Thursday, April 28, 2016

Space Invaders

Giovanni Schiaparelli's map of Mars, compiled over the period 1877-1886. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Exploring Mars has been a passion for humanity ever since primates looked up and wondered what were the moving lights in the sky.

19th Century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped continents and seas on Mars, based on what he saw through his telescope primitive by today's standards. He saw “channels” on Mars, which in Italian he named canali, but that was mistranslated into English as “canals.” The difference? A channel is natural. A canal is artificial.

Someone built the canal.

Inspired by the notion, wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell chose to build an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was in 1894, when Mars would make its periodic closest approach to Earth, called opposition.

The overenthusiastic Lowell soon announced his discovery of canals and oases on Mars. He claimed he'd seen artificial channels diverting water so a dying civilization might survive.

An 1895 illustration of Percival Lowell's Mars canals. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Planetary Society.

Other astronomers couldn't verify his observations, but the notion found its way into popular culture.

H.G. Wells published in 1898 The War of the Worlds, about first London and then the world under siege from parched Martian invaders. Wells wrote this description of the planet:

Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars.

Wells referred to the 1894 opposition in his opening paragraphs:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, in the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the site of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

A young Edgar Rice Burroughs, living in Chicago, was influenced by Chicago Tribune reporting on Lowell's findings. Burroughs' Barsoom series of Mars novels beginning in 1912 was inspired by Lowell's work.

Ray Bradbury's 1950 tale The Martian Chronicles was also influenced by Lowell's romantic vision of a desert planet criss-crossed by canals. This time, the invaders were humans fleeing a troubled Earth, displacing native Martians.

1989 cover art by Michael Whelan titled “Descent” for a reprint of Ray Bradbury's 1950 “The Martian Chronicles.”

Three years later, George Pal's version of The War of The Worlds premiered on American silver screens. Earth once again was on the receiving end of the invasion, only this time the Martians land somewhere near Corona, about fifty miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Chesley Bonestell art in the film's opening sequence depicted a nearly frozen Martian city with canals receding to the horizon.

The trailer for the 1953 film “The War of the Worlds.” Video source: Paramount Movies YouTube channel.

At the end of the 20th Century, author Kim Stanley Robinson published his Mars trilogy. In the first novel, Red Mars published in 1993, one hundred people set forth in 2026 on a multinational colony ship for Mars. (The colony ship is comprised of modified and linked Space Shuttle external tanks!). No Martians. No canals. No life.

And that becomes the conundrum, because an overarching theme through the trilogy is the preservation of Mars wilderness. The planet's purity was defiled by first human robotic probes, then the arrival of the first humans, and now permanent colonists. Terraforming of Mars is debated to its extremes. Should the planet go “Green” or remain “Red”? Is there any point to preserving Mars' natural state now that humans have established a base? Or should a line be drawn?
The paperback book covers for Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.

Robinson's philosophical deliberation came to mind when SpaceX and Elon Musk broke the Internet again with these April 27 tweets:

We all know that Mr. Musk's estimates are notoriously optimistic. He likes to challenge his employees with impossible targets.

This one is driven by orbital mechanics.

The prime launch windows for Mars missions are driven by opposition. The closer the planets, the less travel time and the less propellant required for the mission.

According to Universe Today, the next opposition will occur on July 27, 2018. The distance between the two planets will be 57.6 million kilometers (35.8 million miles). That's one of the closest oppositions in modern times; according to the article, the closest was in 2003, at a distance of 56 million kilometers.

The next opposition will be on October 13, 2020. That distance will be 62.1 million kilometers (38.6 million miles).

No wonder Elon is in a hurry.

NASA has released an amended copy of its unfunded Space Act Agreement with SpaceX. The original agreement was dated December 18, 2014. This copy was amended on April 26, 2016, the day before the SpaceX tweets. The agency will provide SpaceX with technical assistance and access to its deep space telemetry network. SpaceX agrees to share with NASA all its research. No money changes hands.

While NASA struggles to meet a November 2018 target date for launching its Space Launch System rocket Orion capsule on an uncrewed test flight around the Moon, SpaceX may have an uncrewed version of its Red Dragon on the way to Mars — at no cost to NASA.

Political implications abound.

How will the members of Congress who zealously protect SLS continue to rationalize the billions in pork wasted on the program, when SpaceX does it decades earlier for far cheaper?

Even if SpaceX misses the 2018 window, new Mars windows open in the fall of 2020, late 2022 and early 2025. SLS won't have its first crewed SLS flight until about 2022, and that will be a loop of the Orion capsule around the Moon. If SpaceX misses the 2018 window, it's very likely they'll make 2020. By then, commercial crew Dragons will be flying to the International Space Station, proving the ship's worthiness.

It's not too much of a stretch to foresee crews from NASA and other nations aboard a Red Dragon for the 2022 flight, perhaps for a rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat. That could be a demonstration of how Robinson's colony ship might be assembled and utilized with today's technologies.

I'll be watching to see if Congressional porkers try to pass legislation forbidding the private sector from landing on Mars.

They might use Robinson's “Red Mars” as an argument.

Senior Editor Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society tweeted this comment on the Red Dragon announcement:

Ms. Lakdawalla doesn't oppose the mission, but Mars' “pristine” state might be an excuse for SLS porkers to try blocking the mission. The hypocrisy, of course, would be that they'd still be all in favor of a government vehicle doing the mission. But they could claim that the SLS goal of late 2030s for the first NASA landing would allow time for more robotic missions to collect and return “pristine” samples. All those SLS contractors, meanwhile, could cool their heels collecting taxpayer dollars, secure in the knowledge that Congress won't expect them to actually do anything for some time to come.

It's a ridiculous scenario, but the Senate Appropriations Committee just voted to cut funding for Mars landing technology programs to boost the SLS Fiscal Year 2017 budget by $800 million — even though NASA didn't request the money. The chair of the panel's space subcommittee is Richard Shelby (R-AL), a four-time Porker of the Month award winner whose state has the NASA center designing SLS.

Still think it's ridiculous?

Under the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signatory nations are responsible for commercial space activities in their countries. Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization.

As I read that, it could be interpreted as allowing another nation to fly crew on Red Dragon if the U.S. refuses to participate. But the U.S. could block the launch from its territory. So this could get ugly.

In any case, Lakdawalla raises a concern that was heard in the early 1960s after President John F. Kennedy proposed the human lunar spaceflight program on May 25, 1961. Project Ranger spacecraft had to be sterlized by baking them, which may have caused several technical failures with early missions.

For decades, it was thought that Surveyor 3 carried microbes that survived sterlization and then landed on the Moon. That was debunked in May 2011. Researchers examining Surveyor 3 parts returned by the Apollo 12 crew apparently contaminated the parts themselves.

All that sterilization didn't matter once the Apollo astronauts arrived. They left 96 bags of bodily wastes on the Moon at their landing sites, to reduce launch weight. So much for purity.

With Elon Musk in a rush to make the July 2018 launch window, another race against time will be to stay one step of Congress, which may try to find a way to ground Red Dragon.

The Martians in The War of the Worlds weren't concerned about Earth bugs. Contamination killed the space invaders. Should we return the favor?


  1. I don't see a Republican controlled Congress blocking Musk from landing on Mars. 2018 will be tough. But Musk might be able to get it done. The Moon should be a piece of cake.

  2. Another awesome article Stephen as always!!!