Hostile planet: Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars, is pictured from ESA's Mars Express. Photo: Getty
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68 Days Later: why the Mars One mission would end in disaster

A team from MIT estimated how long it would take for the mission to experience its first fatality. The answer: 68 days. The second group would arrive to find the first pioneers had been dead for more than a year and a half.

When the Dutch not-for-profit organisation Mars One announced in 2012 that it intended to send a crew of settlers on a one-way trip to the Red Planet for a reality TV show, it sounded like a hoax. You may remember the Channel 4 show Space Cadets (2005), in which nine contestants were fooled into undergoing fake astronaut training before being placed in a simulator and told they were heading into space. But Mars One, it seems, is legitimate.

The co-founder and CEO of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, a wind energy entrepreneur, has said that he and his team can send materials and supplies to keep a group of 40 colonists alive until the 2040s. This is subject to funding, with proceeds from the TV show hopefully making up a significant chunk, adding to other investment. The crucial point is that Lansdorp thinks Mars One can do this now, with existing technology.

This makes it sound like colonising Mars is more of a financial than a technological problem. The current budget for the project is $6bn. Here’s what is supposed to happen: an unmanned mission to Mars will be launched in 2020 and a suitable site for the colony will be chosen in preparation for the launch of the first living modules in 2022. By 2025, the first four astronauts – selected from more than 200,000 applicants – will arrive and begin getting the base ready for the next four to touch down in 2027. Another four will arrive two years later, and so on, until there are 40 people living on Mars, extracting water and minerals from the soil and breathing oxygen produced in greenhouses by wheat and vegetable crops.

This all assumes that our current technology is up to the task. A feasibility study of the Mars One plan was presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto at the beginning of October by the MIT scientists Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens and Olivier de Weck. The team estimated how long it would take for the mission to experience its first fatality. The answer: 68 days. The second group of astronauts would arrive to find the first four Mars pioneers had been dead for more than a year and a half.

There are many reasons to be sceptical of the current plan, the researchers argue. The space allocated for crops isn’t big enough to give each colonist the 3,000 or so calories per day needed to stay alive and healthy on Mars; those plants would produce so much oxygen that it could cause life-support systems (which ensure there is the correct amount of oxygen in the air) to malfunction, leading to a catastrophic drop in cabin pressure; more than twice as many rocket journeys will be needed to keep the base supplied than planned; and, by the tenth year, spare parts will take up almost two-thirds of all cargo on the resupply missions from Planet Earth.

The problems are linked, too. Increasing the size of the base to grow more crops makes the air situation worse, but making it smaller would require more food to be sent from earth, so fewer mechanical spare parts could be transported. It’s not hard to imagine the disaster that awaits Mars One colonists if an air conditioner breaks down months before the part needed to fix it arrives.

The scientists took part in a Q&A session on the Reddit website to discuss their work. They emphasised that they are “big fans” of colonising Mars and don’t mean to debunk the idea completely. Lansdorp has argued that the oxygen problem is not a significant hurdle. Yet the hole in Mars One’s finances may be the greatest factor in deciding which organisation sends the first human beings to Mars. Let’s hope that the first people to die there do so of old age, not radiation sickness, suffocation, starvation or heatstroke. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.