NASA’s plans for Mars mission outpost powering ahead

15 Mar 2017

Room with a view. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

NASA’s plan for an outpost between Earth and the moon is trundling along, with key decisions expected on Martian travel in the coming months.

Space travel’s 21st-century itinerary has been chock-full of stunning achievements.

There was a successful landing of a spacecraft onto a moving comet. There was the photographic excursion to Pluto. Water was discovered on various moons and then Mars.

Solar readings are more accurate than ever and satellite technology, along with a more cost-efficient way of transporting goods to and from the space station, means that mission turnarounds are quicker, optimism is higher and hopes of colonisation beyond Earth continue to rise.

China is looking at the moon, with plans for an installation on the dark side of the lunar landscape. Jupiter and Saturn’s moons are also in focus, and more and more researchers eye monumental discoveries on the latter’s Enceladus.

And Mars? Well, Mars remains the apple of the astronomer’s eye.

Astronauts will one day set foot on Mars. Image: Alones/Shutterstock

Astronauts will one day set foot, and strut, on Mars. Image: Alones/Shutterstock

Always a favourite

The interest in a Martian landscape, captured brilliantly by 1960 and ’70s science fiction, has again exploded into prominence, thanks to last year’s discovery that yes, evidence of water is everywhere.

But how will we get there to dig around and find out? It seems that every space agency is trying to find a way.

Stage one of ESA’s ExoMars mission was completed in October, when the Trace Gas Orbiter reached the Red Planet and sent a rover down to check out the surface.

Schiaparelli, though, carried a bit too much speed and crashed, with researchers back on Earth fairly cut up about the substantial failure, wrapped in an overall success.

Stage two will launch at the end of the decade. However, our focus is firmly fixed on NASA.


This week, it emerged that NASA was moving forward with plans for a cislunar ‘gateway’ outpost for future human missions, with decisions about how to develop it expected in the coming months.

Cislunar means between the Earth and the moon, forming the base part of what could well become a network of staging posts in our gradual trip to the Red Planet.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium earlier this month, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, revealed that these outposts are already under investigation.

“We’ve really got to start making some decisions about what that cargo is, whom we partner with and how we build the equipment,” he said.

“You’re going to see us, over the next several months, starting to make some pretty crisp decisions about what goes on those flights.”

The outpost will ultimately support space travel beyond anything crewed spaceships have ever undergone before.

The International Space Station’s 12-month mission, completed last year, was one of the primary projects to investigate just how these outposts might work, providing an invaluable investigation into how the human body can manage a lengthy stay in space.


Another boon to hopes of a Mars colony came this week, with news that potatoes could sustain human habitation on the planet.

In the film The Martian, Matt Damon plays a botanist stranded on Mars who survives by building a habitat to grow potatoes in greenhouse-like conditions.

According to new research from the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, it might have just been easier to grow them outside, on the Martian surface.

Radiation woes

However, managing to survive extreme exposure to radiation remains the biggest concern to scientists involved in these investigations.

According to the new research from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, mice transplanted with human stem cells to measure the potential effects of deep space radiation on our species have not reacted well to a series of tests.

Unfortunately for hopeful colonists, the team found that there was a notable increase in the appearance of leukaemia cells when the subjects were exposed to the same type of radiation that would be experienced by astronauts en route to Mars.

With a distance of more than 200m km to our nearest planetary neighbour, a constant bombardment of this radiation would have astronauts sick before they even arrived after the three-year journey.

A solution to this problem is needed, though plans for an outpost suggest that NASA is hopeful it will be overcome some day soon.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic