Frequently Asked Questions
- How are you planning to reach Mars?
- How hard is it to land on the Martian surface?
- Where will you build the settlement?
- What's the most challenging aspect of settling Mars?
- Do you think you'll find life there?
- Even if life is discovered, how do we know it's not from Earth?
- What is terraformation?
- How big will Virgle City get?
- How'd you learn all this stuff?
- I have a comment to make/question to ask/objection to raise/insult to hurl regarding one of your brilliant/intriguing/misinformed/inadequate/stupid answers listed above.
- Okay, c'mon, seriously -- is this Virgle thing for real?
How are you planning to reach Mars?
During the first couple of decades Virgle will use standard technology of the day - chemical rockets to ferry cargo and crews to Mars. As the bootstrap plan stands today, in order to reach Mars (once the tri-module is assembled in LEO) the Virgle 1’s cruise stage will start a burn for insertion into a lunar trajectory and then back toward Earth for final insertion into a modified Hohmann Transfer Orbit. This multi-day round trip will use a variant of the Oberth effect, the Krasnokutskaya periapsis maneuver, to increase the final Earth-to-Mars transfer velocity through a periapsis delta-v burn performed at the closest lunar and subsequent Earth approach, with the additional delta v gained on account of the potential energy from the mass of expended propellant. The total useful mass sent this way to Mars will be 569 metric tons, meaning (obviously) that it will take four launches to complete the assembly. The design does allow for easy reconfiguration for varying payload capacities and transfer duration times. This round trip is also a final test and verification of the cruise configuration, assuring mission support that all systems are running within their nominal values. The design also provides for several orbital abort modes, decreasing significantly the probability of any mission losing a payload, human or otherwise.
How hard is it to land on the Martian surface?
Getting to Mars is actually (relatively) easy; it's landing that's tricky. In order to get to Mars the Virgle ships will need to build up enough delta v that when we reach the planet we'll be traveling on the order of 3 miles per second, with a quite heavy ship. Recall your high school physics: kinetic energy rises with the square of speed, and all this energy has to go back to zero when we land. One way might be to use atmospheric friction to slow down -- but the Martian atmosphere is so thin that we won't have enough altitude to slow down fast enough to avoid crashing. So our mission plan will have to employ a combination of technologies to land the staging, mission and crew vehicles, including biconics, split body flaps, feathered reentries and vectored impulse breaking.
Where will you build the settlement?
Our landing site is located on Lunae Planum on the northwest side of Kasei Valles. Lunae Planum marks the transition between the high Tharsis rise, a giant volcanic bulge, and the northern lowland plains. This region shows many signs of significant crustal deformation and other structures that are likely caused by ice. Scientists have hypothesized that this area's valleys and ridges (called "fretted terrain") may have developed as icy debris flowed onto the northern plains eons ago, during the great Martian flood epoch. It's an ideal place for our settlement, because of the likelihood of both subsurface water and nearby lava tubes and pits; mild weather (in Martian terms) due to its proximity to the equator; and proximity to Kasei Valles, which, after terraformation, will be highly attractive shorefront property. The Virgle 1 should settle down not far from Chryse Planitia, the Plains of Gold, where the Viking 1 spacecraft landed on July 20, 1976.
What's the most challenging aspect of settling Mars?
Project Virgle has many challenging aspects, from the need for technologies that can deal with low temperatures and highly dusty terrains bathed in debilitating ultraviolet radiation to the insanely complex logistics of maintaining a viable food chain, heavy manufacturing and a scalable Earth-Mars transport system. But, as is the case for human civilization on Earth, Virgle's long term success (or grisly, horrific failure) will depend to a large degree on a single linchpin: Energy. We'll need to produce and manage enough energy to sustain the initial missions and begin in-situ resource utilization and fabrication and the expansion of the initial settlements.
Our energy budget will consist of three major sources:
- Solar photo-voltaic arrays and wind turbines, because of their initial lower energy density, will be used to feed smaller subsystems and backup units.
- The initial Virgle launches will also carry compact chemical plants for producing methane for rocket fuel (to fuel the ERV and Mars rovers) and water (to fuel humans) using the so-called Sabatier process, which combines hydrogen brought from Earth with CO2 from the Martian atmosphere to produce methane and water (4H2 + CO2 ---> CH4 + 2H2O), which in turn can be electrolyzed to produce breathable oxygen and more hydrogen to continue the cycle.
- Methane and direct and indirect solar energy can sustain the crew for awhile, but there's no energy option capable of scaling our mission to the level of a viable settlement other than nuclear -- specifically, a pebble bed reactor plant combining a C02-cooled core and novel fuel packaging that dramatically reduces complexity while improving safety.
Do you think you'll find life there?
Maybe. We know that in the past, the surface of Mars was covered with water, had a thicker atmosphere and volcanic activity, and was much warmer than it is today -- all conditions in which life could have developed. Scientists have also observed, on one Martian meteorite collected in the Antarctic, strange features that might, or might not, be organic in origin.
If life does exist on Mars today, it's almost certain to be primitive, i.e. bacterial, and it's almost certain not to exist on the planet surface, which is currently baked in UV radiation. However, since ice and perhaps water could exist a few meters below the surface, it's possible that life exists there today in these spots. Also, new data suggest the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Since atmospheric methane is destroyed by solar radiation, it isn't clear where all this new methane would be coming from.
Project Virgle's primary concern, though, is not the search for life on Mars, but the creation of a self-sufficient human colony there. Our outpost, however, will naturally be a great place for geologists and egzobiologists to study the question.
Even if life is discovered, how do we know it's not from Earth?
Good question. Life on Mars could indeed be from Earth. "Planetary transfer" theory suggests that early in both planets' histories, material from the frequent meteorite strikes could have been ejected from Earth and sent towards Mars. So yes, Earth could have theoretically seeded life on Mars (or vice versa; we could all be "Martians" in that sense).
What is of greater concern to the Virgle team is to develop the Mars settlement observing the so-called PP (planetary protection) protocols, which call for special attention to, and protection of, areas of Mars where life is most likely to exist today, or have existed in the past. We take this responsibility seriously and will consistently act so as to protect any possible sites and to research them as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Can Mars be terraformed?
Terraformation is the process of turning the hostile Martian environment into one more hospitable for life, i.e. making it more like Earth (terra). Mars is smaller and less massive than the Earth, and while we know that water flowed on its surface in the past, because of its weaker gravity the poor planet eventually lost much of its atmosphere and greenhouse gases, thus cooling the planet and reducing its surface pressure to a level comparable to the pressure 20 miles above Earth. This has two consequences today: humans have to wear pressurized suits while outside their hab units, and liquid water can't exist on the surface.
The aim of terraformation is to warm the planet, melt the subsurface water reservoirs and ultimately increase atmospheric pressure and temperature to levels where humans don't need a pressure suit (though we'll still need to use supplementary oxygen respirators for at least the first couple hundred years). There are several proposed terraforming schemes, from smashing asteroids rich in volatiles into the surface of Mars to using huge orbital mirrors to melt the frozen CO2 caps at the Martian poles. Our approach is likely to be the introduction of halo-carbon gases (CFCs) and water vapour into the atmosphere, in part with energy concentrated from mirrors manufactured on the Martian moon of Phobos. These methods should be enough to allow advanced plants to propagate across Mars; these plants would then take over the job and start releasing oxygen in their own right. In a matter of several decades, such an approach could transform Mars from its current dry and frozen state into a warm and slightly moist planet capable of supporting life.
How big will Virgle City get?
That depends on the time frame you're asking about. Let's say, 100 years. Like any new colony, Virgle City will start small. Once the initial equipment, habs, return vehicles, greenhouses, communications and power have been staged -- i.e. the alpha assembly completed -- and the infrastructure has been tested and confirmed operational, we'll send the first crewed missions, followed, of course, by many, many more crewed missions. Our current estimates place the sustained population growth rate at close to 9%, initially due mostly to immigration. The first mission will carry 12 Pioneers. After 10 years this number will grow to 56. After 50 years the colony will number 1,650 settlers (with population growth shifting to people actually born on the planet, and thus truly having the right to call themselves "Martians"). After 100 years, we estimate that Virgle City and its surrounding settlements should boast a population of 103,521 colonists.
How'd you learn all this stuff?
Reading. Surfing. Studying. Cramming. Arguing. Improvising. Special thanks to the brilliant minds at the invaluable Mars Society
I have a comment to make/question to ask/objection to raise/insult to hurl regarding one of your brilliant/intriguing/misinformed/inadequate/stupid answers listed above.
Cool. Please visit us at Virgle Mission Control, where Mars geeks like you (and us) will be able to discuss various aspects of the colonization of the Red Planet to our hearts' content.
Okay, come on -- seriously. Is this Virgle thing for real?