Human exploration of Mars is already on the agenda for our space agencies. At the second to last session of the season for Mardis de l’espace (Space Tuesdays), two engineers will focus on the technological perspectives for spacecraft propulsion and prove that this project is not merely a matter of science fiction.
This article is a translation of "Des nouveaux types de propulsion aux premiers pas sur Mars". It was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.
The success of the Curiosity rover mission highlights the mastery of engineers and researchers over space technologies. Now, they’re looking ahead: “The logical next step after walking on the moon is Mars,” affirms Richard Heidmann, engineer in propulsion and founder of the French association Planète Mars. Before setting foot on the Red Planet, it is necessary to reevaluate the propulsion performance of our spaceships. Join us on May 21st at the Café du Pont-Neuf in Paris for the second to last “Space Tuesday” of the season, dedicated to the topic “How will our descendants travel into space?” Two experts in spacecraft propulsion will explain how science fiction will, once again, become reality.
Challenges of a trip to Mars.
Improving propulsion performance
Taking the project for human exploration of Mars as a starting point is a good way to question today’s technologies. According to Richard Heidmann, “We have all the required technologies, but it’s still not going to be that easy.” Elisa Cliquet Moreno, expert in propulsion systems with the CNES space launcher department (Directions des Lanceurs) in Paris, adds that using the current type of propulsion, without any other specific innovation compared to the Apollo missions, “would not be reasonable.” If we really followed the program design that let us send the first humans to the Moon, we would need not just one, but a dozen launchers similar to Saturn V. “In all, we would need to assemble over 1000 tons in Earth orbit before leaving for Mars. That’s more than twice the weight of the International Space Station!” explains Elisa Cliquet Moreno. More than 40 years have passed since Apollo, and engineers have reached the limits of traditional chemical propulsion. “If we really want to improve propulsion performance, we need to start from scratch and create a real technological breakthrough,” she claims. Aside from propulsion, other ingenious solutions are being investigated to make the trip to Mars more “reasonable”, such as developing aerocapture and producing propellants – fuel and combustive agents – on the spot for the return trip. Combined with these technologies, the current methods of propulsion could suffice.
Mission to Mars
“Sending people to Mars is a project that makes a comeback every 10 years,” explains Richard Heidmann. NASA plans to develop this project by 2030-2035, but a lot of people believe that it can be achieved technically long before. While the decision-making is in the hands of the political sphere, celebrities like Buzz Aldrin actively campaign for human conquest of Mars.
A number of projects can be envisioned, like putting people in orbit around Mars to control rovers directly; sending humans to explore the planet and take samples; and, in the longer term, establishing a permanent scientific base on Mars. From here, we’re only a step away from colonizing the planet Mars!
Artist’s view of humans working side by side with robots on Mars – Sources: NASA
Human exploration would not only make it possible to develop scientific knowledge but also contribute to the economic and innovative development of the participating nations. Richard Heidmann goes even further, explaining the geostrategic and social impact of a mission of such magnitude. “A great space project like this would give more weight to the participating countries in international negotiations. Furthermore, great projects enhance young people’s enthusiasm for scientific and technical jobs.”
Which technologies still need to be developed before sending humans to Mars? More generally, what will the propulsion concepts of the future be: solar sail, laser, thermonuclear or electrical propulsion? Will future engines make a trip to Mars in 39 days possible, as an American astronaut and physicist claims? To get a glimpse into the future of space conquest, join us at the Café du Pont-Neuf on May 21st, or follow the session on Twitter via the hashtag #CNESTweetup, and get to know two experts in propulsion, Elisa Cliquet Moreno and Richard Heidmann!