Mars Astronauts: Don't Care Where, Just Don't Kill Us

When considering landing sites on Mars, NASA astronauts say they don’t care where they go -- just don't kill them.

When considering landing sites on Mars, NASA astronauts say they don't care where they go -- just don't kill them.

"Number 1 is safety -- is the site going to kill us," NASA astronaut Stan Love said at a workshop to vet potential landing sites for human missions to Mars.

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For starters, Love recommends scratching high-latitude destinations off the candidate list. Far north and south of the equator, radio contact with Mars-orbiting satellites will make communications challenging. Crews also will have a tougher time launching from high latitudes for the return trip to Earth.

"You get a little ascent boost launching to the east with planetary rotation. You go to high latitudes and you get less of that. It might be just a couple of hundred meters per second," Love said, but if the ascent burn is that short "it's a terrible day. It means you're probably coming back down."

High latitudes also are colder, which is harder on equipment. Plus, the lighting is poor, with short days in the winter and a low-lying, glaring summertime sun.

Another big safety concern is dust.

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"We hate dust. It's not going to blow your ship over, and it's not going to throw pebbles around at you. But it's horrible for landing. It's bad for your airlocks. It's bad for your spacesuits. It's bad for all your mechanisms. It's bad for your solar panels. If we can land in a place that is less susceptible to dust storms and doesn't have a lot of free dust around to get mobilized by our activity that would be a good thing," Love said.

Boulders and steep slopes should be avoided, for both landing and for driving rovers.

Once a crew is living on Mars, the biggest factor impacting how productive they will be is how much time they will have to spend making sure they stay safe.

"The safer and more temperate the landing site, the more work we can do there, the less time we have to spend making sure that we're going to be safe and the less time we have to spend maintaining systems that keep us safe in an adverse environment," Love said.

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Even in ideal circumstances, astronauts will have to spend a big chunk of their day maintaining their bodies and equipment, leaving around five hours a day for science and exploration activities.

"Just keeping yourself alive takes a lot of time and effort. We know this from the space station. We know this from working in Antarctica. You have to get enough sleep. You have to feed yourself. You have to keep your body clean. If you're in a group, you have to spend some time coordinating what work you're doing, especially if you're having to work with a distant mission control. The radio isn't going to work too well because of the time delay, but they're still going to send you a big pile of stuff to read every morning and then you've got to send reports back," Love said.

NASA does not yet know if Mars crews will have to spend time exercising, like astronauts do on the International Space Station, and if so, how much.

"Exercise is still a question mark. On the space station, folks are exercising 2.5 hours every single day and even that is not completely removing the muscle and bone loss that long-duration astronauts experience. We don't know whether the three-eights gravity you have on Mars is going to be just fine ... or if it is going to be as bad as zero-g," Love said.

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Add in sleep and a bit of off-duty time and 17 hours of the day are gone. Part of the remaining seven hours will need to be spent operating the Mars habitat's systems. In contrast, space station operations are handled by ground-based control teams.

"We can't do that on Mars because it's too far away. We don't have the continuous communication coverage and we don't have the immediate feedback that your command got on board," Love said.

In the end, "you'll probably get five hours a day of real work out of everybody," he said. "It's unfortunate, but it's going to be hard to make a meaningful improvement in that, in my opinion."

NASA hopes to begin flying astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s. The agency is looking at 120-mile wide "exploration zones" that would be the base for a series of human expeditions to Mars. Ideally, sites would be safe and scientifically interesting and have resources, such as water, that could be tapped to support the crews.

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"I have complete confidence the community will come together and find sites that work for everybody," said Greg Williams, NASA deputy associate administrator.

A decision about where to go, or even a short-list of potential sites, will take years. But NASA wants to start the process while its nine-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other Mars satellites are still available for studies.

The First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars was held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston Oct. 27-30.

Artist's depiction of astronauts working on Mars.

Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut working for a year in space on the International Space Station. Does he have the stuff of "The Martian,"

the highly anticipated Matt Damon movie to be released on Oct. 2

, chronicling the life of a stranded astronaut on the surface of Mars? While Kelly certainly isn't on his own in space, much of the work he is doing would be useful for a trip to Mars. Here are some of the things the astronaut is working on that Mark Watney (Damon's character in "The Martian") would appreciate.

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The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, and we are just past the peak of one of those cycles. The solar peak is a time when the sun unleashes more flares and coronal mass ejections (charged particles). When these particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, they can produce spectacular auroras.

But they also can give astronauts a higher dose of radiation.

The space station monitors radiation levels for astronauts close to Earth; in fact, one of the reasons Kelly was selected for this mission was he did not exceed the lifetime radiation levels allowed for astronauts. Radiation is expected to jump for those travelling outside of Earth's magnetic influence. Mars doesn't have much magnetic field to speak of, and the Curiosity mission is monitoring radiation levels on the surface to get more information for future human missions.

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Working in space is a harsh business. You're busy all the time, you're stuck in a small environment with several people, and your family and friends are far away. NASA keeps close tabs on its astronauts' psychological health through measures such as doctor calls with astronauts, and

having the astronauts keep journals

during their missions. This will especially be important for Mars, as astronauts will need to be even more self-sufficient due to the time delay in communications between planets. NASA has

an ongoing comm delays study

for astronauts doing simple tasks; these tasks and their effects on astronauts will be studied as the station work continues.

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Microgravity is hard on your body. NASA has its astronauts exercise for a couple of hours a day, which seems to help counteract bone loss for missions of six months. But what about a year, or longer? That's part of what Kelly's mission is supposed to answer. Bones aren't the only things to worry about, either. Muscles shrink, eye pressure increases, your sense of balance changes. Even your immune system may be affected, something that

NASA is also looking at

in detail. So while we think of astronauts as boldly doing spacewalks and experiments on station, understand that they are also part of the experiment. Their very health is being watched for the benefit of future space missions.

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While Watney develops a certain affection for potatoes, Kelly recently posted a picture of himself looking pretty pleased next to a floating pile of fruit. It turns out that little comforts do go a long way for astronaut morale, and any nutritionist would tell you that a varied diet of healthy foods is good for you -- not just the freeze-dried stuff the Apollo astronauts survived on during their missions. NASA has an experiment in place to see how well

astronauts are meeting nutritional requirements for their work on station

, and also for their long-term health.

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Astronauts are very tied to shipments from Earth right now in terms of eating ... but that is changing in a small way.

Thanks to an experiment called Veggie

, astronauts got to taste some food grown aboard the space station this summer. Lettuce, of course, does not an entire meal make. But as the movie Contact (1997) reminds us, it's through "small moves" that we learn about science. The hope is eventually this experiment will translate into a better way of harvesting crops beyond Earth. For Mars, we're even wondering how viable the soil could be to support plants.

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"#ILookLikeAnEngineer on @space_station. Also a scientist, medical officer, farmer & at times a plumber," Kelly wrote with this image in August. What's more, he has to do all those things in a small space. Since every pound hoisted to space costs money, astronauts are accustomed to working in claustrophobic quarters. But NASA, concerned about its astronauts' efficiency and happiness, also has an

experiment that is supposed to look at how best to construct a living space for astronauts

. That way, the habitats designed for Mars will be suitable for long-term living.

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During a recent Twitter chat, Kelly was asked if he wanted to go to Mars. He said yes, as long as he could return. Getting to Mars and back will take hundreds of days of transportation, let alone the time on the surface. The gravity on Mars is less than 40% what we experience here on Earth. And unless spacecraft design changes substantially, the astronauts will be in microgravity on the way there and back. NASA has an experiment to see

how well (or badly) astronauts work on the surface shortly after landing

, an experiment that Kelly is participating in. This will be important not only for returning to Earth, but seeing how well a crew can get adapted to Mars after being in microgravity for the transit.

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