity for very low delta-V sample returns from them.

    Sample return from Mars might be the technically most challenging part. Late before return to Earth, the crewed orbiter might land one or two stationary sample return vehicles at locations where multiple rovers rendezvous to load it with samples. That way you won't have the problem of making an ascent rocket remain operational after 18 months on the surface of Mars where temperature and dust might cause problems. Realtime telerobotic rovers should be able to move much faster than MSL Curiosity.

    I like Zubrins' direct approach to a Mars mission, even if humans stay in orbit. People have spent over a year in space. A stay in EML2 is in no way less dangerous than a trip to Mars with the same duration. They might as well travel to somewhere while spending that time in space. Going to space just to stay in space is not appealing. And I don't think that humans ever will have anything to do in EML2. Just put a communication satellite in EML2 and you'll have Earth based realtime telerobotics on the Lunar backside.

    It is unrelated precursors to precursors like that which make Zubrin so angry, and rightly so. If you don't go directly to Mars, you'll never get there, for political and other reasons. This is what history has proven to be the case in space exploration. An important argument for a realtime telerobotics trip to Mars is that it is cheaper, safer and can be done earlier. That would be the precursor mission. If no trace of life is found, then the next mission would land humans on Mars. I don't at all agree that it would be an order of magnitude more difficult than Apollo was. What is needed is a HERRO Direct mission within 10 years.



    Well with contamination - it's likely to be a long process if Mars turns out to be sterile, or if the first lifeforms encountered are e.g. cyanobacteria with common origin to Earth.
    The problem there is, it's a pretty varied landscape as we now know. There might be life everywhere and already - and if it's interestingly different from Earth life then you are done, and it's a red light. But if not, no life found right away or is a species already known on Earth, e.g. cyanobacteria (but probably modified to Mars but if it's a single species one you can study in great detail and figure out what effects Earth life would have on it and vice versa):

    You need to investigate, at a minimum

    • Warm seasonal flows, top priority
    • Martian geysers - because though most think they are a dry ice phenomenon, they also give an opportunity for sold state greenhouse effects melting water as well. 
    • Polar ice caps especially margins, both poles - for solid state greenhouse effect melting water beneath the ice, or dry ice, in winter as it spreads over the ground
    • Salt deposits with various concentrations of the different salts - as might need special conditions to make habitats for life - most of the mixtures of the salts you can devise make the water too cold for Earth life at least, but some are into the habitable region of temperatures.

    Then you also have the problem that not all habitats on Mars may be habited. It might be that the native life spreads only slowly, and that it takes millions of years for a new habitat to be "discovered".

    For those reasons - I don't think you can expect scientists to give criteria that would lead to a green light for humans on Mars at this early stage, when we haven't yet really started on a biological exploration of Mars. Spent decades studying the planet geologically, but not yet done any biological exploration except for Viking, and many of the most interesting places for life not studied at all on the ground even geologically.


    With the HERRO orbit - the orbit is a 12 hour one, so that means, that it comes in close to opposite sides of Mars every 12 hours, sunny part of day both times. 

    All through the orbit though, it's within 145 ms of Mars so crew could do real time driving and things that don't need fine hand eye co-ordination all through the orbit. 

    Even with 3 crew you might have different shifts. But - myself I'm not sure that 3 is enough, at that distance, to be safe. I'd go for six as a safer party so far from Earth. With two of them at least trained as doctors (in case the doctor gets ill or dies), and two of them expert at engineering, and also whatever by way of piloting etc and quick at decision making in an emergency - and two of them expert at the science side at least one expert in exobiology preferably two. And of course with overlap between those so ideally combine several of those in one person if you can. So then can have two shifts of three each - and then have also some mixing and matching between the two.

    Long term anyway. Perhaps three for the first fly by missions getting back to Earth in 700 days for the double Athena, taking a calculated risk there. Don't know, personally I wouldn't want to fly to Mars in a crew as small as three (if I was eligible in other ways which I'm not).


    I like the direct approach also but think it needs preparation first. We've had people in orbit for over a year yes, but they were steadily losing bone mass all the way through their visit, had elevated heart rate, magnesium deficiency, got dehydrated and malnourished, and that's with vigorous exercise all the way through for the longest duration one. The US haven't yet sent anyone to zero g for as long as a year, only the Russians and only a handful of them.

    And - the ISS is not a closed system either, it relies on regular imports from Earth every few months. You couldn't duplicate the ISS in Mars orbit, it would be just far too expensive to do that. Even doing the ISS at L2 or at geostationary orbit would be very expensive. So, it's not a good model or precedent for Mars. 

    That's why I suggest a mission at L2. It could be at L1, or on the Moon, or even at geostationary orbit, just somewhere, close to Earth but interesting to visit, good science so it's something worth doing in its own right  to show that we can have long term human presence somewhere further away than LEO, where it's not practical to resupply every few months before we attempt to go to another planet.

    And if that mission needs emergency resupply from Earth, e.g. to fix oxygen issues, or the crew have to be returned to Earth because of ill health before it finishes, or anything like that, then that shows we are not yet ready to go interplanetary. While if all goes well, we get really good science, for far lower cost than the ISS.

    Indeed you could also try to operate the ISS that way with crew changes only every two years, and supply missions to the ISS only every two years, reducing costs of maintaining the ISS by over an order of magnitude - only needing to supply experimental apparatus, not provisions for the astronauts.

    If that is practical for Mars then it should be practical for the ISS, and if not, then - well I'd say anyway - that means we aren't ready for Mars quite yet.

    I can see his point - but not if it means sending dead astronauts to Mars. If they'd taken that attitude in the Apollo program, then we would definitely have had many astronauts crash on the Moon, as well as die on the way there or on the way back, in Apollo 13 type accidents, but without the same happy outcome.

    If he thinks Mars is so easy - then why is the ISS so expensive, why don't they switch over to the far cheaper "Mars Direct" way of sending humans to the ISS as well? 

    I just mean the interplanetary spaceflight part of his plans - if interplanetary spaceflight to Mars is as safe and easy as he thinks - then why not duplicate the interplanetary flight part of the mission in the way we operate the ISS so you only send humans to the ISS every 2 or 3 years. 

    There's no great benefit in continually changing the composition of the crew - main reason for doing that is because of health, that it has less impact on astronaut long term health if you do that. It's so expensive it can't be justified just on the basis that there are lots of astronauts who would like to have a spell in space.

    That's why I think precursor missions are essential to do it safely and practically, and to make that work you need interesting precursors.

    To give an idea, here is a montage of all the Gemini missions they did leading up to Apollo,   (Project Gemini)

    then followed by another 10 Apollo missions, List of Apollo missions

    Those are the Apollo missions - except for one that's for Skylab, and the first ten of those were all needed before we could send an astronaut to the Moon.

    I think we probably need a similar number of precursor missions to send an astronaut to orbit Mars.

    Of course could be wrong, maybe the mission to L2 sorts everything out in one go, so that's one precursor, all done in 3 years - then next mission to Mars orbit. But - I expect it would be rather more missions than that before you can go to Mars safely.

    And the ice at the poles of the Moon, and Moon generally is a really interesting precursor, really good science. We now know that the Moon is far more interesting to explore than we thought a decade or so ago. Not got the possibility of present day life or past life like Mars and certainly not stop exploring Mars to explore the Moon - but as something to explore at the same time as Mars and all the other places we are exploring - Jupiter - Venus - Saturn - Europa - Titan etc - geologically interesting - and as well - does have the possibility of meteorites with evidence of early stages of evolution on Earth as well.

    Plus building long wave radio telescopes on far side of the Moon would open up new windows for radio observations of our universe not possible from Earth, another exciting scientific outcome of that. If people who want to explore Mars aren't also interested  in exploring the Moon - then I wonder where that's coming from - and does it mean they would lose interest in Mars also as many lost interest in the Moon after Apollo?

    Actually, the Apollo program happened and was successful within 8 years. The precursors were relevant to the mission. Self sufficiency could be simulated on Earth, it is unethical to risk astronauts lives by having them stay in meaningless empty space just as a health experiment. Humans in EML2 have nothing to contribute beyond any standard communications satellite. It would just be orders of magnitudes more expensive, delay all useful progress in space flight by many years and put human lives at risk. And wouldn't you need a precursor to that, and a precursor to that in turn?

    Zubrin has the concept which is necessary to break this deadlock in human space flight we've had the last 40+ years now. The keyword is DIRECT.


    Oh, that's where we are talking at cross purposes here then. The thing is the L2 is - first of all it's not my idea. It's a mission proposal by Lockheed Martin and others.
    It's value is that the astronauts are close enough to the Moon for direct telerobotic control of robots on the surface. On the far side of the Moon as well what's more. It's been studied as an option for L1 also. 

    L1 and L2 are really close to the Moon.

    Here are some links on the mission idea:

    There's lots more on it - try a google for the ideas.

    And - it's not more expensive at all. 

    The mission to far side of the Moon would cost the same as an orbital flyby precursor to Mars if you just use the same technology. Adds an extra precursor mission - of course don't need to do that if you are sure that the technology is so reliable you can go straight to Mars.
    But my point is, that I don't think we have that level of reliability - that you are endangering the astronauts unnecessarily - and the mission also - and also public support for human interplanetary exploration too - all to save a single precursor mission.

    And - if that mission brings up issues then that confirms that we were wise to do a precursor mission and then you deal with those issues and need more precursors. It wouldn't show that we should have gone straight to Mars. Unless you are prepared for a Challenger style disaster for your Mars missions.

    For the telerobots on the Moon - that doesn't have to come out of your humans to Mars budget - there's a lot of interest in return to the Moon to explore the surface, we need to do it anyway - so this just means - have humans in the loop so you can do it more effectively.

    As far as Mars is concerned, if that's your main focus, I don't think it matters too much what the precursor is, so long as it is equally long duration, and ideally involves telerobotic work as well. But L2 seems best of the various ideas I've seen to me, better than rendezvous with a captures asteroid, or e.g. just send them up to geostationary orbit - though - if you want to - you could do a precursor in LEO really long mission there with no supply from the Earth - that would then be literally a health and systems test. 

    We did lots of those for Apollo - you need to do that when there are humans involved. Going to L2 or somewhere else interesting combines that with good science as well, I think on the broader view, is perhaps the most interesting - but of course it's just  an idea for discussion.

    Yes the self sufficiency can be simulated on Earth to some extent. But it's not the same as doing it in space. Where you have either zero g or artificial gravity - and space vacuum outside - and cosmic radiation potentially interfering with the equipment and also causing potential health issues also - and the micro-organisms themselves not behaving exactly as they do on Earth. 

    Yes, is good to do experiments on Earth first, but you have to do long term tests in orbit also at some point - and close enough to Earth so you can get back in an emergency - if you are two or three days travel from Earth then emergencies such as the oxygen generator failing (along with any backup) or some major problem with environmental control, or temperature control or anything like that are survivable, the sorts of issues that build up gradually over days and weeks until they get out of control. 

    At Mars orbit they would not be.

    The ISS systems had many issues early on e.g. those incidents involving need to fly emergency oxygen to the ISS to keep it going. And we won't be using those systems but new ones because the ISS is open cycle depending on continual resupply from Earth.

    An interplanetary mission would need a new environmental control system never before tested in space. I'm saying we need to have at least one completed mission duration test close to Earth, in space, with humans on board, no resupply from Earth, before using it at distances of 4 to 24 light minutes away from Earth.

    Oh, and any mission that goes beyond LEO breaks this deadlock. We've just been shuttling astronauts back and forth from LEO for decades. And not experimenting in the technology needed for long duration spaceflight such as more closed system habitats or artificial g. This would get all of that moving again.

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