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Students plan Mars mission in 20 years

STANFORD -- A group of Stanford students, designing an international space mission to Mars, has proposed building a reusable base in 20 years.

Led by Bruce Lusignan, associate professor of electrical engineering, students of the graduate-level course Space Systems Engineering said that the mission would cost only $72 billion if it exploited already-existing technology.

The undergraduate and graduate students, part of an international study team, presented their technical designs and the geopolitical implications of the project in a daylong briefing Thursday, June 3, on campus. Their plan calls for the first unmanned flights to Mars in the year 2007 and the first manned trips in 2010.

The study group includes Russian scientists from the two Russian space centers Energia and Babakin, NASA scientists, and European and Japanese students.

It was put together by the Stanford Center for Space Science and Astrophysics, and the Center for International Security and Arms Control. It envisions an international program to make use of the decommissioning of arms and defense technology, Lusignan said.

Following unmanned precursor missions using intercontinental ballistic missile technology - for example, the Russian SS-18 - the students recommend transporting the equipment for the base to Mars with the Russian Energia rocket around 2008. The crew would follow either in the Russian Solyus or in the American Single Stage to Orbit spacecraft to be introduced this summer.

A crew of three male and three female astronauts from different countries would spend nine months in space before landing in the Valles Marineris, a valley that stretches 6,400 km (4,000 miles) along the equator of Mars.

The parts of the two spacecraft housing the crew are planned to land upright on Mars, providing the crew's "habitat" towers for a yearlong stay without any further construction. Then, a second crew would replace the first team and expand the base.

The first floor of the four-story, conical towers would contain storage space. The second floor would feature a communications center and library in the first tower, and an exercise gymnasium and a sick bay in the second.

On the third floor, the astronauts could bathe and do their laundry. The top floor would contain private quarters with "entertainment desks" from which they could tap Earth's databases via satellite to watch the latest movies, said sophomore Loretta Hidalgo.

During the first month, the crew would assemble one- to three-story prefabricated structures to connect the towers to a continuous base, said Roby Stancel, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. After three flights to Mars, the base would be diamond- shaped, containing interconnected lab buildings, living quarters and greenhouses for plants to produce oxygen and crops.

Prefabricated tunnels, just high enough for humans to walk upright, would link the individual buildings.

To keep the crew in good spirits, the students included everything from the "obligatory hammock above the plants in the greenhouse" to fully equipped gyms, Hidalgo said.

Solar power and fuel cells using liquid hydrogen and oxygen would provide energy for the mission, said Ken Truitt, graduate student in aeronautics and astrophysics.

The rockets would transport a 500-day supply of water, nitrogen and oxygen to Mars and recycle them. The drinking- and flush- water volume of the first mission is about two cubic meters (2,117 liters), one and a half liters of which the students estimate will be lost daily through breathing and tiny leaks in the base.

Marc Weinberger, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronomy, said that a hygiene recycling system would separate solids from toilet water, burn them, store the ashes and feed the treated liquids back into the water circulation.

After building the base, the astronauts would start exploring the local area. Besides roaming about the base neighborhood, they would leave the base for weeklong trips in a special rover on metal wheels that has drills and other tools protruding from its front on robot arms.

Weinberger explained that the scientists could collect soil samples with these tools and analyze their geology in a lab in the back of the rover. The vehicle could even break in two, leaving the clumsy back part behind to go on day-trips with the more flexible front.

The Martian climate is unpleasant - temperatures range from -94<degree>F (-70<degree>C) to 60<degree>F (15<degree>C), and dust storms of up to 96 km (60 miles) per hour blast over rough terrain. The space suit would have to create a miniature Earth environment around the astronaut, said William Mills, a graduate student in electrical engineering.

A Mars suit would have to recycle the astronaut's sweat and keep humidity and temperature constant, compensate for low outside pressure and provide oxygen, according to Mills. Yet, it should be as light as possible because Mars has about a third of Earth gravity, much more than the moon's, which allowed heavy technology in the moon space suits.

The partial gravity also has advantages: Besides reducing the health risk of long-term weightlessness, it makes pouring a drink much easier, as 6th grader Michael Scott Weaver reported. Michael, son of Lee Weaver of Weaver Aerospace, demonstrated in a video that drinking and handling water works well in flights simulating Martian gravity.

While most of the Stanford students pondered the technical details of the first missions to establish a base, some thought about how to use Martian resources to make a future colony more independent from Earth.

Sascha Retailleau, graduate student in civil engineering, proposed filling Mars soil in containers imported from Earth to create material for new buildings. Kelly McMillen, a scientist with NASA, suggested converting some of the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into methanol to make the base independent of fuel delivery from Earth.

Though permanent colonies on Mars remain science fiction, putting humans on Mars for yearlong explorations is within reach, according to Lusignan, who has worked on this mission for five years.

"We are now going down to such a level of detail that it's obvious it can be done, even within very reasonable budgets," he said, adding that the current problems are political rather than technical, since his study group's plans require extensive use of Russian technology.

"It can easily be done internationally, but can't be done at all by any single nation," he said. "Russia has the rockets, we have the electronics, and Japan has the money."


This story was written by Gabrielle Strobel, a science writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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