10 'Must Have' Technologies for Settling Mars

Settling Mars Will Take a Lot of Ingenuity and Commitment - and 10 'Must Have' Technologies

Here’s the problem…

Mars is all the rage these days and the movie The Martian makes us obsess even more over the possibility of being there. What is truly impressive about the movie is that NASA engineers and scientists were heavily consulted during production to help make the movie as realistic as possible. And it shows. It's incredibly realistic.

But there’s the rub…

If you think about it, you'll notice that the whole mission concept looks a lot like what NASA did during Apollo – just updated to 2015. Send a handful of astronauts to explore, collect a few samples and come back.

Footprints and flags.

Don’t get me wrong. The book and movie are both very well done. The movie in particular brings Mars alive and reminds us of how exciting it would be to be there.

But we need to do more – much, much more!

If you want to settle Mars -- not just explore -- it’s not enough to just send a handful of people at a time. We need to send dozens. Hundreds. Thousands, even.

In other words, we need to expand our planning beyond smaller, exploratory-type designs and focus on larger, re-usable systems capable of enabling mass migrations to Mars.

Related: Journey to Mars -- NASA Releases New Outline for Mars Exploration​

Sure, that will take a lot more time – and a lot more money! – but Mars is for all of us, not just the lucky few.

How do we make it happen? How do open Mars for the Many?

Here is a list of 10 ‘Must-Have’ technologies that we will need to get as many people Mars as possible – as fast as possible!

1. Re-usable Launch Vehicles

SpaceX Barge Landing

Joh Ross via Twitter @zlsadesign

What are they?

Just what they sound like. Launch vehicles that can be launched, returned and re-used – over and over again.

Why are they needed?

This topic has been beat to death since the first days of Apollo. And yet...

There is still no launch vehicle that is reusable!

Not even partially re-usable.

Why not?  Good question.

Skylon Space Plane

Credit: Reaction Englines LTD

The idea is that if fully re-usable launch systems are put in place, launch costs would be much, much lower. Lower costs would mean easier access – and more interest. Larger demand would then mean more competition, and thereby even lower costs. And even more demand. Which means more competition. Lower costs. More demand…

You get the picture.

It's a good thing.  But, if you think about, there are two reasons no one has yet built them:

  1. The launch market is not large enough to justify the R&D investment, and
  2. It's incredibly difficult (and -- therefore -- incredibly expensive)​

This has to change .  And it is -- slowly.  Re-usable launch systems are just too critical to getting more stuff – and more people – into space.

2. Commercial Space Station

What is it?

A privately owned and operated station for the assembly of Mars transfer vehicles and the departure point for travelers to the Red Planet.

Where would it be located? Low earth orbit makes it more easily accessible from earth, but highly eccentric elliptical orbits (HEEO - orbits that make a close approach to earth before heading out on an extended elliptical path) may be more efficient for the actual departure to Mars.

Private Space Stations - a 'Must=Have technology for settling Mars

Why is it needed?

Even with lower cost, re-usable launch systems, it will be impossible to get hundreds of people into space all at the same time. Since standard launch windows to Mars occur about every two years, there will need to be someplace people can wait before boarding the vehicles that will actually take them to Mars.

Why a commercial station?

CST100 approaching Bigelow private space station

Credit: Boeing

If the station is privately owned and operated, it could double as a destination for space tourists and adventurers who want to experience space but not actually go all the way to Mars. This could open the market to private orbital operations around the earth-moon system and increase launch service demands even more.

The result? More competition and lower cost, which means more competition and...

If you're interested, take a look at this gallery of private space station concepts.​

3. Radiation protection

What is it?

Protection from solar particle events and high-energy cosmic rays – for travelers in space and for those intent on settling Mars as well as the equipment they will need.

Why is it needed?

The Earth’s magnetic field offers a little protection from radiation in low earth orbit, but once travelers leave for Mars, or for space stations in highly eccentric elliptical orbits, radiation exposure is a real problem. Designs have typically focused on thicker armor around spacecraft and space stations, or smaller ‘shelters’ that are even more heavily shielded and which can be effective against low-energy events and even some larger solar flares.

Protection from space radiation is a 'Must Have' technology for settling Mars

Credit: NASA

But high-energy cosmic rays present bigger problems, one that heavy, passive shielding techniques just won’t solve. In fact, heavier shielding could actually make the effects of cosmic rays worse. For example, although most cosmic rays pass right through objects they encounter, occasionally the will collide with the atoms in the object and create even more high-energy particles -- a deadly one-two punch that can knock you out in a hurry.

Newer concepts are addressing more ‘active’ shielding techniques that may be more effective against high energy particles. Electrostatic or magnetic fields, for example, that can be turned on and off.  Other ideas, like using pharmaceuticals to ease, or even restore, radiation damage, may also be effective.

It’s not just in space this technology is needed. On Mars, there is no magnetic field to help deflect solar flares and high-energy cosmic rays. Burying habitats under tons of dirt for protection is the most well-known concept, but, again, this may not be such a good idea when you consider cosmic rays. 

So… This is a bigger deal than many think.

4. Closed-Loop Life Support

What is it?

Completely self sufficient recycling of food, water and oxygen.

Why is it needed?

In earth orbit, the International Space Station is regularly re-supplied with those things needed to survive. But on long-haul deep space missions, resupply is not an option – at least not if you need it in a hurry.

Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars goes into great detail on how this can be overcome on Mars. Details on oxygen production, water generation, and even growing food have been given great thought, but testing still needs to be done before we can begin to put boots on the ground on the road to settling Mars.

A completely closed loop system may not actually be achievable, but we must learn how to maximize self-sufficiency and minimize the need for resupply.

5. Artificial gravity

What is it?

A method to reproduce the effects of gravity while in space.

Why is it needed?


Hermes - Youtube screenshot from 'The Martian - Official Trailer'

Muscles atrophy during extended periods of weightlessness. Even worse, is a dramatic decrease in bone density. These problems can be offset through exercise to some degree, but extended stays in space stations have shown how weak astronauts can get. You’ve probably even seen pictures of returning astronauts who have to be carried away from their capsules when they return. It can take days for them to recover sufficiently enough to even walk.

On Mars, you won’t have that luxury.

Nautilus-X. Credit: Perry Papadopoulos/fragomatik

Nautilus-X. Credit: Perry Papadopoulos - Youtube video screenshot from fragomatik @ https://youtu.be/hObbL4DCesI

Centripetal acceleration may be the answer (yep – technically it’s centripetal, not centrifugal). Spin a spaceship or a section of a spaceship and you can effectively create artificial gravity. It’s an idea that has been around since the early 1900’s and even shown in the most recent space flick to hit the scenes – The Martian.

Although many proposals have been put out there, actual tests in space have never been done. There was some hope that a recent idea, the Nautilus-X, might actually flight test some hardware on the ISS, but unfortunately, the idea never went beyond initial drawings and ideas.

RELATED: Why is Artificial Gravity Research Being Ignored?​

6. Earth-Mars Orbital Transfer Station

What is it?

Aldrin Cycler - a 'Must Have' technology for settling Mars

Aldrin Cycler. Credit: onathan M. Mihaly and Victor Q. Dang

A spacecraft constantly moving between Earth and Mars with little need for orbital adjustment or fuel. Known famously as the Aldrin Cycler, after Buzz Aldrin, who first came up with the idea along with scientists and engineers at Purdue.

Why is it needed?

To get to Mars, spacecraft need to accelerate enough to leave Earth orbit and then slow down when approaching Mars to place themselves in a Mars orbit. To accelerate, then decelerate, huge massive spaceships -- the kind that will be needed for settling Mars with hundreds of people -- will require a lot of propellant.

Instead of accelerating and decelerating the entire spacecraft, why not just keep it in a continuous transfer orbit between Earth and Mars and then just use shuttle craft to take people back and forth instead.

You save fuel, plus have a system that can be used over and over.

Cycler Orbit

Cylcer Orbit

First proposed by Buzz Aldrin, the idea is now known as the Aldrin Cycler.  Now, for initial exploration missions, like what NASA proposes in their Journey to Mars plan, you don’t necessarily need a cycler. Just accelerate and decelerate your ship as needed.

But that takes a lot more fuel and energy and is not practical if you want to send a lot of people.

Combine this with the next ‘Must-Have’ technology on this list and the efficiency of a Earth-Mars transfer system is obvious.

Here's a short animation to get a better view on how a cycler works.

7. Aerocapture

What is it?

Aerocapture is a technique to reduce the velocity of a spacecraft by using a planet’s atmosphere to slow down. By using the atmosphere, friction causes the spacecraft to rapidly decelerate enough for orbital capture without using a lot of fuel.

Why is it needed?

Inflatable Heat Shield

Inflatable Heat Shield. Credit: NASA

To leave Earth orbit, spacecraft have to accelerate to ‘escape velocity’. This is simply the velocity that an object needs to have to ‘escape’ Earth’s gravitational pull. Just point where you want to go -- and shoot.

But what happens once you get to where you’re going?

Well. Accelerating to Earth’s escape velocity means you will be going too fast to actually stop at Mars. You’ll just fly by. So – you need to slow down in order for Mars gravity to capture you and put you in orbit.

Now, you can slow down by using your engines, which is what every mission so far has done, or, if you are accurate enough, you can shoot through the planet’s atmosphere and use it’s friction to slow down and then hop back out and into orbit.

It’s not a direct shot to the surface -- just enough time in the atmosphere to slow down and then shoot out again at a velocity that will be enough for orbit but not too much to fly by the planet.

The best part? It can work both when approaching Mars and for those who come back and need to slow down when approaching Earth.

NASA has recently announced a design contest for inflatable aerocapture systems.

8. Mars Orbital Station

An assembly area orbiting Mars for people, equipment and fuel.

Why is it needed?

When approaching Mars (or the Earth, for that matter), there are two choices after you slow down.

  1. Orbit, or
  2. Land
Mars Orbital Station - a 'Must Have' technology for settling Mars

Mars Orbital Station. Credit: NASA

Many spacecraft missions have done a direct landing approach. They slow down enough so their heat shields can survive atmospheric entry, then deploy landing systems before touch down. NASA has become very precise in their landings using this approach, but even more precision will be needed when you send a crew. This mandates an aerocapture maneuver and then a low Mars orbit before final de-orbit and touchdown.

Related: The Ultimate Secret to Settling Mars​

In addition, orbiting first allows better timing for a landing. If there is some reason why an immediate landing is a problem (like a dust storm, for example), then you can pick your time and be very precise – exactly what is needed when approaching a settlement. (Nothing worse than barreling in at full throttle in a dust storm and scaring your new neighbors -- not a smart way to make a good first impression when settling Mars!)

So, if orbiting first is a good idea, an orbital station makes sense. The station becomes a congregation point for new arrivals as well as for those who might want to return to Earth (an added advantage of using Cyclers). The station can also double as a fuel depot (from propellants manufactured on the surface) to refuel landers and orbital transfer vehicles that head back to the Cyclers.



A low Mars orbit might be a good location for this station – easy access from the surface as well as from arriving, aerobraking spacecraft, but it’s not the only choice. Like the commercial station in Earth orbit, an alternative might be a higher, more elliptical orbit that make it easier to reach interplanetary space.

An even better idea might be to put the station on the moon Phobos. It would be a bit more difficult to reach this station from the surface of Mars, but the possibility of fuel production, radiation shielding and the general “wouldn’t it be cool to do that” factor might just make this a better choice.

9. Landers

What are they?

Just what they sound like. Descent vehicles that are capable of dropping out of low Mars orbit and landing directly on Mars

Why are they needed?

SpaceX Red Dragon Landing

SpaceX Red Dragon Landing

Well… Without Landers, we’re stuck in orbit, so – yeah – for settling Mars, they’re essential. But the need here is for landers that are capable of delivering crews safely and precisely on target. And with Mars’ thin atmosphere, figuring out how to land such a large system will take some work.

The Curiosity Rover is the largest system ever landed on Mars. The rover itself weighs nearly 900kg (almost 1,900 pounds) and had a 4.5 meter (15 foot) diameter heat shield. Crewed vehicles will be much heavier and larger.  For example, SpaceX’s Red Dragon capsule is designed with a smaller diameter heat shield (3.5m) but will weigh about 7 times as much as Curiosity (somewhere around 6,700kg).

The problem?  Red Dragon will only accommodate 4-6 people. If we want to deliver more people at a single time (say, 50 or so), landers will need to be much larger.

10. Ascent Vehicles

What are they?

A lander - but in reverse.

Ok.  Not really. There's a bit more to it than that, but essentially it's the same thing - a vehicle that can overcome Mars gravity and reach orbit. You might know them as ‘Mars Ascent Vehicles’, or MAVs for short.

Why are they needed?

If you believe in the Mars One model -- they aren’t (since they don't plan on actually coming back to Earth).

The problem with ascent vehicles is that they may very well be the most difficult system to design – if you design them to go all the way back to Earth.  

Even if they only have to reach low Mars orbit and dock with an orbiting interplanetary spaceship like the Hermes in the movie The Martian, they are quite complicated.  Building a spacecraft that can land on Mars, then have enough fuel to take off again and reach orbit is extremely difficult.

Think about it.

Typical rocket design calls for throwing away the parts of the spacecraft you don’t need any more. This lowers the mass and improves the performance.

You might know it better as 'staging’.

Mars Ascent Vehicle Concept. Credit: ESA

Mars Ascent Vehicle Concept. Credit: ESA

So --  when designing spacecraft, you work both forwards (how much mass can I throw at Mars?) and backwards (how much mass do I need to take off of Mars?) at the same time.

For example, if you were designing a Mars Lander/Ascent Vehicle, you would start with the MAV section, build the landing system around it, and figure out the mass of the whole thing. Then you would determine what it would take to deliver those two components, the lander and the MAV, to Mars orbit from Earth. And so on…

Doesn't sound too bad, right? But it can get very complicated.  It’s tricky business.

It’s the primary reason Mars One chose a ‘no return’ model. If all you have to do is land a ship and not bring anything back, it’s much, much simpler to design.

With an orbital fuel depot and cyclers that return to Earth, the design becomes much simpler.

MAV Concept

A MAV can be combined with a Lander into single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle that is capable of reaching low Mars orbit, or Phobos if you prefer. There, it can deliver fuel, equipment -- even passengers -- and then pick up new arrivals and equipment before returning to the surface.

Make it re-usable and you might really have something!

SSTO vehicles have already been designed and tested for use here on Earth – albeit unsuccessfully. The problem is that Earth has a pretty deep gravity well.  On Mars, though, a re-usable SSTO is much more possible.

With a gravity only 38% of Earth, it’s quite feasible to produce a reusable SSTO design that can double as a MAV and a lander. With an integrated heat shield, it also means this vehicle could be capable of aerocapture and used as a shuttle between interplanetary cyclers and a Mars Orbital base.

It's actually one of the 'core' technologies we at Mars for the Many are looking to develop on our path to settling Mars.​

What would it look like? Probably a lot like SpaceX’s Dragon capsule - but bigger. Take a look at this artist’s sketch of a design we are working on to see for yourself. It has both a crewed version capable of reaching Mars orbit and a cargo version that can also deliver up to 48 passengers at a time to the surface from orbit -- a key component for getting lots of people quickly to the planet and actually settling Mars..

We'll show more of this design in some future posts.

The Mars Exploration Vehicle - a 'Must Have' technology for settling Mars

Artist's concept of the Mars Exploration Vehicle Credit: Mars for the Many

There you go. Ten ‘Must-Have’ technologies for getting a lot of people to Mars in a hurry. There are actually quite a few more systems and technologies needed to live – or better yet, to thrive – on Mars, but we will talk about those later.

What do you think? Are we missing something you think is critical? Or added one you think is unnecessary? Let us know. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

And if you like it , don't forget to share it with your friends.

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