The Mars One mission doesn't look very promising on paper. Around 200,000 people have applied to fight for a spot on this one-way trip to the red planet that will be broadcast to the world as a reality TV series—a challenging mission profile as far as financial, technical, and human factors are concerned. But the company behind the mission is forging ahead. In advance of the first manned crew, Mars One is set to send an unmanned payload in 2018 that will return the first streaming video from the surface of Mars.
Mars One’s goal is to build the first human settlement on the red planet, what they’re calling the best giant leap for mankind. In keeping with the Apollo program allusion, Mars One’s use of the red planet as a stepping stone on humanity’s way out into the Solar System is designed to inspire the next generation of students and children to believe that anything is possible. The first mission will be a four-man crew, and additional crews will follow roughly every two years; favorable launch windows to Mars come once every 26 months. And like Apollo before it, Mars One is planning to send unmanned missions before its manned flights, and the wheels are in motion to get this first step off the ground. Sort of.
Mars One has selected its main contractors for this first unmanned mission: Lockheed Martin, a longtime player in the space age, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). This mission will see a robotic lander built by Lockheed and a communications satellite built by Surrey. That’s good, for both space exploration generally and for Mars One.
According to the preliminary design, the lander will be able to scoop up Martian soil with a robotic arm, much like NASA’s Phoenix mission did. There will be a host of other experiments on board the lander as well, all designed to feed into Mars One’s eventual manned mission. An onboard water experiment will extract water from the Martian soil. A power experiment will see thin-film solar panels deployed on the surface. A camera will make continuous video recordings. The lander will also carry an as-of-yet unknown payload, determined by the winner of a worldwide university challenge Mars One will launch next year.
The satellite portion of this mission will stay in orbit, providing high bandwidth communications for the lander. This is how the video recorded on the surface will be broadcast back to Earth, and how other mission telemetry and data will be sent to mission scientists.
Executive Chairman of SSTL Sir Martin Sweeting is excited by the prospect of the company’s role in the mission. “The commercialisation of space exploration is vital in order to bring down costs and schedules and fuel progress,” he said. “This study gives us an unprecedented opportunity to take our tried and tested approach and apply it to Mars One’s imaginative and exhilarating challenge of sending humans to Mars through private investment.”
The idea behind this mission is to demonstrate some of the key technologies that the first Mars One crew will need while they live out their days on Mars. As Arno Wielders, co-founder and CTO of Mars One, said, this 2018 mission will bring Mars One one step closer to reality proving that crews can produce water in situ on the red planet. And the live video feed “from the surface camera will bring Mars closer to people on Earth. And with the STEM education challenges and university competitions planned on our lander, we will enthuse a whole new generation for Mars exploration, even before our first crew lands.”
But it’s not all good news. Both Lockheed Martin and SSTL, for the time being, have only been contracted to develop mission concept studies. That leaves a lot of work, including hardware development and actual construction, to happen before the launch date that is now less than five years away. That’s not a lot of time. And it’s worth noting that this launch date has already slipped once. This 2018 launch date for the first unmanned payload is actually two years later than Mars One original schedule.
This latest from Mars One again has to be read with a grain of salt. Specific details remain scant, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next couple of years because the early stages of programs that are this ambitious and audacious are the most important. But who knows. Maybe Mars One will surprise us all with a stunning success and we'll be watching cosmonauts fight over whose turn it is to clean the food rehydrator streamed live to Earth before we even know it.