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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 24 April, 2014

So, what are the chances we’ll see an Irishman (or anybody) head to Mars?

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, as the famous song goes*. But how about the other direction?

Image: astronaut on mars via Shutterstock

‘STRANDED IN EARTH orbit’, ‘lost on arrival’, ‘flew past planet’, ‘lost near Phobos’… If you happen to be one of the thousand-plus candidates chosen for the 2025 ‘Mars One’ mission, perhaps you’d be best advised not to opt for ‘humankind’s 54-year history of attempted Mars missions’ as your choice of subject for bedtime reading.

Failures far outweigh the successes over the course our stormy half century affair with the Red Planet. However, that didn’t deter almost a quarter of a million people (including around 850 in Ireland) from applying for the chance to be one of just 20 chosen for the planned 55 million kilometre voyage.

1,058 hopefuls made it past the opening round, including three based in Ireland — of whom, the most high-profile has been Dublin-based scientist Dr Joseph Roche. The mild-mannered astrophysicist has been in high demand by media outlets since his name emerged on the ‘long-list’ at the start of the month, and he’s been dutifully doing the rounds ever since answering questions on the ambitious plan (as it’s a one-way mission, the most frequent question so far has been ‘why?’).

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Mars bound? Dr Joseph Roche [Image: Science Gallery]

The initiative of entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and scientist Arno Wielders, both from The Netherlands, the privately funded project aims to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2025. The initial crew of four will be followed by four more the year after that, with more missions flying out at two-year intervals until 2032.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple — organisers estimate they need to raise around $6 billion in funding. It’s planned the project will raise most of the cash needed by selling TV rights for a reality show tracking the progress of the candidates.

Ahead of blast-off for the manned mission, there’s be a series of other launches — of satellites, supplies and finally ‘rovers’ designed to set up the outpost living quarters and other equipment.

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A ‘Mars One’ rover at work (Image: MarsOne.com)

To the casual observer, the plan may appear more than a little unlikely. Many space experts have also scorned the proposals — in particular the projected cost, which is just a fraction of NASA’s estimates for a Mars mission. Ethical issues have also been raised, as it’s been suggested the life-span of the successful applicants could be limited to less than a year — even if they manage to complete the perilous journey.

TheJournal.ie put some of the problems raised to Dr Roche (he is an astrophysicist, after all) beginning with the concerns of retired German astronaut Ulrich Walter, who warned that the probability of even reaching the planet’s surface could be as low as 30 per cent — the chances of surviving more than three months, worse still.

“Well, it’s such a new area no-one’s really certain yet whose estimates are trustworthy.

“The reason Mars One deserves to be taken seriously is that — it’s not just a disparate group of people who don’t know what they’re doing. The founder Bas Lansdorp is an engineer with a background in wind energy — he might not have a background in space exploration, but all the experts he’s brought in are the best in their areas.

“One of the issues they keep bringing up is that when people comment outside their field, they generally express concern. So if it’s an astronaut he might say the equipment isn’t there or the spacecraft isn’t there; if you talk to the engineers they’ll say ‘the equipment is there, but we’re not sure about the reality TV show business model’.”

How about the costs issue? Six billion dollars is obviously a lot of money — but it still seems a little on the low side considering we’re talking about a mission to another heavenly body?

“The reason for the discrepancy between NASA’s estimates and this mission is purely down to the lack of the return trip.

“Within space exploration at the moment the biggest financial issue is the return — trying to carry enough fuel to mount a return journey, and to do what they call a ‘hard launch’ from the surface of the planet.

“The NASA mission is thirty years down the line and around 50 times more expensive — that’s purely down to the fact that at the moment we don’t have anything that could launch to take people home. The six billion that Mars One is proposing is based on existing technology — we just can’t bring them back.

Roche is expecting to hear more news on the interview process from ‘mission control’ in April. Before then, he has to submit a series of medical test results to prove he’s up to the task.



(Youtube: RTÉ)

The final 40 candidates will be selected in the next two years or so, coinciding with the start of the TV show. Viewers from all over the world will decide on the first four people to be sent.

It’s planned the cameras will also follow the progress of the resettlers as they conduct experiments, grow their own food, and generally strive to stay happy and healthy on a planet far, far away.

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An initial sketch for the Mars colony [Image: Mars One]

The ‘Big Brother’ Factor

The television aspect is essential to the success of the mission — and while raising billions of dollars obviously won’t be easy, a look at the amount generated by sales of TV rights for the Olympics at least puts the scale of the task in some context:

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[Chart: Olympic Marketing Fact File]

At the moment, according to Mars One, the TV rights issue is still the subject of “ongoing negotiations” with media companies. The project will also use crowd-funding as a means of raising the cash needed, while it’s hoped more sponsors and partners can be added the roster of Mars One supporters as the project progresses.

The development that — to date — perhaps best demonstrates the seriousness of the founders’ intentions took place last month, as Mars One signed a $250,000 (€180,000) contract with US group Lockheed Martin Space Systems to build a concept landing module for an unmanned test mission in five years time.



(Youtube: MarsOneProject)

While there are plenty of high-profile critics (amongst them, the chief engineer of NASA) Mars One also has an impressive list of advisers and supporters on board, including Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft and the co-creator of ‘Big Brother’ Paul Römer.

The media interest generated worldwide as countries keep track of their candidates’ progress will almost certainly keep the cash flowing in in the short term — but once TV strand of the project is up and running, what are the chance of this ever [I'm afraid there really is no better way to phrase this] getting off the ground?

Dr Roche, for one, is under no illusions:

Clearly, this is very far from being a nailed on thing — but you’d never go into a project like this without expecting setbacks along the way, up to the prospect of complete failure.

As a scientist I’d really have to say the chances are remote, but I think the Mars One plan is wonderfully ambitious.

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[Image: Mars One]

*Jeff Wayne is not a scientist, obviously. You can rest assured that the actual chances of anything coming from Mars are far higher (but it’s unlikely the real figure would scan quite as well as a song lyric).

Read: Mars mission hopeful Dr Joseph Roche begins medical testing

Read: Is there life on Mars? Ten years on the Opportunity rover is still looking

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