What are the technological obstacles to colonizing another planet?

Space is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there—yet…

By Jason M. Rubin

MIT faculty and graduate students have made important contributions to space travel and research since the dawn of America’s space program, and the Institute boasts a number of alumni astronauts. So when will humans be able to vacation on Venus, spend a summer on Saturn, or nestle into a neighborhood on Neptune? The answer, sadly, is not soon.

“The key to any initiative involving humans in space is to put them at the center of mission and technology design,” says Ryan Kobrick, a postdoctoral associate working in MIT’s Man-Vehicle Laboratory. “Whatever the duration of the mission, we want to keep the crew alive, healthy, and as comfortable as possible. For a week-long mission, comfort is less important, but for longer stays in space, achieving all three of those objectives is imperative.”

The earliest flights into space were measured in hours. Today, astronauts who work in the International Space Station (ISS) can do six-month shifts. (The record for the longest single flight is 437.7 days, set by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov at the Mir space station from January 1994 to March 1995.) Even so, the ISS is a self-contained artificial satellite that operates in a low Earth orbit. The challenges of replicating Earth’s environment for long periods on a planet’s surface remain daunting.

According to Phillip Cunio, a graduate student in MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics department, “The experience of building and maintaining a large structure like the ISS has been very valuable. It’s not all that far away, so we can send up new crews, replacement parts, and food and other supplies fairly quickly and easily. But if something goes wrong on Mars, you can’t wait it out.”

Is Mars a hypothetical example? Actually, no. It could well be that one day a group of little green men will see a ship approaching and say among themselves, “There goes the neighborhood.”

“Except for the moon, which we know to be uninhabitable, Mars is our closest neighbor,” says Kobrick. “There is evidence of ground water on Mars, which means it may be able to support life – or had in the past.” The force of gravity on the surface of Mars is closer to what we experience on Earth, Kobrick adds, which will make it feel a lot more like home than the surface of the moon.

While the technological obstacles to colonizing another planet include the ability to provide reliable transportation, large-scale construction, and sustainable life support for many people over many years, the underlying obstacles are even thornier: funding and politics, which, of course, are closely intertwined.

In the meantime, research continues. Cunio is part of a team working on a prototype of a robotic spacecraft called the Terrestrial Artificial Lunar and Reduced Gravity Simulator (TALARIS). This three-foot-wide gizmo, a collaboration between AeroAstro and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, uses four downward-pointing engines to hop rather than drive over a planet’s surface, enabling it to maneuver into craters, scale cliffs, and traverse long distances.

“TALARIS can help us explore more of a planet’s surface more quickly,” says Cunio. “One day hopefully it will be able to teach us what we need to know about Mars before deciding to send humans there.”

Posted: February 28, 2012

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