Thursday, 30 October 2014

Mars recedes

One of the most interesting aspects of writing Final Frontier was the change in the nature of space exploration since the Moon landings. In science fiction, space travel was usually a private venture, but in reality it has been dominated by governments. But now things are changing. Not only are some of the supply ships to the ISS now privately run, we have the likes of Virgin Galactic soon to offer space tours around the bay (as it were), various would-be asteroid mining concerns making their plans and a pair of Mars missions, all from private ventures.

When I wrote the book, both Inspiration Mars, which plans a Mars flypast by a two person craft, and Mars One which plans to land at least two groups of four on the surface, had punishing schedules. Inspiration Mars was intending to get out there in 2018, while Mars One was expecting an unmanned equipment drop in 2016, with astronauts heading out in 2023 and 2025.

A lot of the media coverage has been about the way that Mars One is intending to fund its scary concept of a one-way manned mission. (It's much easier to get people there in one piece than to bring them back.) The intent is to operate the mission as a reality TV show, with all the training and flights broadcast and viewers able to decide which of the teams in training will be the first to land on the red planet. However, there has been rather less coverage of just how tight these timescales are.

Both ventures depend on the still-in-development SpaceX Falcon heavy-lifter rocket. SpaceX has a good pedigree, already successfully getting cargo to the ISS, but deadlines for this kind of engineering development are always very slippery. The chances of the Falcon heavy-lifter being ready for 2016 were always low.

Interestingly, both ventures have now slipped back their timescales. Inspiration Mars has shifted from 2018 to 2021, and Mars One from 2016 to 2018 for the equipment run, with astronauts going out in 2024 and 2026. These dates are not as random as they appear. With its separate, larger orbit, Mars goes through cycles where it is further from and closer to the Earth. At opposition, its closest point in each cycle, which comes at intervals of a little over two years, Mars seems to do a loop in the sky. From the Earth’s viewpoint it doubles back on itself, coming closest to the Earth for a brief period. But that cycle is not uniform.

Some oppositions are much closer than others. Although Earth and Mars come relatively close to each other every couple of years, 2018 gives us our best chance until the similar close encounter in 2035, hence the urgency. (It’s a shame we missed 2003, when Mars was at its closest for six thousand years.) Inspiration Mars has given up on that ideal (but thrown an additional loop around Venus into the pot as a sweeter), while Mars One has captured the sweet spot for its unmanned first venture.

Will either mission really fly? I honestly don't know. But I do think that manned space missions are important for the human race, and that the involvement of commercial ventures will have a positive impact, lifting the sights of what has been an increasingly moribund NASA, and possibly working with the ESA (to date notably shy of manned flights), and the blossoming Chinese and Indian space ventures to make the world a whole lot more interesting.

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