Imagine responding to a mining company’s help wanted ad for a job on … Mars.
Sending a man to Mars and eventually colonizing the planet may be only a dream at present, but it is a dream that NASA and others are working hard to achieve within the next decade or two.
And Nevada is playing a major role in that effort. At a news conference this week at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, officials discussed the testing of a small nuclear reactor needed to make the Mars mission possible.
The Kilopower project is a joint effort involving NASA, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Nevada Test Site – now known as the Nevada National Security Site. It is called Kilopower because it will be the first system to generate 1,000-watt capacity and beyond in outer space.
Earlier missions have used radioisotope thermoelectric generators and solar power – but the nuclear system being tested would not be dependent on sunshine or radioactive decay. Nuclear fission reactions would draw energy from a solid metal core inside the units, which look like large umbrellas.
Testing began in Nevada two months ago and is expected to wrap up in March.
The power project is one of many challenges to be overcome if man is to become the interplanetary species he dreams of being. Getting to Mars had been a goal since the launch of the Space Age in the 1950s, but only in recent years has it seemed possible.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is working on a $10 billion plan to transport “space tourists” to Mars in 2024. That would beat the Mars One goal of putting humans on the Red Planet by 2032.
“Human settlement of Mars is the next giant leap for humankind” states the Mars One website. “Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe.’’
Just as previous space adventures have led to incredible advancements on Earth, the mission to Mars would “jumpstart massive developments in all kinds of areas, a few examples being in recycling, solar energy, food production and the advancement of medical technology,” the group says.
Mining will play an important role in getting there and surviving.
A preliminary step would likely be setting up a mine on the moon, where water from trapped ice could be converted into rocket fuel needed to make the 34 million mile journey.
“The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is planning a lunar fueling station for spacecraft, capable of supporting 1,000 people living in space within 30 years,” states a recent article by a team of authors at theconversation.com. ULA is also working with Bigelow Aerospace to deploy an expandable “lunar depot” within the next five years.
“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars,” Robert Bigelow says on the group’s website.
Water would also be one of the first things to be mined once we get to Mars. While the planet’s surface apparently dried up in the distant past, evidence of underground deposits have been confirmed.
“NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered eight sites where thick deposits of ice beneath Mars’ surface are exposed in faces of eroding slopes,” says a report at Smithsonian.com. “These eight scarps, with slopes as steep as 55 degrees, reveal new information about the internal layered structure of previously detected underground ice sheets in Mars’ middle latitudes.”
The ice was likely deposited by long-ago snowstorms, according to the article.
And carbon dioxide is plentiful on the planet.
“With these we can create methane and oxygen for rocket propellants, and we can provide air and water for the crew,” former NASA physicist Philip Metzger states in an article titled “Why Mine on Mars?”
While many of the skills needed would be the same as mining on Earth, the equipment would be on a much different in scale. Our current rocket technology does not allow for transporting 340-ton haul trucks into space.
“We have to send mini-mining trucks, instead,” Metzger explains. “When they get to Mars, the gravity there is much less than it is on Earth,” making it easier to dig. But that will involve designing innovative machines that can work “with very low force.”
Little robot-trucks have been competing in the Mars-like soil of North Dakota to find designs that can tolerate the “fluffy extraterrestrial soil.” More than 60 teams have signed up for the ninth annual NASA Robotics Mining Competition slated for May.
The success of any human exploration of Mars depends on such efforts, and on technologies like the Kilopower project. The nuclear energy would be needed to create oxygen and to purify water for visiting Earthlings, as well as fuel for their trip home.
“In the future, we want to take Kilopower to the next step,” says project lead Patrick McClure in a YouTube video produced at Los Alamos.
That includes not only human interplanetary colonization, but exploration of the outer planets and the vast territory beyond our solar system.
Thanks to the efforts of billionaire visionaries like Musk and Bigelow, today’s students may become tomorrow’s first Martians.
“It may take a hundred years before humankind delivers on the wildest visions of its science fiction writers,” writes Chris Lo in an article on mining-technology.com, “but it’s heartening that so many bright minds are already hard at work to make it happen.”