MIT Students Predict Short Run for Mars One Pioneers

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MIT researchers studying the Mars One plan say astronauts on the red planet would have only 68 days before life support systems would fail. (Photo: HelenField/Shutterstock)

Of all the things that could jeopardize humanity's triumphant colonization of Mars, the most deadly is the one thing we can't do without.

MIT graduate student researchers, who were studying the Mars One plan to send amateur astronauts on a one-way, televised trip to colonize the red planet, discovered some serious flaws in the organization's surface habitat strategy. And unless someone invents the technology needed to remedy the issue, it will only take 68 days for the first four crew members to perish.

Mars One sketch of living quarters

The problem lies in the cramped and restrictive space capsules the crew members will inhabit once on Mars' surface. The plan as it currently stands is for the crew to grow crops — both for their food and to provide more oxygen. As the MIT researchers discovered, however, the selected crops (lettuce, soybean, wheat, sweet potato, and peanut) could unhinge the balance of gases needed to produce a breathable atmosphere — meaning runaway oxygen and depleted nitrogen levels would kill everyone.

Adding insult to injury, the days leading up to the end will be moist. Really moist.

"Supplying all food by growing plants in the same environment as the crew was found to increase the habitat relative humidity level towards 100 percent, beyond a comfortable limit for the crew," the report stated.

To avoid an early death, the researchers recommend either placing the crops in a separate capsule (a costly addition) or the inclusion of a system that can vent the oxygen into space. They also predict that the cost of the mission for the first crew alone would soar to $4.5 billion, with 15 Falcon Heavy launches needed to deliver the necessary supplies.

In response to the study, Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp derided the student's findings, saying their "limited experience results incorrect conclusions." He also pointed to technology that already exists to vent excess oxygen.

"There are many problems between today and landing humans on Mars, but oxygen removal is certainly not one of them," he added.

In an insightful Reddit AMA, the authors of study responded to Lansdorp's comments, saying that while he's essentially correct, it's unknown how the technology would function in space.

"The process of developing a technology that can be used on Earth into one that can operate reliably in an extraterrestrial environment is very involved," they write. "We want to be clear, however, that we are not saying that this is impossible — instead (as noted in the paper), we mention that the implementation of an O2 removal system would require new technology development in order to prepare the Earth-bound technology for use on Mars."

For now, the Mars One program continues to move forward with some 705 potential Mars settlers still in the running out of the original 200,000 applications. "We’re incredibly excited to start the next phase of round 2, where we begin to better understand our candidates who aspire to take such a daring trip," said Mars One Chief Medical Officer Norbert Kraft. "They will have to show their knowledge, intelligence, adaptability and personality."

As of right now, the first payloads for the Mars One mission are expected to launch in 2018, with a human trip on track for 2025.