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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conan the Bacterium

A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled "Dune Buggies", about possible microbial life on Mars, and the unlikelihood that such could in any way interact with terrestrial organisms, or vice versa. It turns out, I was not quite correct.

In that post I wrote that "The average surface temperature on Mars is -63° C (-81° F). Rarely, at the equator, temperatures at the very surface reach 20° C (68° F), but even then the temperatures just a few inches above that are sub-arctic. Average barometric pressure on earth is 1013 millibars. Average barometric pressure on Mars is about 6 millibars, which is less than the inside of an early vacuum tube. Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, with 210 ppm water vapor. Earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with about 25,000 ppm water vapor at the surface." All of this is true. The implication was that any organism which lived comfortably inside a human being could not possibly survive in that environment.

I was wrong. Meet Deinococcus radiodurans.

It is highly resistant to radiation, dehydration, heat, cold, vacuum, and acid. It can survive being nuked so well that scientists have experimented with encoding information into is DNA to survive a nuclear holocaust (starting, ironically, with Disney's song It's a Small World). In other words, it would survive just fine on the surface of Mars.

Oh, and it lives in our poop.

Polyextremophiles such as D radiodurans could in fact cross-contaminate between terrestrial and martian ecosystems. And this, Houston, could be a problem.

Mars One, Take Two

So, I've had a couple days for the Mars One announcement to percolate in my brain a bit. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

About a year ago I posted here about possible motivations for humans to establish a permanent colony on Mars. I have to admit, "reality tv show" never entered my mind, but it may prove to be the single best commercial incentive we have right now to colonize off-world. And they're planning to land boots on Mars over a decade earlier than NASA could. So, tentatively, I'm supporting this.

However, there is a cynical part of me which does not believe that the viewers who boosted RuPaul's Drag Race to the top will have the same enthusiasm for 20+ years of the same four astronauts in the same tiny habitat squabbling over who gets the last grape Tang until the next cargo ship arrives. Certainly it will be the greatest achievement of exploration in the history of our species, but will it actually be interesting to watch? The first launch and first landing will be, for sure. But attentions wane rather quickly.

Remember all the excitement of the Apollo 16 mission? Yeah, neither do I. NASA TV also played with having live cams on the International Space Station. Really, there are only so many ways you can videotape a weightless astronaut drinking a bubble of water through a straw before the novelty and charm wear off. Mars won't even have that going for it.

What about emotional and interpersonal conflicts? Here is a serious dilemma for the show's producers. The types of personalities which will be necessary for the mission to be successful, especially the initial four colonists, are going to be type of consummate professionals who aren't going to permit a lot of personal drama. Great for the mission, lousy for the ratings. Other people's cabin-fever isn't especially interesting to watch either, unless it's directed by Stanley Kubrick.

What about relationship conflicts? Those are always fun to watch. The first issue here is gender division. From the standpoint of entertainment, two males and two females has obvious appeal, for about a month. By which point all of the possible combinations of tabs A and slots B will have been explored, and by the end of the sixth month or so everyone will be settled down like old married folk. Great for a new colony, lousy for ratings. A new shipment every 26 months of "fresh meat" probably helps, but Hohmann transfer orbits don't coincide especially well with Sweeps Week.

But, there's a problem even with this. As NASA has been discovering with the ISS, males are not well adapted to space travel. It is unclear why certain low-gravity ailments such as papilledema affect men and not women, but nonetheless they seem to, and having half your crew arrive on Mars permanently blind would be disastrous. So, hopefully, they will be smart enough to send all-female crews. Which will probably garner a rather different viewership, but that's what it is. The other advantage of an all-female crew, from the standpoint of establishing a permanent colony, is that twice the number of uteri doubles the number of potential native colonists. It may well be that the first men on Mars will be born there. And will have two mommies.

Probably more interesting from a viewer's standpoint than the day-to-day rigors of colonization itself will be the selection and training process for the colonists while still on earth. Even if they start out with one hundred candidates, only four can be selected. That has potential for some real entertainment. But once they get to Mars, nobody gets to vote anyone else out of the habitat. We hope.

This raises another question which bears consideration. When interest in the show wanes and the ratings fail and the money runs out, what happens to the colonists? Do they then become the wards of NASA to continue providing supply ships to them indefinitely? Assuming that the colony otherwise thrives, it will only be a few seasons before it is far too large to bring back to earth quickly. Food production will of course be a priority, but it is almost inconceivable that the first generation or two of Martian horticulture will be able to keep up with population growth, so food will need to be supplemented from earth on a pretty regular basis. Assuming four new colonists from earth every 26 months, and only one new baby born on Mars each year, eleven years after the initial four astronauts land on Mars the colony will be 35 people strong. That's a respectable start. But it's also an awful lot of mouths to feed on a world which cannot support terrestrial plants and animals.

Manufactured goods will also need to be imported from earth, at least at first. I don't know what the manufacturing facilities look like to make a single space suit, but I'll bet it's more than can be carried by any existing rocket, or easily fabricated out of Mars rocks.

The Mars to Stay concept has been around for a long time now, and I've always been a fan of it. However, there is at least one aspect of the Mars One method of achieving this which I find pretty amusing. I call it the crappy-camper syndrome, and Mars One exemplifies it.

Let' say I wanted to go camping on the Oregon coast with three of my friends. There are a number of ways we could accomplish that. First off, we could hike there with little or no provisions, choosing instead to wildcraft and live off the land. Easy enough to do, on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains. Or, we could backpack a little bit heavier, bring freeze-dried food and small tents with us. Or, we could pack up our car with food and a bigger tent, and pitch the tent at a campground and cook the food we brought on a camp stove. Or, we could park a camper with all of the amenities of home at the campsite, and just day-hike around a little bit (and annoy the hell out of the other campers with our generator). Or, if the camper with the hot running water and the refrigerator and the wifi and the satellite tv was still too much like roughing it, we could just find a Motel 6.

This is the Mars One method. First they're going to send robots to build the motel, and the telecommunications infrastructure so that there's always a good television feed, and massive solar panels to ensure that there's plenty of power for everything. Cargo ships full of stores will be there already waiting for the the colonists. Once the colonists finally arrive, the robots which are not actively involved in building more infrastructure can be used as dune-buggies. In addition to lower gravity, each of the beds in the colony will have a coin-operated vibration function, to help the colonists relax.

Okay, I just made up that last part. But you get the idea. Mars One is based out of Holland, and it's hard to imagine a Dutch company settling another planet any other way. And who better than the Dutch to attempt such a thing? Exploration for profit is one of the things they've always done best.

One way Mars One differs from other Mars settlement projects is that there is less need for mission specialists, because so far as I can tell there isn't really any mission at all, other than set up a colony and survive, and get good ratings. A few skill sets will be essential. Contrary to the belief of certain writers who have never landed an aircraft of docked a large boat or ship, one of each crew will need to be a very skilled pilot to be able to safely land at the prepared site. This isn't a job which can be relegated to the autopilot.

Also, one of the original four will need to be a physician (probably specializing in in-vitro fertilization and midwifery or obstetrics, but also low gravity issues and sub-Armstrong limit atmospheric exposure accidents). One advantage of the Mars to Stay approach is that although the colonists bone and muscle tissue will atrophy under the weaker Martian gravity, this won't matter because they won't ever be returning to earth. Another member of the original crew will need to be a very competent engineer to ensure everything keeps running properly. Everyone on all of the crews will need to be trained in horticulture and husbandry. Hopefully they'll get some scientists along the way as well, but that doesn't really seem to be the point of this exercise.

So what exactly is the point of the exercise? Mostly, so far as I can tell, entertainment. Which may be as good a reason as any to go to a planet which otherwise doesn't have all that much to offer. Absent the impetus of a Cold War, maybe this is what it takes to start colonizing offworld. While this certainly does not paint a flattering picture of our global priorities in this early part of the 21st century, it does seem to paint a fairly accurate one.

I had originally planned to title this post Dutch Lesbians on Mars and Other Stories, but I don't want international copyright laws to deprive the good people at Mars One of an awesome title for their show. So, Mars One, this is my gift to you. Godspeed, and goddess bless.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mars One

This is a promotional video from a company calling itself Mars One. They plan to start a human colony on Mars, with the first colonists arriving there in April of 2023. Less than eleven years from now. They will start with four colonists, and then add four more colonists every two years. Really.

Oh, and it's going to be a reality tv show.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shooting Venus

Contrary to all weather predictions from both NOAA and Environment Canada, the skies in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on Vancouver Island were crystal clear this afternoon for the Venus transit. I brought my sextant with me on the boat just in case, it proved to be an excellent solar telescope.

After we passed the Romeo buoy I got the idea to try to shoot Venus during the transit as a celestial Line of Position. The boat was bouncing in the seas pretty well and I had to shoot through one of the wheelhouse windows, and I only had time for one very sloppy sight. My intercept turned out to be 0.8 nautical miles from my GPS position, meaning I was very lucky. Here's the raw data:

Watch Time: 16:58:04 pdt (+7), 5 June 2012 Height of Eye: 20 ft Instrument Correction: 0.0'

GPS Position: 48° 18.4'N 123° 04.6'W Course Over Ground: 303°T Speed Over Ground: 27.4 knots

Wind: 25 knots westerly Seas: 4 ft

Sextant Height (Hs): 38° 51.2'

Intercept: 0.8 nm Away Zn: 261.2° T

The red dot in the illustration is the actual GPS position of the boat, and the green line is the Line of Position for Venus.

All in all, a very good day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

That's my soul up there

If you're in the Seattle area and hoping to view the transit of Venus across the face of the sun today, it will be beginning around 3pm and continuing through sunset. It looks like NOAA is expecting around 75% cloud cover from about 5pm on, so we have some chance of getting lucky and seeing it. I'm working an afternoon shift on the boat, and will be bringing my sextant for the occasion. Something which many people found disturbing eight years ago when this happened was the realization of just how very tiny this planet (which happens to be roughly the same size as Venus) is. I think it's good thing to contemplate. Later this summer Venus will be bright enough to cast a shadow here on earth. Hopefully by then we'll have some clearer skies to be able to appreciate that!