More arguing over whether to go to the Moon or Mars first

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Earth next to Mars, the Moon, and Ceres. It takes 1/22 the velocity to leave Ceres compared to the Earth.

Two recent articles on have shown opposing opinions over the Moon first vs. Mars first debate. First was an article from the Planetary Society supporting the idea of ignoring the Moon and putting all resources towards Mars first, followed quickly by a former Apollo 17 astronaut and senator Jack Schmitt shooting down the idea.

My opinion is that the Moon should be first simply because we're not ready to send human missions to Mars yet, considering the huge length of time between launch windows (over two years), the six-month travel time, and the fact that a mission to Mars also requires a second launch from the surface back into space for the trip back to Earth. Mars is not only much farther away, but it also requires twice the velocity of the Moon to escape orbit.

The best way to carry out a mission to Mars is to just send people to the moons of Phobos and Deimos around Mars, along with a number of robotic probes that can be controlled from orbit, since operations can be carried out in real time by the humans above the planet as opposed to the current situation where signals to and from the craft take a number of minutes to be received depending on the position of the two planets. The two moons are worlds of their own, nothing compared to Mars, but still worth exploring, and a mission like that would certainly be something beyond anything mankind has ever achieved.

In the meantime, the Moon is so close to the Earth that recently Japan, China and India have all launched probes, which is something that just couldn't happen with a destination as far away as Mars.

I also believe that Ceres could be a better location for humans to visit over the next while than Mars, considering that launch windows are more frequent than to Mars in spite of being farther away, there is apparently quite a bit of water (more than the total fresh water on Earth) underneath the surface, and though it's a complete world unto its own with hydrostatic equilibrium and a differentiated core, escape velocity is only 500 m/s, which is five times less than the Moon, ten times less than Mars, and 22 times less than Earth. In other words, the amount of fuel needed to get back to Earth from Ceres is amazingly small compared to Mars.

What could be better than all of the options above however is a mission to a near-Earth asteroid. If part of the argument for going to Mars instead of the Moon is that we've been there before and people are bored of the idea of going there, then let's make an asteroid the next destination. Not only is it completely new, but it's also an incredibly easy mission compared to the other destinations due to the fact that an asteroid landing is more like a docking (and leaving the asteroid after the mission ends would be effortless), as the gravity of an asteroid is negligible, but at the same time it's still large enough to stand upon and explore for a good length of time. The entire mission would also take merely a fraction of the time it takes to get to Mars. As the article states:
"But a very natural, early extension of the exploration capabilities of this new vehicle architecture would be a 'quick dash' near-Earth asteroid rendezvous mission," said Dan Durda, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

"That kind of early demonstration mission might last no more than 60 or 90 days," Durda said, "and take the crew no farther than a few lunar distances away from Earth."

Durda said he could imagine that such a flight might be made before the first lunar landing even--perhaps after a lunar orbital mission or two--in order to try out spacecraft systems on an even longer-duration flight.

Edit: Taking another look at the first link I just noticed a part that I missed by Buzz Aldrin saying pretty much the same thing I wrote above:
Aldrin also called for earlier steps to Mars, including human visits to a near-Earth object and humans operating on a Martian moon preparatory to the Mars settlement.
Good to know I'm on the same page as Buzz Aldrin. I'd be curious whether he has an opinion on exploring Ceres.


Steve said...

I would agree that the Moon is a better place to refine our long-term abilities; we've never come close to a Mars-style mission, so we need to prove our technology closer to home. For that matter, a small L5 station--not the huge sci-fi idea, but something relatively self-sustaining--would also be a useful prior step. I'm a great believer in the island-hopping concept, especially in a case like this.

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