Mars Soil Toxic?

A recent study, reflected in numerous news articles, indicates that the surface of Mars may be more toxic than originally thought.  

The short version is as follows:
We already knew that perchlorates exist in may locations in the upper layers of the surface of Mars.  We knew that iron oxide was common  We knew that the sun's ultraviolet light was mostly unfiltered when it hit the surface.

What the study showed was that these factors in combination are 10.8 times better at killing ordinary bacteria than ultraviolet light alone. 


This is actually a good thing for human exploration of Mars.  A key issue as we approach the time of humans traveling to the red planet will be planetary protection.  Humans have ten bacterial cells in our bodies for every human cell, and we shed them constantly.  It's going to be very difficult to keep the spacesuits clean and in good condition without human contact.  The only thing that could make planetary protection a non-issue for early missions is a planet with the ability to sterilize itself at the air and surface dust level.  That is exactly what Mars can do, and it does it over ten times better than we expected.

That said, a key factor in settlement is getting under a blanket of radiation protection such as soil or ice.  If we confined mining operations to A) robotic excavators and B) avoided human interaction with subsurface zones that could touch a water table, we wouldn't have the issue of forward contamination (or back contamination, should life exist there).  This can be managed if one keeps habitats on the surface and buries them in the ice-filled equivalent to sand bags.  This provides better cosmic ray protection, easier construction, and avoids the issue in both directions until the issue of life on Mars is resolved.

NASA Sponsoring Small Nuclear Power Projects for Mars

NASA is currently developing prototypes of small nuclear power plants for use in robotic and crewed missions.  While this work is early and low priority, it is on the critical path to space exploration and settlement.

The reactors will use uranium as a heat source and Stirling cycle mechanics.  This will avoid the issue of plutonium being so rare and expensive to make, and the complex mechanics of a conventional reactor.

The smaller project is called Kilopower.  It would be 6.5 feet tall (1.9 meters) and operate at 1 kilowatt.  The project will cost $15 million.  The technology readiness level is currently 2 to 3, and the goal is to push it to 5.  The system will be tested in a vacuum environment.  Interestingly, the smaller plant will burn almost no fuel (0.1 percent) in the first 15 years of operations.  While this has implications for very long duration missions and power demands, it has a more practical near-term benefit.  As nuclear fuel burns, it tends to swell and release fission gases.  This can cause issues with the reactor long before the fuel is expended.  In this case, it's a non-issue.  Because the fuel doesn't swell, it can be wrapped in a cladding of material that won't rupture if the fuel rod swells during operation. This dramatically improves the safety of the reactor, while reducing the cost and time of development.

The larger project is called the Technology Demonstration Unit (TDU).  This will push the power level from 10 to 100 kilowatts.  This would be a more conventional (heavy water cooled) nuclear power plant. The ultimate goal of these projects is to have a reactor that can be tested at the International Space Station. 


The smaller design could power a Mars Sample Return mission using In Situ Propellant Production on the surface of Mars.  It could operate a complex prototype for extracting water ice from the lunar poles.  It could power heavy orbiters and landers in the outer solar system.

The larger system (10-100 kWe) would be ideal for a crewed Mars mission with in situ propellant production (ISRU).  The original target size for a Mars Direct mission (4 crew, full return from the surface of Mars to Earth without an orbital Earth Return Vehicle) is 80 kWe.  Since nuclear reactors are highly regulated, this is one area where government research is very important to future settlement progress. 

Paying for Affordable Launch: OneWeb

OneWeb (Google's satellite constellation) is preparing to manufacture three satellites a day.  

While Elon Musk's high speed internet constellation is meant to help pay for space settlement, Google's constellation has no grander purpose.  It will help drive down the cost of launch vehicles, though, by providing a steady paying customer for those services.

Space is already commercialized largely due to satellite communications and observation.  These systems are net positives to the economy, requiring no taxpayer support and strong economic activity.  Satellite television revenue alone is greater than all global space programs, combined.  The new layer of low-latency satellites can bring broadband everywhere in the world, appealing to the broader global market.  

A system that provides line of sight internet to a small antenna (the size of a magazine) has a lot of possibilities.   The same was said when satellite television went from dishes that were two meters in diameter to the ones commonly used now by Direct TV and Dish Network.  That said, they are of no use to people who rent, live in high rises, or anyone else without a secure outdoor location for such a device.  People in these situations are generally already connected via cable, fiber, or copper wire based systems. Also, unlike the television systems, these new antennas do not have to be aimed precisely.  They are more likely to be like the older generation of satellite antennas seen on some delivery trucks.

I suspect the long-term picture of OneWeb versus Space-X will be similar to the divide between Android and Apple.  

OneWeb (Google)


Lower Cost

Low- end and third world market

Lower Security

Weak fan base

Basic Design

Similar to Google Android

Attractive design

Strong fan base

Higher security

High end market and consumer use.

Higher cost

Similar to Apple products


Image and Culture

Space-X:  Apple has a strong fan base due to the role as a driver of technology.  This was eventually focused on Steve Jobs, and has been diminished in recent years due to competitors catching up and Apple slowing down. Space-X has that same halo effect due to Elon Musk revolutionizing so many industries. Apple products tend to cost more than their rivals in each market, but also tend to be more secure, easier to use, and more reliable.  They are basically better-thought-through designs.   Their competitors, in comparison, have products that appear rushed to production, confusing, buggy, and less secure.  This image isn't always deserved on either side, but it has been consistent through Microsoft, IBM, Google, Pebble, Blackberry, and so on.  

OneWeb:  Apple sells the iOS along with the phone, whereas Google gives away or licenses the Android OS to any system that will support it.  The goal is to push as much information to as many people as possible, and monetize the flow of information in both directions.  The information on products and people is the revenue source, not the system that provides the flow.  While Space-X and Apple (Circa 2010) are analogous (strong innovation image, fan base, etc.) Android and OneWeb actually are both projects of one company - Google.  We should not anticipate a rapid shift in business model. 


While Google is working on a light satellite launch system, it will probably purchase launches on Space-X where possible.  Having two or more low-latency satellite internet systems will help drive faster adoption, avoid monopoly pricing, and spur the two systems to advance technologically more quickly than they would otherwise.  This will in turn lead to yet more launches, as the older satellites are made obsolete more quickly.  

Having factories that can crank out space-rated products in high volume will also benefit other aspects of space settlement.  In the end, anything that space settlers need will have to be space-rated at some point.  This will drive down the price of doing so, while also spinning off quality innovations to other industries.

OneWeb has strong potential to be a net-win for space settlement, even if Google has no grand plans beyond LEO like other innovators.  I'm not sure I would want to live in a Google space settlement, personally, given their business model of invasive observation.   It's probably best they help pay costs of space-rated industrialization and launch costs, and then get out of everyone's way.