Elon Musk wants to build a “self-sustaining city” on Mars. Experts aren't convinced

Would you board a spaceship built by this man? Elon Musk last week. Image: Getty.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, has released new details of his vision to colonise parts of the solar system, including Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. His gung ho plans – designed to make humans a multi-planetary species in case civilisation collapses – include launching flights to Mars as early as 2023.

The details, just published in the journal New Space, are certainly ambitious. But are they realistic? As someone who works on solar system exploration, and the European Space Agency’s new Mars rover in particular, I find them incredible in several ways.

First of all, let’s not dismiss Musk as a Silicon Valley daydreamer. He has had tremendous success with rocket launches to space already. His paper proposes several interesting ways of trying to get to Mars and beyond – and he aims to build a “self-sustaining city” on the red planet.

Musk outlining initial plans in 2016.

The idea depends on getting cheaper access to space – the paper says the cost of trips to Mars must be lowered by “five million per cent”. An important part of this will be reusable space technology. This is an excellent idea that Musk is already putting into practice with impressive landings of rocket stages back on Earth – undoubtedly a huge technological step.


Making fuel on Mars and stations beyond it is something he also proposes, to make the costs feasible. Experiments towards this are underway, demonstrating that choosing the right propellant is key. The MOXIE experiment on the NASA 2020 rover will investigate whether we can produce oxygen from atmospheric CO2 on Mars. This may be possible. But Musk would like to make methane as well – it would be cheaper and more reusable. This is a tricky reaction which requires a lot of energy.

Yet, so far, it’s all fairly doable. But the plans then get more and more incredible. Musk wants to launch enormous spaceships into orbit around Earth where they will be refuelled several times using boosters launched from the ground while waiting to head to Mars. Each will be designed to take 100 people and Musk wants to launch 1,000 such ships in the space of 40 to 100 years, enabling a million people to leave Earth.

There would also be interplanetary fuel-filling stations on bodies such as Enceladus, Europa and even Saturn’s moon Titan, where there may have been, or may still be, life. Fuel would be produced and stored on these moons. The aim of these would be to enable us to travel deeper into space to places such as the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud.

The “Red Dragon” capsule is proposed as a potential lander on such missions, using propulsion in combination with other technology rather than parachutes as most Mars missions do. Musk plans to test such a landing on Mars in 2020 with an unmanned mission. But it’s unclear whether it’s doable and the fuel requirements are huge.

Pie in the sky?

There are three hugely important things that Musk misses or dismisses in the paper. Missions such as the ExoMars 2020 rover – and plans to return samples to Earth – will search for signs of life on Mars. And we must await the results before potentially contaminating Mars with humans and their waste. Planetary bodies are covered by “planetary protection” rules to avoid contamination and it’s important for science that all future missions follow them.

Musk inspecting a heat shield at the SpaceX factory. Image: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr/creative commons.

Another problem is that Musk dismisses one of the main technical challenges of being on the Martian surface: the temperature. In just two sentences he concludes:

It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

In reality, the temperature on Mars drops from about 0°C during the day to nearly -120°C at night. Operating in such low temperatures is already extremely difficult for small landers and rovers. In fact, it is an issue that has been solved with heaters in the design for the 300kg ExoMars 2020 rover – but the amount of power required would likely be a show-stopper for a “self-sustaining city”.

Musk doesn’t give any details for how to warm the planet up or compress the atmosphere – each of which are enormous engineering challenges. Previously, science fiction writers have suggested “terraforming” – possibly involving melting its icecaps. This is not only changing the environment forever but would also be challenging in that there is no magnetic field on Mars to help retain the new atmosphere that such manipulation would create. Mars has been losing its atmosphere gradually for 3.8bn years – which means it would be hard to keep any such warmed-up atmosphere from escaping into space.

The final major problem is that there is no mention of radiation beyond Earth’s magnetic cocoon. The journey to and life on Mars would be vulnerable to potentially fatal cosmic rays from our galaxy and from solar flares. Forecasting for solar flares is in its infancy. With current shielding technology, just a round-trip manned mission to Mars would expose the astronauts to up to four times the advised career limits for astronauts of radiation. It could also harm unmanned spacecraft. Work is underway on predicting space weather and developing better shielding. This would mitigate some of the problems – but we are not there yet.

Europa. Image: NASA.

For missions further afield, there are also questions about temperature and radiation in using Europa and Enceladus as filling stations – with no proper engineering studies assessing them. These moons are bathed in the strongest radiation belts in the solar system. What’s more, I’d question whether it is helpful to see these exciting scientific targets, arguably even more likely than Mars to host current life, as “propellant depots”.

The plans for going further to the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud with humans is firmly in the science fiction arena – it is simply too far and we have no infrastructure. In fact, if Musk really wants to create a new home for humans, the moon may be his best bet – it’s closer after all, which would make it much cheaper.

The ConversationThat said, aiming high usually means we will achieve something – and Musk’s latest plans may help pave the way for later exploration.

Andrew Coates is professor of physics and deputy director (solar system) at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.