Paths To Knowledge (dot Science)

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Let’s go Direct to Mars for real!

Posted by pwl on July 22, 2009

Mars Direct is a proposal for a relatively low-cost manned mission to Mars with current rocket technology. The plan was originally detailed in a research paper by Robert Zubrin and David Baker in 1990. The mission was expanded upon in Zubrin’s 1996 book The Case for Mars.

The plan involves launching an unmanned “Earth Return Vehicle” (ERV) directly from Earth’s surface to Mars using a heavy-lift booster derived from Space Shuttle components. The booster is no bigger than the Saturn V used for the Apollo missions. Several launches are made in preparation for the manned mission.

The first of these launches the ERV, a supply of hydrogen, a chemical plant and a small nuclear reactor. Once there, a relatively simple set of chemical reactions (the Sabatier reaction coupled with electrolysis) would combine a small amount of hydrogen carried by the ERV with the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere to create up to 112 tonnes of methane and oxygen propellants, 96 tonnes of which would be needed to return the ERV to Earth at the end of the mission. This process would take approximately ten months to complete.

Some 26 months after the ERV is originally launched from Earth, a second vehicle, the “Mars Habitat Unit” (MHU), would be launched on a high-energy transfer to Mars carrying a crew of four. This vehicle would take some six months to reach Mars. During the trip, artificial gravity would be generated by tying the spent upper stage of the booster to the Habitat Unit, and setting them both rotating about a common axis.

On reaching Mars, the spent upper stage would be jettisoned, with the Habitat Unit aerobraking into Mars orbit before soft-landing in proximity to the ERV. Once on Mars, the crew would spend 18 months on the surface, carrying out a range of scientific research, aided by a small rover vehicle carried aboard their MHU, and powered by excess methane produced by the ERV. To return, they would use the ERV, leaving the MHU for the possible use of subsequent explorers. The propulsion stage of the ERV would be used as a counterweight to generate artificial gravity for the trip back.

The initial cost estimate for Mars Direct was put at $55 billion, to be paid over ten years.

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