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UNM grad student hopes to move to Mars

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A University of New Mexico graduate student who hopes one day to travel to Mars and live out his life there may find getting off the ground a little tougher than previously thought, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Zachary Gallegos, who graduated with honors from UNM in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Earth & Planetary Sciences, is not worried. Now working on a master’s in the geochemistry of water – as it pertains to water on Mars – he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in a related field. He would like nothing more than to spend his life doing research on Martian soil.

Mars One, a nonprofit project headquartered in the Netherlands, plans to establish a permanent colony on the fourth planet from the sun in 2025. The mission would initially send four astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars. Gallegos, 27, wants to be on board.

However, an MIT team has just taken a close look at the technical feasibility of the proposed mission and detected a few potential, but serious, glitches.

GALLEGOS: Would like to study Martian soil (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

GALLEGOS: Would like to study Martian soil (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Olivier de Weck, an MIT professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems, said that before the Mars One dream can morph into reality, a number of technical innovations are needed.

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible,” de Weck said in an article posted on MIT’s website this week. “But we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in, with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.”

Gallegos, one of 706 potential Mars One astronauts and colonists, said he appreciates MIT’s concerns and findings, which could prove valuable to the mission. “Personally, I think it’s a really good thing MIT did this,” he said. “A lot could change in the 10 years before lift-off. This will only help.”

MIT’s red flags include:

  • Mars One’s plan is to grow all food on Mars. But all that vegetation could produce dangerous oxygen levels and set off a series of events that could cause people to suffocate. A system needs to be devised to rid the colony of excess oxygen, a nascent technology not developed enough for use in space.
  • Mars One plans to melt, or “bake,” ground ice for drinking water, a technology that also needs further development.
  • The delivery of spare parts to the colony could take up as much as 62 percent of future payloads, dominating all subsequent trips to the Red Planet, something Mars One needs to think through.
  • Mars One plans to use six Falcon Heavy rockets to send up initial supplies, even before the first astronauts take off. “Overly optimistic,” says MIT. Instead, 15 rockets will be needed; cost: $4.5 billion.

Gallegos remains optimistic that technological developments in the coming years will be a boost for the Mars One project. “All of this can be worked out,” he said.

Furthermore, MIT’s concerns are now part of planning for the mission, perhaps the most complex technological undertaking in human history.

“Anything that helps prepare us for the mission is welcome,” Gallegos said.

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