Status Report

Dispatch from Mars Society Arctic Expedition Robert Zubrin July 13, 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
July 13, 2001
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It rained today.
Sometimes it was light rain, sometimes heavy. Sometimes it was just rain, at other times it was
mixed with a bit of snow.

We hoped for a break in the rain so we could do a brief EVA to retrieve data stored in Bill Clancey’s Campbell Scientific weather station, which is positioned near the airstrip across the valley. We actually got a brief period when the rain was light enough to try it, but at that time the Lowell Canal, which cuts through the valley, was running so high that a person crossing it on an ATV would get soaked up to his hips.

Crew at work.

The crew works at their workstations.

So it was an indoor day. Charles Cockell made good use of the time to analyze biological samples gathered by our Haynes Ridge EVA team July 11. It turns out that the green discoloration Katy spotted on the underside of some rocks was indeed cyanobacteria of a type typically found in extreme polar deserts. It grows on the edges of the rocks, just underneath the surface where it is protected from UV radiation and can live in its own micro environment. Enough light penetrates around the edges of the rock for these hardy microbes to photosynthesize. These microbes sometimes also inhabit lakes up in the Arctic, including the lakes found in the impact crater. Although we don’t know what past or present life on Mars might be like, studying the habitats for life in this extreme polar desert might help us hunt for it on Mars.

Charles took a sample from the bottom of the rock and studied it with our Olympus epifluorescence microscope. He was able to identify filaments and spherical microorganisms and photograph them under near-UV light for further study.

Someday, someone may send a photograph like this one back from Mars and rock the foundations of human knowledge.

Charles Cockell using the microscope in the Flashline Station lab.

Charles Cockell using the microscope in the Flashline Station lab.

The rest of us used the in-station day to catch up on our writing.

Our power problem persists. The station was designed to operate on 10 kilowatts, since the failure of one of our two main generators, we actually have 7. So if someone turns on the lights downstairs when the water heater is running, it throws the circuit breaker. It is equally unwise to run the microwave and the hot plate at the same time. We don’t dare to turn on the space heaters, so the station internal temperature varies between 50 and 60 F. Charles and Steve, who have both been here since the start of the first rotation, really needed a Navy shower, and wanted to do it with warm water. We had to delay lunch so as not to use any cooking power while the water heater was running. We get by watching every watt. It’s doable, but it’s a pain.

This brings me to an important point. It is essential that a Mars mission be conducted in a power-rich environment. There are those who say we can conduct human Mars missions using solar energy for surface power. It’s possible in principle, but it’s a bad idea. Solar power on Mars is weather dependant, and an extended dust storm could starve the crew of electricity. Here a power shortage is a matter of discomfort; on Mars it could be fatal. The right way to do a human Mars mission is with nuclear power, with the reactor rated to a maximum output twice that of the anticipated average crew needs. Depending on the mission plan, that means a unit or set of units with a total output between 20 and 100 kilowatts. Either way, that is very small for a nuclear reactor. One hundred kilowatts is 130 horsepower, the same amount of muscle that drives a mid-sized car.

The upper deck layout.

The upper deck layout.

Developing such small nuclear reactors is hardly beyond our technology. After all, we had nuclear power in the United States before we had color TV. The problem has been lack of funding due to opposition by penny pinchers on the right and anti nuclear types on the left. Both are mistaken. Space nuclear power will be an enormous cost saver. It will allow us to make our return propellant on Mars, reducing mission launch-to-orbit mass by hundreds of tons and cost by billions of dollars. It also poses no threat to the Earth’s environment. At launch, a space nuclear reactor (unlike a radioisotope generator) contains no more radioactivity than the uranium that was pulled out of the environment to fuel it. It is only after starting it following landing on Mars, that a significant radiological inventory is generated. And that stuff is not coming back to Earth unless Mars heads for Earth, in which case we have larger problems.

Of course, space nuclear power would save us no money if we simply decided not to go to Mars. But that would mean giving up that fundamental searching quality that makes us human, which would be a loss we could afford even less.

SpaceRef staff editor.