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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.