A month on Mars

The year is 2035, and the new space race is well underway.

Jeffrey Aussat straightened his back under the Martian sun. He stretched as he leaned onto the handle of his space-shovel, raising his hand to wipe the sweat from his tired brow. Of course this made him feel stupid, as it had every time since they landed. His clumsy hand, gloved up and looking for all the world just like the hand of Gozer the Destructor, stops short as it meets the clear glass of his visor. Jeff curses himself at the unavoidable fact that, despite nearly a (Mars) month since they arrived on the spaceship Clever Reference, he still couldn’t get used to the simplest things. Like the need to have this damn fish-bowl on every time he goes outside.

Jeff curses himself again as his shovel snaps in half. Losing focus during retrospection and self-pity, he somehow must have applied an off-axis load onto the carbon fiber handle. A few moments respite for his weary, microgravity-weakened bones, had turned into disaster. On Mars, the gravity may be slight but the days sure are long, but they don’t tell you that in the brochure.

Jeff now found himself up a recurring slope lineae without a planetary-protection cleared drill bit. Jeff and his partner had started out their ‘stead with 32 shovels, and in just a few weeks every single on had fallen prey to some combination of user error and catastrophic failure. Every building in their inflatable homestead creation kit was designed to be placed underground, damping temperature swings and blocking some of the deadly radiation pouring down on Mars surface. Specifically, the buildings needed to have a huge amount of ground piled on top of them to keep the humans alive, and without a working shovel they couldn’t move regolith quickly enough to make their new home habitable. Due to some shady logistics, they wouldn’t receive their “mule”- a heavy lifting robot- until the next colonization flotilla arrived, roughly two years on.

Jeff holds the transmit button on his radio as he slumps down in the shade of his space-wheelbarrow, half-piled high with regolith and also made from carbon fiber. “Becky, I think we have a problem,” he said.

After a short intermission of static, Becky replied with a sigh, “You’ve got a leak in your suit again, don’t you?” Getting used to the strange Martian gravity after playing zero-G ping pong for three months, Jeff had often ended up tumbling down to hands and knees during the first weeks of their stay, a stress the suits were well-designed to withstand. Repeated joint flexion of the suit fabric with embedded Martian dust, however, rapidly opened up a community of near-microscopic pinholes that were almost impossible to find and patch.

“No, not this time. It’s the shovel.”

“The last shovel?”

Jeff paused. “… Yeah.” This was bad. They would have to resort to much less efficient regolith maneuvering techniques, working only at night and sleeping under the raw materials in the shed to limit radiation exposure. After the recurring problem with clumsiness-induced suit leaks, Becky’s patience was sure to be running out on him. The trip over had already placed enough stress on their relationship. “Is the 3D printer working yet? Maybe we can print a new one, or print a repair splint for one of the frayed shovel shafts.”

Silence followed for nearly a minute. She was either checking the printer status or seriously considering filing flight plans to leave. “I’m afraid the printer’s still down. The print nozzle was damaged during the last maintenance test.”

“Oh.” Jeff replied. He didn’t finish converting the thought running through his head to speech: so we’re screwed then.

“No problem. I’ll order a fresh crate from Amazon.”

“What?” This was either a joke, a hoax, or lifesaving news.

“Check your email. They’ve opened up a new distribution center on Phobos. Bezos built it up and staffed it without telling anybody.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No joke. I need a few extra items to qualify for free shipping, do you need anything?”

“I’m sure we can think of something. I’ll return to the compound with the regolith I’ve collected and we can run an inventory.” Jeff tossed the broken shovel on top of the regolith in the enormous wheelbarrow. The designers had figured that, if everything on Mars would weigh so much less than on Earth, all the tools should be designed to be that much larger. The result was a suite of construction and farming tools that were cartoonishly two and a half times too large when fully assembled. As Jeff wheeled the barrow around to face the glint from the compound’s solar panels, he felt his mood pick up. They were going to be OK after all.

“There’s something else going on that’s a bit weird.” Becky said.

Jeff skipped a step, catching himself on the wheelbarrow handles to prevent impregnating the knees on his suit with more abrasive dust. “What is it?” he asked.

“You remember that huge rover from 2020?”

Jeff made a vague confirmatory noise “Uh . . . the Scrutiny, was it?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. It’s attacking the water scavenging plant.”

“What? Why? I thought that thing was supposed to be retired by now, parked somewhere near Jezero delta?”

“Well it’s here, and it’s pushing the water plant over. The LEDs are putting out some sort of morse code, I’m still trying to figure it out.” Becky explained.

“How long until it damages the water plant?” Jeff inquired.

“At this rate, probably a couple of weeks. They didn’t move very fast back then.”

Jeff felt the spring return to his step. Two weeks was enough time to contact the mission controllers to get some help debugging the rovers strange behavior. As he realized the problem was tractable, the physical sensation of a weight lifted from his shoulders. Also, the motility assist systems on his suit had finally finished calibrating.

“Too bad they didn’t set up the distro center in time for Mars One.” Jeff joked

“Too soon, Jeff, that’s not funny.” Becky said coldly.

The Mars One mission had ended in a tragicomic maelstrom of cannibalism and incidental lyophilization. The cameras, intended to live-broadcast the travails of the crew around the clock, were among the last systems still running on the capsule. Although the sponsors had long disavowed any relationship to the mission, anyone with a standard transceiver and a darkly morbid curiosity could ping the ship and tune in to the dismal situation. A series of planned challenges/mission planning fiascos ultimately meant they never got onto the correct Mars rendezvous trajectory. In their current orbit, apoapsis would never quite reach Mars orbit, nor would periapsis ever bring them close enough for an earthly recapture. Ironically, what remained of the crew and craft would probably outlast them all. The perfectly preserved astronauts would remained unchanged for millennia in their wayward but stable orbit, like confused Pharaohs circling the portal to the netherworld.

Peanuts to Space


Tonight may be the last chance to get a good view of the stunning green nucleus of Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 for 8 millenia. Treat yourself to a reminder of the vanishingly infinitesmal trail of human life through space and time, hurtling along perched atop a pale blue dot.




Approximate location of C/2014 Q2 from 2015 January 10, obscured by light pollution



Philaephilia n. Temporary obsession with logistically important and risky stage of scientific endeavour and cometary rendezvous.

Don’t worry, the condition is entirely transient

Rivalling the 7 minutes of terror as NASA’s Curiosity rover entered the Martian atmosphere, Philae’s descent onto comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Wednesday as part of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission had the world excited about space again.

Comets don’t have the classic appeal of planets like Mars. The high visibility of Mars missions and moon shots has roots in visions of a Mars covered in seasonal vegetation and full of sexy humans dressed in scraps of leather, and little else. But comets may be much better targets in terms of the scientific benefits. Comets are thought to have added water to early Earth, after the young sun had blasted the substance out to the far reaches of the solar system beyond the realm of the rocky planets. Of course, comets are also of interest for pure novelty: until Philae, humans had never put a machine down on a comet gently. Now the feat has been accomplished three times, albeit a bit awkwardly, with all science instruments surviving two slow bounces and an unplanned landing site. Unfortunate that Philae is limited to only 1.5 hours of sunlight per 12 hour day, but there is some possibility that a last-minute attitude adjustment may have arranged the solar panels a bit more fortuitously.

So if Rosetta’s Philae lander bounced twice, rather than grappling the surface as intended, and landed in a wayward orientation where its solar panels are limited to only 12.5% of nominal sun exposure, how is the mission considered a success?

Most likely, the full significance of the data relayed from Philae via Rosetta will take several months of analysis to uncover. Perhaps some of the experiments will be wholly inconclusive and observational, neither confirming nor denying hypotheses of characteristic structure of comets. For example, it seems unlikely that the MUPUS instrument (i.e. cosmic drill) managed to penetrate a meaningful distance into the comet, and we probably won’t gain much insight concerning the top layers of a comet beyond perhaps a centimetre or so. In contrast, CONSERT may yield unprecedented observations about the interior makeup of a comet.

In science, failures and negative findings are certainly more conclusive, and arguably more preferable, than so-called positive results, despite the selective pressure for the latter in science careers and the lay press. An exception disproves the rule, but a finding in agreement with theory merely “fails to negate” said theory. For example, we now know better than to use nitrocellulose as a vacuum propellant. Lesson learned on that front.

In addition to a something-divided-by-nothing fold increase in knowledge about the specific scenario of attempting a soft landing on a comet, I’d suggest we now know a bit more about the value of autonomy in expeditions where the beck-and-call from mission control to operations obviates real time feedback. Perhaps if Philae had been optimised for adaptability, it would have been able to maintain orientation to the comet surface and give Rosetta and scientists at home a better idea of its (final) resting place after detecting that the touchdown and grapple didn’t go through. Space science is necessarily cautious, but adaptive neural networks and other alternative avenues may prove useful in future missions.

I’ll eagerly await the aftermath, when the experimental and the telemetry data have been further analysed. The kind of space mission where a landing sequence can omit a major step and still have operational success of all scientific instruments on board is the kind of mission that space agencies should focus on. The Rosetta/Philae mission combined key elements of novelty (first soft landing and persistent orbiting of a comet) low cost (comparable to a fewspace shuttle missions), and robustness (grapples didn’t fire, comet bounced and got lost, science still occurred). Perhaps we’ll see continued ventures from international space agencies into novel, science-driven expeditions. Remember, the first scientist on the moon was on the (so far) final manned mission to Luna. Missions in the style of Rosetta may be more effective and valuable on all three of the above points, and are definitely more fundamental in terms of science achieved, than continuous returns to Mars and pushes for manned missions. In a perfect world where space agencies operate in a non-zero sum funding situation along with all the other major challenges faced by human society, we would pursue them all. But realistically, Philae has shown that not only do alternative missions potentially offer more for us to learn in terms ofscience and engineering, but can also enrapture the population in a transcendent endeavour. Don’t stop following the clever madness of humans pursuing their fundamental nature of exploring the universe they live in.

Last week’s links: does running water on Mars matter all that much if the universe is a hologram?

Gaining much publicity after a Nature write-up of pre-publication articles, science has (un)officially justified the existential crisis you had last week by demonstrating that the universe is indistinguishable from a much simpler holographic universe with only one dimension and no gravity.

But the simulated universe is not our universe, and apparently does not resemble our own either (also, who minds potentially being holographic? Not me). So we can still get excited about what looks a bit like flowing water in equatorial regions of Mars (well, flowing something anyway). The link is paywalled, but read the news report here. The article makes a case for a rover ban for all but the most sterile of robots, which I guess means no humans either (bummer).
The recurring slope lineae, aka repetitious incline lines, were also described in Science a few years ago (mirrored at seti.org). A strange occurence without an explanation, think of the Martian streaks as an enigmatic, saltier version of the suspected plumes of water vapour picked up by the Hubble telescope around Europa.

In other happenings, the Jade Rabbit is on Luna.