Hostile planet: Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars, is pictured from ESA's Mars Express. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.