Are lunar fuel depots needed for Mars missions?

by Chris Carberry and Rick Zucker

As a new administration prepares to take office, speculation abounds regarding what direction US space policy will take after the transition, as well as who will assume leadership roles at NASA and in other influential positions. Within this context, rumors are swirling regarding whether our nation will turn away from Mars and instead focus exclusively on the Moon.

One of the central arguments being advocated for “major” lunar activities is the unfortunately misguided notion that the construction of fuel depots on the lunar surface is a necessary precursor to eventual human missions to Mars. The reality, however, is that it’s not clear if there are necessary resources on the Moon that can be used for missions to Mars. In other words, it is questionable whether the enormous expenditure of time and resources that would be required to build up the required infrastructure on the Moon to utilize those resources would actually have any clear benefit to human Mars exploration. Thus, that diversion to the Moon would likely delay human missions Mars by decades or even by generations, and could very well delay other valuable lunar activities as well. In contrast, by aiming for Mars, we might very well get the Moon as a side benefit for the same cost.
Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that such a process is feasible and could move forward, the costs of the experimental phase and then actually building a functioning production facility and operations are unknown. It would be safe to assume, however, that it would not be an inexpensive proposition. There is also the issue of storing hydrogen and oxygen, probably in liquid form; storing such supercool liquids for extended periods is known as a major technical challenge yet to be addressed.Reports from recent NASA missions have indicated that there is probably some quantity of water ice in the lunar polar regions, in craters that are permanently in shadow from the Sun.

Unfortunately, it is unknown how much ice is there, or what form it is in, or how difficult it will be to extract it. Because of the conditions inherent in those particular regions, prospecting there would not be a task that we would assign to astronauts to perform—and robots may have a hard time operating due to the extreme cold and other hazards. We would certainly have to send many robotic explorers, of a technical complexity not yet attained. Significant experimentation would be required with various techniques that would almost certainly take years, and that would just serve to establish whether or not these regions are a realistic option for fuel generation in the first place.

Then, we would need to get this fuel off the lunar surface to make it accessible to Mars-bound (or other) missions, which would require yet another complex architecture on the surface of the Moon. Launching this hypothetical fuel into space from the Moon would be adding yet another gravity well to overcome. In total, this process would certainly be far more complex and expensive than sending humans to Mars using current mission architecture concepts. Indeed, current NASA Mars mission architectures rely to a great extent on solar electric propulsion, which does not use hydrogen or oxygen as a propellant.

It is also difficult to see a business case or a sufficient return on investment for such fuel depots on the Moon in the near term, aside from the issue of going on to Mars. At least in the foreseeable future, any customer of such depots would be limited to government entities, and even that is far from certain. This would essentially be a case of the “cart being put before the horse.” It would be risky in the extreme to spend all this money up front on infrastructure, essentially betting the house, with such a questionable likelihood of an actual payoff. We can see humans on Mars within the next couple of decades, but we won’t if we wait for a scenario to develop that will, even under the best of circumstances, delay sending humans to Mars.
The fact that the near-term value of lunar fuel depots is questionable does not mean that lunar missions in general should not be encouraged. Limited near-term lunar missions, based on international and US exploration objectives, can have value, but should be done with the goal of moving on to Mars on a clear and aggressive schedule. If private/commercial entities and/or other interests want to build a lunar base and fuel depots, then that should happen independently and on self-sufficient terms. That scenario would be a great accomplishment in its own right and would also likely be based on need. It should not, however, attempt to justify itself, and the required massive technology development project that it would entail, in the guise of enabling human Mars missions.

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Why Mars? To Discover How Life Originates

by Ramses Ramirez Planetary scientist and astrobiologist, Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University

VALLES MARINERIS, MARS – Mars’ own Grand Canyon, Valles Marineris, is shown on the surface of the planet in this composite image made aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The image was taken from a video featuring high-resolution images from Arizona State University’s Thermal Emission Imaging System multi-band camera on board the spacecraft. The mosaic was then colored to approximate how Mars would look to the human eye. Valles Marineris is 10 times longer, five times deeper and 20 times wider than Earth’s Grand Canyon. (Photo by NASA/Arizona State University via Getty Images)

In 1964, Mariner 4 became the first spacecraft to successfully arrive at Mars. While some scientists of the time were expecting a world much like our own, one filled with rivers, oceans, and maybe even life, Mariner’s images instead unveiled a heavily-cratered surface, not unlike the Moon’s. That’s why it was such a surprise when later NASA missions, such as Viking, benefiting from improved technology, revealed a martian landscape more like our Earth’s. These newer images showed large fluvial features in ancient terrains, including the ancient river valley networks, inferred to have formed nearly 4 billion years ago. Therefore, many have argued that Mars may have once possessed a warmer climate, perhaps with a thicker atmosphere that could have supported potentially habitable conditions. Such a warmer early Mars may have been more “Earth-like” in many ways. So, it may be natural to wonder: How Earth-like does a planet need to be to host life? Did Mars ever have life? Does Mars have life now? Scientists operating on Mars could address these and similar questions that ultimately stem from one overriding question: Are we alone in the universe?

A comparison (to scale) of portions of the Grand Canyon (a) and Nanedi Valles (b), one of the ancient martian valley networks.

The size and scope of the ancient martian valley networks are impressive. Often hundreds of meters deep, and extending for hundreds of kilometers, these immense fluvial features likely required a climate that was warm enough, at least transiently, to have produced enough rain (or snow) to carve them. These valleys would have been difficult to form in a cold climate because much of the water would have been present as ice instead. To be fair, salty water ― known as brines ― perhaps flowing from underground sources, could remain in liquid form at below freezing temperatures. However, it is difficult to envision how a sufficient volume of briny flows to form these massive features could be produced in a cold climate with little precipitation. If the atmosphere was also significantly thinner than the Earth’s, even if surface life had arisen in such a cold climate, that life would have had to contend with less protection from harmful radiation.

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Why Mars? – A Perspective From The United Arab Emirates

Multiple nations now have Mars in their sights as one of the most challenging goals humans can imagine. Here, Talal M. Al Kaissi of the United Arab Emirates explains why his country is one of the most recent to join the effort to explore Mars.

Sarah Amiri, deputy project manager of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mars Mission, stands on stage during a ceremony to unveil the mission on May 6, 2015 in Dubai.

“We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us. The moment we stop taking on such challenges is the moment we stop moving forward.”

When His Highness Shiekh Mohamed Bin Rashed Al Maktoum, the UAE’s Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai made that proclamation, it was July of 2014, and the UAE was 43 years old. The comment was made shortly after the establishment of the UAE Space Agency. At that point, the UAE’s investments in the “space” sector had already exceeded $5 billion, including Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (YAHSAT) and Thuraya, which specialize in satellite telecommunication. Another UAE entity (EIAST) had even built and launched two earth observations satellites. The UAE was far along on its path to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons, with approximately 70 percent of the country’s GDP represented by non-oil based activities. With the global financial crisis finally beginning to recede, the country decided to aim even higher. In that spirit, 2021 was set as the target year to have the spacecraft achieve Martian orbit, to coincide with the country’s 50th year anniversary. And as though six and a half years was not ambitious enough, roughly a year will need to be shaved off to complete preparations by the launch window in 2020.

So “Why Mars?” Those who recall U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962, later dubbed “the Kennedy Moonshot,” understand how inspirational a simple message can be: “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The U.S. was 186 years old at the time. Of course, Sputnik and the Cold War may have contributed to the drive behind that goal. The UAE’s objective, while similar in its attempt to galvanize inspiration, rests on a different motivation.

Anyone who has followed the UAE over the last two decades understands that while it is a small nation in a geographic region that is more notable for unfortunate geopolitical issues, the country stands out for a number of reasons: Its visionary leadership and good governance, its advanced first class infrastructure and position as an important logistical hub, and perhaps most importantly, a solid commitment by the government to providing education for every citizen.

The result is evident in the 200 nationalities that coexist in a country the size of the state of Maine, whose population is just under 10 million people (with roughly 10 percent UAE nationals) and where most Fortune 100 multinational companies have a regional headquarters. With recently inaugurated federal Ministries of Tolerance, Happiness, and Youth, the UAE is a pioneer regionally as well as globally in effective government and business promotion. Many sectors, including tourism, logistics, aviation, heavy industry and technology have been part of the economic diversification process, utilizing the comparative and competitive advantage the UAE holds. In that regard, the UAE’s entrance into the space sector was an inevitable eventuality and has garnered a lot of attention in the past two years.

The Emirates Mars Mission, called “Hope”, has a few main high-level objectives.

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My Personal Mission To (And For) Mars

By Clementine Poidatz, Actress


Frankly, I was ignorant. I freely admit that. Before I joined the cast of the National Geographic series, Mars, I didn’t know very much about Mars ― and to be honest I didn’t really care. Like many people, I didn’t see how it related to me and why we should spend the money to go to Mars when there are so many problems in the world today that I deemed more important.

But as I prepared for my theatrical role as a crew member of the first mission to Mars, something wonderful happened. As I studied for my part by watching videos, reading articles, and finding out as much as I could about how and why we plan to send humans to Mars, to my great surprise I found my perspective changing. Later, when I was on the set, I found an infectious passion among the crew and cast. I wasn’t the only one who was transformed by our participation in Mars. Many of my fellow cast members also discovered themselves as being passionate advocates for making humanity a multi-planet species. We all realized that this was not like an ordinary film project. Instead, we were part of something that was bigger and of more lasting importance. We had the potential to inspire students and show the world that sending human to Mars will be one of the most important and historic events in human history.

We need big dreams. Children in France (where I’m from) don’t seem to have big dreams these days. In fact, I’m not sure that they are even aware that sending humans to Mars is no longer science fiction but is now within our reach. I was born in 1981, and many people in my generation simply don’t believe that we as a species are capable anymore of doing great things. And I find that sad and even a little scary. This wasn’t the case when my parents were growing up. The world was far from perfect, but they had big dreams. My parents told me that the most amazing thing that they remember ― the event that inspired them and made them hopeful for the future ― was when the Apollo 11 astronauts first stepped foot on the surface of the Moon. They made small steps on the Moon, but it was a giant leap forward for humanity, and they came in peace for all humanity. Unfortunately, the most transforming memory I have (and I’m sure it’s true of my generation as a whole) is the September 11th attacks – clearly a very significant event, but not the type of event that makes anyone hopeful for the future. Sending humans to Mars, however, is my generation’s opportunity for a positive future, and we should embrace it.

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Why Mars Can Be Affordable And Achievable

The Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Orion spacecraft lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 5, 2014.  (UNITED STATES – Tags: TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)  REUTERS/Scott Audette

by Joe Cassady, Executive Director for Space Programs, Washington Operations,

Aerojet Rocketdyne

Why should humans venture to Mars? In some sense, it is to fulfill a longing in our collective psyche. Humanity has dreamed of walking on Mars since travel above the Earth’s surface became feasible… Those dreams seemed to be on the verge of being realized with the dawn of the Space Age in the mid-20th Century, but for decades Mars remained out of reach to human explorers on site. That frustrating situation has resulted in what many have come to see as Mars being perpetually “20 years away.”  In the terminology used for space launches, we have been in a “hold” for the past 30 years. Today, however, we can finally say that the countdown clock is running. We are going to Mars, twenty years and counting! If we stay the course, the first humans will set foot on the Red Planet by the year 2033.

New technologies have become available that have allowed us to take a fresh look at how to approach human Mars missions and, as a result, to tackle the hardest technical problems that had previously led to a hold in the countdown. And these approaches have given us the ability to design an architecture that can be brought on line incrementally, which keeps the annual expenditures within a reasonable projected NASA human spaceflight budget.

The key to this architecture is to separate much of the supplies and equipment and send them in advance of the crew.  By prepositioning equipment, supplies, and even return rocket stages (more than 80 percent of the total mass), using propulsion systems such as solar electric propulsion (SEP) that are extremely energy efficient for long-haul cargo missions, we can save more than half the costs versus transporting everything using chemical propulsion systems that are needed to reach orbit.

On the other hand, the Space Launch System (SLS) is the key to placing large blocks of payload into Earth orbit.  An analogy here on Earth would be how intermodal shipping of supplies and manufactured goods is accomplished. Short haul is accomplished by trucks or rail, while long haul is accomplished by massive ships.  In this same way, SLS accomplishes the short haul mission to orbit, whereas the cargo is transported over the much larger distance to Mars by solar electric transport ships. The two different propulsion systems, each of which is appropriate for its particular type of mission, are complementary.  And to transport the astronauts, we add in a third element: the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle as well as a deep-space habitat module, which together provide living space and life support systems.

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