Monday, 22 April 2013
NASA's road map for getting to Mars may be in flux, and SpaceX pioneer Elon Musk has only a vague intention to point his rockets at the Red Planet. But that doesn't mean nobody is making definitive plans to set up shop on the fourth rock from the Sun.
Stepping into the vacuum this Friday: a brand new private space venture from the Netherlands called Mars One, which aims to send four astronauts on a one-way journey to Mars in just 11 years time.
Founded by Dutch entrepreneur and researcher Bas Lansdorp, who previously headed up an alternative energy company, this new venture doesn't have a lot of the polish of other private space companies, many of which were started by billionaires such as Musk, Paul Allen or Jeff Bezos.
But Mars One does have something going for it: a definite and achievable to-do list.
Step one: send a communications satellite to Mars in 2016. Step two: follow up with a Red Planet rover in 2018, which will trawl the dusty landscape, scoping out some of the best spots to found a colony. Step three, in 2020: send infrastructure for the colonists to live in, including solar panels and machines that will convert the Martian elements into water and oxygen.
Only then, on the surprisingly specific date of September 14, 2022, will Mars One launch its first four astronauts. Their journey to the new colony will take ten months, though they will have been preparing for a decade. Most of that prep time, we hope, will be spent figuring out how not to kill someone when you have to live in extremely close quarters for the better part of a year with no shower access.
Lansdorp plans to send another couple of adventurous astronauts to join the colony every two years, but the idea is that no one gets a return journey. This is a permanent base, a Plymouth Rock in an entirely new world that will begin the long, slow and painstaking process of terraforming it.
Two promising places to live, 1,200 light-years from Earth
Astronomers said that they had found the most Earth-like worlds yet known in the outer cosmos, a pair of planets that appear capable of supporting life and that orbit a star 1,200 light-years from here, in the northern constellation Lyra.
They are the two outermost of five worlds circling a yellowish star slightly smaller and dimmer than our Sun, heretofore anonymous and now destined to be known in the cosmic history books as Kepler 62, after NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which discovered them. These planets are roughly half again as large as Earth and are presumably balls of rock, perhaps covered by oceans with humid cloudy skies, although that is at best a highly educated guess.
Nobody will probably ever know whether anything lives on these planets, and the odds are that humans will travel there only in their faster-than-light dreams, but the news has sent astronomers into heavenly raptures. William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center, head of the Kepler project, described one of the new worlds as the best site for Life Out There yet found in Kepler's four-years-and-counting search for other Earths in the stars. He treated his team to pizza and beer on his own dime to celebrate the find (this being the age of sequestration). "It's a big deal," he said.
Looming brightly in each other's skies, the two planets circle their star at distances of 37 million and 65 million miles, about as far apart as Mercury and Venus in our own solar system. Most significantly, their orbits place them both in the "Goldilocks" zone of lukewarm temperatures suitable for liquid water, the crucial ingredient for Life as We Know It.