Wonder Material – 2


Using Carbon-NanoTube (CNT) sheets that we can make now, we might push towards ~2,200 km/s. Of course there will be structural mass and the payload reducing the top speed – thus we might hit ~1,800 km/s tops with CNT sheets, if made perfectly reflective. Even for lower reflectivity the speed will be about ~1000-1500 km/s.

How hard can we push it? A 1999 study by Dean Spieth, Robert Zubrin & Cindy Christensen for NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which can be found here, examined using CNTs arranged in a spaced-out grid. One of the curiosities of optical theory is that, for a given range of wavelengths, the reflective material doesn’t have to be an unbroken sheet – it can be an open-grid.


Computing the reflectivity of such things is difficult – best to make it and measure it – but estimates of how a CNT grid would perform suggests that a CNT sail might accelerate at ~18 m/s2 at 1 AU from the Sun, implying a final speed of 2,320 km/s. Dropping inwards and launching from 0.019 AU would mean a final speed of 16,835 km/s (0.056c), allowing a probe to reach Alpha Centauri in just 78 years, propelled by sunlight alone!

To send people, rather than rugged robots, a different approach will be needed – to be discussed in Part 3.

Wonder Material

Carbon is the material of the Future. Graphite, graphene, bucky-balls and nanotubes all have amazing properties. And then there’s diamond – which seems to come in several varieties, albeit rare and/or theoretical.

Making enough of any of the allotropes – different carbon forms – is rather tricky, aside from raw graphite, which can be mined. Diamonds fortunately can be made fairly easily these days – very pure diamond crystals can be (almost) made as large as one likes. Thus Jewel Diamonds, the kind De Beers sets the standard for, have to be slightly impure crystals, as they’re thus provably natural.

Carbon nanotubes are proving easier to make and to make into useful forms. One application caught my eye:

Carbon Nanotube Sheets

…which have the rather amazing property of being strong and yet massing just ~27 milligrams per square metre. If we can dope it (add a sprinkling of other elements) to make it more reflective, then it makes rather impressive solar-sail material. Sunlight’s pressure – as felt by a reflective surface facing flat to the Sun – is about 1/650 th of the sun’s gravity, so creating lift against the Sun’s gravity requires very large, light sheets. And doped CNT sheets – if 100% reflective – would experience a lift factor (ratio of light-pressure to the sail’s own weight) of 57 (!)

In theory that means a suitably steered solar-sail made of CNT sheet could send itself away from Earth’s orbit and reach a final speed of 42*sqrt(57-1) km/s ~ 315 km/s. If it swooped past Jupiter then swung in hard for the Sun, scooting past at 0.019 AU, then it would recede at ~2,200 km/s.

We’ll ponder that some more next time.

The Unknown Solar System


Just beyond Neptune is the Kuiper Belt, a torus of comet-like objects, which includes a few dwarf-planets like the Pluto-Charon dual-planet system. Despite being lumped together under one monicker, the Belt is composed of several different families of objects, which have quite different orbital properties. Some are locked in place by the gravity of the big planets, mostly Neptune, while others are destined to head in towards the Sun, while some show signs of being scattered into the vastness beyond. Patryk Lykawka is a one researcher who has puzzled over this dark, lonely region, and has tried to model exactly how it has become the way it is today. Over the last two decades there has been a slow revolution in our understanding of how the Big Planets, the Gas Giants, formed. They almost certainly did not begin life in their present orbits – instead they migrated outwards from a formation region closer to the Sun. To do so millions of planetoids on near-misses with the Gas Giants tugged them gently outwards over millions of years. We know what happened to the Gas Giants, but what of the planetoids? A fraction today form the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud beyond it (how many Plutos exist out there?) But a mystery remains, which Lykawka convincingly solves in his latest monograph via an additional “Super-Planetoid”, a planet between 0.3-0.7 Earth masses, now orbiting somewhere just beyond the Belt.


Such an object would be a sample of the objects that formed the Gas Giants, a so-called “Planetary Embryo”. Based on the ice and silicate mix present in the moons of the Gas Giants, the object would probably be half ice, half silicates/metals, like a giant version of Ganymede. However such an object would also have gained a significant atmosphere, unlike smaller bodies, and being cast so far from the Sun, it would have retained it even if it was composed of the primordial hydrogen/helium mix of the Gas Giants themselves. This has two potentially very interesting consequences. David Stephenson, in 1998, speculated on interstellar planets with thick hydrogen atmospheres able to keep a liquid-water ocean warm from geophysical heat-sources alone. Work by Eric Gaidos and Raymond Pierrehumbert suggests hydrogen greenhouse planets are a viable option in any system once past about ~2.0 AU. A precondition that obtains for Lykawka’s hypothetical Super Trans-Neptunian Object.

So instead of a giant Ganymede the object is more like Kainui, from Hal Clement’s last novel, “Noise”. Kainui is a “hot Ganymede”, a water planet with sufficiently low gravity that the global ocean hasn’t been compressed into Ice VII in its very depths. Kainui’s ocean is in a continual state of violent agitation, lethal to humans without special noise-proof suits, but Lykawka’s Super-TNO would probably be wet beneath its dense atmosphere, warmed by a trickle of heat from its core and the distant Sun.


Gravitational perturbation studies of planetary orbits by Lorenzo Iorio constrain the orbital distance of such a body to roughly where Lykawka suggests it should be. A Mars-mass object (0.1 Earth-masses) would exist between 150-250 AU, while a 0.7 Earth-mass body would be between 250-450 AU. If we place it at ~300 AU, then its equilibrium temperature, based on sunlight alone, would be somewhere below 16 K. That’s close to the triple-point of hydrogen (13.84 K @ 0.0704 bar), suggesting a frozen planet would result. However geophysical heat, from radioactive decay of potassium, uranium and thorium, could elevate the equilibrium temperature to over ~20.4 K, hydrogen’s boiling point at 1 atm pressure. Thus a thick hydrogen atmosphere should stay gaseous.

To keep liquid water warm enough (~273 K) at the surface, the surface pressure will need to be ~1,000 bar, the equivalent of the bottom of Earth’s oceans. An ammonia-water eutectic mixture would be liquid at ~100 bars and 176 K. With a higher rock fraction and higher radioactive isotope levels (as seen in comets, for example), liquid water might be possible at ~300 bars. Such a warm ocean would seem enticingly accessible since a variety of submarines and ROVs operate in the ocean at such pressures regularly. While the prospects for life seem dim, the variety of chemosynthetic life-styles amongst bacteria suggest we shouldn’t be too hasty about dismissing the possibility.

A primordial atmosphere also invites thoughts of mining the helium for that rare isotope, helium-3. At 0.3 Earth masses and 1:3 ratio of ice to rock, such a body has 75% Earth’s radius and just 40% the gravitational potential at its surface – even less at the top of the atmosphere. Such a planet would be incredibly straight-forward to mine and condensing helium-3 out of the mix would be made even easier by the ~30-40 K temperature at the 1 bar pressure level. There’s no simple relationship between the size of a planet and its spin rate, but assuming Earth’s early spin rate of 12 hours, then the synchronous orbital radius is just 2 Earth radii above the operating altitude of a mining platform. A space-elevator system would be straight-forward to implement, unlike the Gas Giants or even Earth.

Travelling to 300 AU is a non-trivial task, ten-times the distance to Neptune. A minimum-energy Hohmann trajectory would take 923 years, while a parabolic orbit would do the trip in 390 years. Voyager’s 15 km/s interstellar cruise speed would mean a trip of 95 years. A nuclear saltwater rocket, with an exhaust velocity of 4,725 km/s, could be used to accelerate to 3,000 km/s, then flip and brake at the destination. The trip would take six months, which is speedy by comparison.

2312: Terraforming the Solar System, Terraforming the Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book “2312” is set in that titular year in a Solar System alive with busy humans and thousands of artificial habitats carved from asteroids. Earth is a crowded mess, home to eleven billion humans, but no longer the home of thousands of species, now only preserved, flourishing in fact, in the habitats. Spacers, those living in space, are long-lived, thanks to being artificially made “bisexual” (male & female) and some are living even longer by virtue of small size. Humans live from the Vulcanoids – a belt of asteroids just 0.1 AU from the Sun – out to Pluto, where a quartet of starships are being built for a 1,000 year flight to GJ 581. Mars has been terraformed, via Paul Birch’s process of burning an atmosphere out of the crust to make canals, while Venus is snowing carbon dioxide (another Birch idea.) The larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are extensively inhabited and debating their terraforming options.

On Mercury Stan introduces us to the moving city Terminator, which runs along rails powered entirely via thermal expansion of the rails as they conduct heat from Mercurian day and radiate it away in the Mercurian night. Mercury is a planet of art museums and installations of art carved out of the periodically broiled and frozen landscape. Sunwalkers walk forever away from the Sunrise, braving the occasional glimpse of the naked Sun, which can kill with an unpredictable x-ray blast from a solar flare.

The two main protagonists are Swan, an Androgyn resident of Mercury, a renowed designer of space-habitats whose mother, Alex, has just died; and Wahram, a Wombman resident of Titan, who is negotiating access to solar energy for the terraforming of his home world. Due to a freak “accident” the two must journey through the emergency tunnels underneath Mercury’s Day-side, an experience which draws them together inspite of being literally worlds apart in personality and home-planets.

There’s a lot going on in 2312 and Stan only shows us a slivver. Plots to reshape the worlds and plots to overthroe the hegemony of humankind. But for our two interplanetary lovers such forces can’t keep them apart.

Of course, I’m not here to review the book. This being Crowlspace, I’m looking at the technicalities. Minor points of fact have a way of annoying me when they’re wrong. For example, Stan mentions Venus wanting to import nitrogen from Titan, which is rather ridiculous. The atmosphere of Venus is 3.5% nitrogen by volume, which works out as the equivalent of 2.25 bars partial pressure. Or about 3 times what’s on Earth. So importing nitrogen would be the equivalent of the Inuit importing ice.

Stan is critical of interstellar travel being portrayed as “easy” in Science-fiction. He mentions a fleet of habitats being sent out on a 1,000 year voyage to a star 20 light-years away – given the uncertainties of these things and the size of habitats, that’s not an unreasonable cruise speed. Yet he describes it as being “a truly fantastic speed for a human craft.” But at one point he mentions that a trip to Pluto from Venus takes 3 weeks, an unremarkable trip seemingly, yet that requires a top-speed of 0.022c – significantly higher than the starships!

He’s a bit vague about the pace of travel in the Solar System via “Aldrin cycles” – cycling orbits between destinations, timed to repeat. Buzz Aldrin developed the concept for easy transport to Mars – have a space-station with all the life-support in the right orbit and you only have to fly the passengers to the station, rather than all their supplies. The station either recycles everything or is resupplied by much slower automated freighters using electric propulsion. Stan’s mobile habitats do the former, with some small topping-up. But such Cyclers are slow. Stan mentions a Mercury-Vesta Cycler trip taking 8 days. Not possible for any Cycler orbit that’s bound to the Sun (i.e. cycling) – a straight-line parabolic orbit would take a minimum of 88.8 days. A proper Cycler needs to be on an orbit that can be shaped via the gravity of the planets to return it to the planets it is linking together, else too much fuel will be expended to reshape the orbit. Preferably an orbit that isn’t too elliptical else the shuttle fuel bill is too high. A minimum-energy Hohmann orbit would take 285 days to link Mercury and Vesta.

These are quibbling points. The real meat of the book is the optimistic future – a dazzlingly diverse one – that is basically plausible. Enticingly possible, in fact. Yet the optimism is tempered by the fact that not everyone is living in a wise, open society. Earth, even in 2312, remains a home to suffering masses, their plight made worse by the greenhouse effect’s flooding of low-lying parts of the Globe, and the Sixth Great Extinction’s erasure of most large animals from the planet (fortunately kept alive or genetically revived in the mobile habitats.) New York is mostly flooded, becoming a city of canal-streets, something I can imagine New Yorkers adapting to with aplomb.

The real challenge of the 24th Century, in Stan’s view, is the terraforming of the Earth, remaking a biosphere that we’ve ruined in our rush to industrialise. Perhaps. We certainly have many challenges ahead over the next 300 years…

Futures of the Earth

James Lovelock once estimated Earth’s biosphere would crash in about 100 million years when carbon dioxide levels dropped too low. James Kasting and Ken Caldeira updated the model to include a different photosynthetic cycle amongst land plants, pushing back Doomsday to about 900 million years in the Future. Those “900 million years” before Earth overheats is based on a certain model of Earth’s response to the Sun’s gradual rise in luminosity. That particular model assumes everything else will remain the same, but that’s unlikely. If the partial pressure of nitrogen declines, then the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide will decline and the Earth could remain habitable to life for another 2.3 billion years. Alternatively because the greenhouse instability of the Earth is driven largely by the thermal response of the oceans, if Earth became a desert planet then it would remain habitable until the Sun reaches ~1.7 times its present output. Combined with a reduced atmospheric pressure, it means Earth might remain habitable until the end of the Sun’s Main Sequence in 5.5 billion years.

But this all assumes no technological intervention. Several scenarios are possible – a variably reflective shell engulfing the Earth is the simplest. Planet moving and Solar engineering are more dramatic possibilities. Given sufficient thrust a leisurely spiral of the Earth outwards from the Sun would compensate for the brightening, though the pace of travel would need to be rather rapid for a 6 billion trillion ton planet to escape the more dramatic stages of the Sun’s Red Giant Branch (RGB).

Once the Sun hits the Horizontal Branch/Helium Main Sequence, the habitable zone will be roughly where Jupiter will be – as the Sun’s mass loss during the RGB will cause all the orbits to expand by ~30%. The HB offers just 110 million years of stability before the Sun begins a series of dying spasms known as the Asymptotic Giant Branch. Not healthy for any of the planets. If the RGB’s mass-loss can be tweaked a bit, then the Sun won’t hit the HB at all and will slowly decline into being a helium white dwarf. Earth can remain in the white dwarf Sun’s habitable zone then for billions more years, more if it spirals inwards as it cools.

Orlando is Awesome!

Too much to tell on the very aggressive schedule here, so a detailed report will need to wait, but I met a FAN! You know who you are. Thanks for the encouragement and I promise more content – I have some actual journal paper ideas gestating and I will need input from my audience, I suspect. One is a paper on Virga-style mega-habitats and Dysonian SETI, to use a new idea from Milan Cirkovic. The other looks at exoplanets and Earth-like versus the astrobiology term of “habitable” – the two are not the same and the consequences are sobering. The recent paper by Traub (go look on the arXiv) which estimates 1/3 of FGK stars has a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone does NOT mean there’s Earths everywhere. What it does mean and how HZ can be improved as a concept is what I want to discuss.

More later. I have my talk to review and get straight in my head – no hand notes, though I have practiced it – plus I want something helpful to say to Gerald Nordley, mass-beam Guru, on the paper he graciously added me as a co-author. Also I will summarize my talk and direct interested readers to the new web-site from John Hunt, MD, on the interstellar ESCAPE plan.

SpaceX to Mars! Here’s How…

Following on from my Mars Anthology there’s now more Mars Society material available online…

Trans-Orbital Railroad to Mars

…a Picasa Web-Album of slides from the weekend elaborating on Robert Zubrin’s latest concept, which I have discussed previously. I was particularly struck by this one, which I first saw on “The Space Review”…

…from Jeff Foust’s evocative article on the Transorbital Railway concept. I didn’t realise when I first read Jeff’s essay that Zubrin had given a talk on the concept. Here’s the slide…

…which explains how the two-person crew have a quite roomy inflatable habitat attached to the Dragon to fly to Mars in. Provocatively Zubrin notes that some astronauts have already experienced cosmic-radiation exposures equivalent to the full mission to Mars, with no ill-effects noted thus far…

…seems the ISS (and MIR before it) have done a great service to the Mars effort by slaying this particular bogey. The serious issue of Solar high-energy events remains – otherwise known as solar-flares – but these can be mitigated by relatively simple shielding. Ultimately we’ll have magnetic deflectors for the particle stuff, but the x-rays will need careful shielding even then.

Once the First Expedition arrives, here’s how “Mars Base One” will look…

…ready to expand into a fully operational Base, if the nations of the world are willing to help. The Falcon Heavy can send significant payloads to Mars, not just people. Industrial machinery can be sent, able to begin utilization of local resources on Mars. Additive manufacturing technology can be used to make small components and, with sufficient incentive, can lend itself to larger manufactured items. Mars has plentiful carbon, oxygen & hydrogen to make plastics and polymers, and doubtless it has minerals of all kinds.

Of course the first two products should be propellant for the rockets and power-cells (solar or other.) Proper reusable Mars ferries will allow transfer of returning crews to waiting ERVs, eliminating the need to send separate MAVs. With sufficiently proven life-sustaining resources (material, technical and personnel) the Base can start receiving one-way arrivals – true Colonists. That’s something I’d like to see all nations, who are willing, to contribute towards. Let Mars be the true melting pot to alloy something wonderful out of all of Old Earth’s children.

Falcon Heavy to the Planets!

A reverse chronological order anthology of my recent posts on the Falcon Heavy announcement and the plans of the Mars Society for a minimalist mission.

SpaceX to Mars! …go Mars-Soc!

SpaceX to Mars? …first discussion of the minimalist Mars mission of Mars Society.

Mars – the New World! …why Mars is the New World of our half millennium now the Old World is fully reached.

Falcon Heavy to the Moon! – Part 2 …elaboration on Moon Base operations.

Falcon Heavy to the Moon! …first mention of the Falcon Heavy Tanker concept.

Beyond the Moon via Falcon Heavy …a revised post about the Falcon 9 Heavy in light of the new version. Posted after the Moon Base discussion, but begun first.

SpaceX to Mars!

This story keeps getting more interesting as I trawl around the Mars-Soc web-site. Bob Zubrin discusses the plan in more detail…

Discussion of Using SpaceX Hardware to Reach Mars

2. Technical Alternatives within the Mission Architecture

a. MAV and associated systems

In the plan described above, methane/oxygen is proposed as the propulsion system for the MAV, with all the methane brought from Earth, and all the oxygen made on Mars from the atmosphere. This method was selected over any involving hydrogen (either as feedstock for propellant manufacture or as propellant itself) as it eliminates the need to transport cryogenic hydrogen from Earth or store it on the Martian surface, or the need to mine Martian soil for water. If terrestrial hydrogen can be transported to make the methane, about 1.9 tons of landed mass could be saved. Transporting methane was chosen over a system using kerosene/oxygen for Mars ascent, with kerosene coming from Earth and oxygen from Mars because methane offers higher performance (Isp 375 s vs. Isp 350 s) than kerosene, and its selection makes the system more evolvable, as once Martian water does become available, methane can be readily manufactured on Mars, saving 2.6 tons of landed mass per mission compared to transporting methane, or about 3 tons per mission compared to transporting kerosene. That said, the choice of using kersosene/oxygen for Mars ascent instead of methane oxygen is feasible within the limits of the mass delivery capabilities of the systems under discussion. It thus represents a viable alternative option, reducing development costs, albeit with reduced payload capability and evolvability.

b. ERV and associated systems.

A kerosene/oxygen system is suggested for Trans-Earth injection. A methane/oxygen system would offer increased capability if it were available. The performance improvement is modest, however, as the required delta-V for TEI from a highly elliptical orbit around Mars is only 1.5 km/s. Hydrogen/oxygen is rejected for TEI in order to avoid the need for long duration storage of hydrogen. The 14 ton Mars orbital insertion mass estimate is based on the assumption of the use of an auxiliary aerobrake with a mass of 2 tons to accomplish the bulk of braking delta-V. If the system can be configured so that that Dragon’s own aerobrake can play a role in this maneuver, this delivered mass could be increased. If it is decided that the ~1 km/s delta-V required for minimal Mars orbit capture needs to be done via rocket propulsion, this mass could be reduced to as little as 12 tons (assuming kerosene/oxygen propulsion). This would still be enough to enable the mission. The orbit employed by the ERV is a loosely bound 250 km by 1 sol orbit. This minimizes the delta-V for orbital capture and departure, while maintaining the ERV in a synchronous relationship to the landing site. Habitable volume on the ERV can be greatly expanded by using an auxiliary inflatable cabin, as discussed in the Appendix.

c. The hab craft.

The Dragon is chosen for the primary hab and ERV vehicle because it is available. It is not ideal. Habitation space of the Dragon alone after landing appears to be about 80 square feet, somewhat smaller than the 100 square feet of a small standard Tokyo apartment. Additional habitation space and substantial mission logistics backup could be provided by landing an additional Dragon at the landing site in advance, loaded with extra supplies and equipment. Solar flare protection can be provided on the way out by proper placement of provisions, or by the use of a personal water-filled solar flare protection “sleeping bag.” For concepts for using inflatables to greatly expand living space during flight and/or after landing, see note in Appendix.

…which gratifyingly echoes my own thoughts. Landing a Dragon directly on Mars has a great appeal and as a Mars Descent Vehicle it’s a good system, given the modifications Zubrin outlines. But is it a Mars Habitat? The Inflatable extensions make it viable and I was wondering if Bigelow, SpaceX and Mars-Soc couldn’t combine forces on a design. Zubrin argues for eventual extensions of the architecture itself, calling for eventual Heavy Lift systems able to throw 30 tonnes to Mars, but IMO the Falcon Heavy Tanker modification is sufficient to launch ~24.7 tonne payloads now and with an LH2/LOX Stage II it might easily launch ~30-40 tonnes. Alternatively two FHTs can be ganged to launch 55-60 tonnes directly now. However such modifications are deployed is perhaps irrelevant. What’s needed is the political will to commit to Mars Colonization, not just a one-off stunt. All the good ideas to improve how we get there are irrelevant until we actually do…

SpaceX to Mars?

SpaceX has answered the skeptics recently with a frank discussion of its costs thus far in its May 4, 2011 Update. An excerpt of relevance is this…


The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years for just over $300 million. The Falcon 9 is an EELV class vehicle that generates roughly one million pounds of thrust (four times the maximum thrust of a Boeing 747) and carries more payload to orbit than a Delta IV Medium.

The Dragon spacecraft was developed from a blank sheet to the first demonstration flight in just over four years for about $300 million. Last year, SpaceX became the first private company, in partnership with NASA, to successfully orbit and recover a spacecraft. The spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that carried it were designed, manufactured and launched by American workers for an American company. The Falcon 9/Dragon system, with the addition of a launch escape system, seats and upgraded life support, can carry seven astronauts to orbit, more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat.

Note the cost of developing the “Dragon” which is the first private aerospace vehicle proven capable of return from orbit. About $300 million, with a dry mass of about ~4.2 tons, thus ~$72 million/ton to develop. To develop large Mars mission vehicles might be assumed to cost similar amounts per ton of aerospace machinery. But can it be done even cheaper?

The Mars Society has made an impassioned plea to President Obama to consider a minimalistic Mars Mission concept based on the Falcon Heavy and Dragon space-vehicle…

The SpaceX’s Falcon-9 Heavy rocket will have a launch capacity of 53 metric tons to low Earth orbit. This means that if a conventional hydrogen-oxygen chemical rocket upper stage were added, it would have the capability of sending 17.5 tons on a trajectory to Mars, placing 14 tons in Mars orbit, or landing 11 tons on the Martian surface.

The company has also developed and is in the process of demonstrating a crew capsule, known as the Dragon, which has a mass of about eight tons. While its current intended mission is to ferry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station, the Dragon’s heat shield system is capable of withstanding re-entry from interplanetary trajectories, not just from Earth orbit. It’s rather small for an interplanetary spaceship, but it is designed for multiyear life, and it should be spacious enough for a crew of two astronauts who have the right stuff.

Thus a Mars mission could be accomplished utilizing three Falcon-9 Heavy launches. One would deliver to Mars orbit an unmanned Dragon capsule with a kerosene/oxygen chemical rocket stage of sufficient power to drive it back to Earth. This is the Earth Return Vehicle.

A second launch will deliver to the Martian surface an 11-ton payload consisting of a two-ton Mars Ascent Vehicle employing a single methane/oxygen rocket propulsion stage, a small automated chemical reactor system, three tons of surface exploration gear, and a 10-kilowatt power supply, which could be either nuclear or solar.

The Mars Ascent Vehicle would carry 2.6 tons of methane in its propellant tanks, but not the nine tons of liquid oxygen required to burn it. Instead, the oxygen could be made over a 500-day period by using the chemical reactor to break down the carbon dioxide that composes 95% of the Martian atmosphere.

Using technology to generate oxygen rather than transporting it saves a great deal of mass. It also provides copious power and unlimited oxygen to the crew once they arrive.

Once these elements are in place, the third launch would occur, which would send a Dragon capsule with a crew of two astronauts on a direct trajectory to Mars. The capsule would carry 2500 kilograms of consumables—sufficient, if water and oxygen recycling systems are employed, to support the two-person crew for up to three years. Given the available payload capacity, a light ground vehicle and several hundred kilograms of science instruments could be taken along as well.

The crew would reach Mars in six months and land their Dragon capsule near the Mars Ascent Vehicle. They would spend the next year and a half exploring.

Using their ground vehicle for mobility and the Dragon as their home and laboratory, they could search the Martian surface for fossil evidence of past life that may have existed in the past when the Red Planet featured standing bodies of liquid water. They also could set up drilling rigs to bring up samples of subsurface water, within which native microbial life may yet persist to this day. If they find either, it will prove that life is not unique to the Earth, answering a question that thinking men and women have wondered upon for millennia.

At the end of their 18-month surface stay, the crew would transfer to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, take off, and rendezvous with the Earth Return Vehicle in orbit. This craft would then take them on a six-month flight back to Earth, whereupon it would enter the atmosphere and splash down to an ocean landing.

Spending ~2.5 years in a Dragon capsule will take a couple of claustrophiles, but people have endured in remarkably nasty conditions. So why not? It’s daring, but is it necessary?

Zubrin asks for a cryogenic upper-stage to throw the Mars vehicles to Mars, but is that really needed? Can better performance be achieved by using a slightly different approach? In a previous post I outlined the Falcon Heavy Tanker (FHT) – essentially a Falcon Heavy Stage 2 with a stretched tank and a docking collar for coupling to a Dragon. I estimated 55 tonnes of RP-1/LOX could be placed in orbit and a FHT dry-mass of 2.5 tonnes. To get to Mars takes ~3.7 km/s from LEO, the so-called Trans-Mars Insertion (TMI) delta-vee, thus with a vacuum Isp = 342s, that means the Falcon Heavy Tanker can push 27.2 tonnes into a TMI orbit, thus a net payload of ~24.7 tonnes. With aerobraking that’s considerably more than the Mars Society’s quoted payloads, providing somewhat better living conditions for the explorers.

Of course the payloads need to be orbitted separate to the FHTs, but at less than half the Falcon Heavy’s usual 53 tonne payload, that means 2 separate Mars payloads can be orbitted by one vehicle, and supported by a separately orbitted crew in a Dragon. Potentially we can reduce the FHTs to just three to support a beefier Mars Semi-Direct mission which doesn’t mean living in a Dragon capsule for 2.5 years! Alternatively we launch the Mars Ascent Vehicle directly via a single Falcon Heavy, as per the Mars Society plan, and launch the Mars-bound Habitat and Earth Return Vehicles via 2 FHT launches and 1 Falcon Heavy. Four Falcon Heavy launches versus 3, but delivering more payload.

Zubrin is, I suspect, hoping to minimize the cost of developing new systems, thus using two Dragons and only needing to develop a low-mass Mars Ascent Vehicle. However the current Dragon probably can’t be used as a Habitat for +2 years with some development work, thus the difference between the two approaches is probably negligible. I appreciate his gumption and burning desire to get a finger-hold on Mars as soon as possible, but I’d like to see the developed systems able to do more than a stunt.

Go SpaceX! Go Mars-Soc!