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

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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

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