Team:MTU-CORK/Integrated Human Practices

Integrated Human Practices

“The Leaky Bucket” - A frank discussion with Cork observatories Dr. Niall Smith on the credibility of colonising Mars.

On the 20th of October, we had a Zoom call with the Head of Blackrock Castle Observatory Dr. Niall Smith. Some members on our team joined the call and participated in this open discussion about Space, Science, and Mars. We were able to gain a deeper insight into these topics and Dr. Niall Smith was able to provide us his knowledge in these subjects. Below we have outlined the questions we asked him in this discussion and the answers he gave us.

Why do you think, if you do, that the possible colonisation of Mars is so important?

“This is what gets you out of bed in the morning type of stuff”

This was the immediate reply showing the interest and passion Dr Niall Smith has for all space related matters. Niall went on to explain he believes the time has come to stop merely thinking about theoretical colonisation and to make it a reality, “Colonisation can mean different things such as bacterial colonisation or to consider us as colonists”.

This raised the the whole ethical standpoint of whether we, as earth dwellers, should consider colonisation of another planet, “If you’re Mars and you’re pristine, or your Mars and you’re harbouring some dormant potentially harmful bacteria…….this from an ethics perspective, the idea of colonisation which was never previously a question, but it is now”.

Niall then discussed the need for precaution when introducing bacteria into the Martian environment, and the need for biosecurity measures to eliminate interference with homeostasis there, “I was thinking about release outside of the Biofrag so maybe that maybe needs to be in an overall mechanism that contains that, and what we are doing is testing the viability of something but allowing Mars to remain pristine for the time being other than in locations which we would control”.

This of course is controlled by the Biofrag Isolation Unit, another novel design by team MTU-Cork, which controls all aspects of project testing prior to deployment into soil on Mars. Dr Smith is very conscious of the fact we may be alone in the universe and how our introduction of bacteria into space needs to be carefully thought through, “I think we need to start colonising very very carefully. If you look at the universe, we have been looking for many many years now, looking for signs of life and so far have found nothing. You’re still at the early stages but you start to get the sense of why haven’t we found other life?”.

Not knowing, and only imagining about extraterrestrial life is the pastime of a large percentage of us but at some stage, as Niall noted, “People have started to talk more saying maybe we are more alone then we really thought. We don’t know the answer but if you keep on doing more experiments and getting null results at some point you’ve got to say that’s interesting and that’s when statistics start to make this interesting”.

Dr Smith finished up by stating the importance of developing technology to help further our space exploration and colonisation abilities. He is hugely interested in Project BioREM and what we are trying to do and has even offered an avenue of collaborative work between team MTU-Cork and the Cork Observatory, “This is a credible experiment to run on another planet, and that’s a huge statement because it hasn’t been done before. It would be really cool if we could grow (2nd generation moon) seeds in your Biofrag and would add a whole other layer of interest to it.”.

The final thought regarding whether we should pursue space exploration, especially colonising Mars, implicated technological development and ethics, “There is no doubt some of the technologies being developed are accelerating at a rate we didn’t expect even five years ago……… it is not inconceivable that the technology is very far ahead of the ethics”.

This leaves us with plenty to think about as we proceed towards other worldly paradises.

What do you think is a realistic timeline for the colonization of Mars and subsequently, what are those precautions that you would say that we should take as a species going onto another planet?

Niall initiated this question by stating the issue with colonising Mars with large numbers of humans.

“I guess the first thing to say is when we talk about human colonization and so on, even with the amazing advances in technology, we have no capacity to bring large numbers of anybody anywhere in the solar system in any foreseeable future”

It could be suggested from this that future colonisation may involve small numbers of habitants having to involve themselves in potential ‘procreation’ trials to increase populations without the ability to invoke mass migration, something that has to be considered looking ahead.

Niall also gave an opposing explanation as to why it would be beneficial to colonise Mars, such as humankind learning how to live on mars. He went on to explain some of the major hardships that would be faced by humans on the red planet. The conditions on Mars are incredibly harsh and will not :

“So, Mars is simply too small to hold onto its atmosphere. Because it’s about one third of the size of the Earth, it simply doesn’t have the gravity in the long run to hold onto an atmosphere.” The lack of a magnetic field means that the solar winds go undeterred and the atmosphere gets blown away. Dr. Smith went on to explain that all the previous conditions discussed and more are enough of a deterrent that creating a colony on Mars is not realistic. Previously Mars was once a liveable planet similar to Earth, as NASA has stated. But this oxygen and water that brought life was brought to Mars via asteroids. On this, Niall said:

“If you dump enough water into a leaky bucket, you’ll fill the bucket for a while but once you stop dumping it in there, the bucket empties. You’re always fighting against that. And that’s what Mars is,it’s a leaky bucket and there’s nothing to fill it up again left in the solar system anyway.”

Niall concluded this part of our conversation by very reasonably summing up that Earth and Mars are very different environments and that although colonisation of Mars may be possible in the future, it will not be a pleasant environment to live in like we have here on Earth.

“If you’ve seen one planet, you have seen one planet”

Do you think that if we were to try to restore Mars to its previously bountiful state, or to “fill the leaky bucket”, the BioFrag would be the way to go about it, it being a plastic model currently?

Niall’s perspective on the use of our current plastic BioFrags was that, due to the early stage nature of Mars exploration, plastic is a reasonable material. Going forward with our experiment, alternative materials can be 3D printed and tested in future BioFrag models. Currently plastic is ideal as it is lightweight and therefore easy to transport.

“How big is it and how heavy is it? Heavy is a big problem. It’s always better to make things smaller and lighter”

Niall mentioned that our BioFrags are both small and lightweight while still being capable of carrying out the testing which is ideal for space travel. Another advantage that he mentioned with our BioFrags is that they are created via 3D printing, this allows us to remodel them if they lose integrity or need structural changing, as we have already done with our BioFrag 1.0 and 2.0. This would prevent major money loss to the space exploration program.

“At the moment the paradigm is ‘go with what you have and when it breaks it stops’ and that needs to change to ‘go with what you have and be able to change it when you are there’”

In addition to this, he addressed the problem of our plastic becoming irradiated and degrading. If this was to occur then the plastic would leak its own contaminants and give false readings! This can be prevented by testing the BioFrag material against radiation prior to any space travel. With a radiation-safe model of the BioFrag there still is a potential risk to the seedling. Seedlings are small and fragile and are at a higher risk of radiation damage than a larger organism like a human or a plant, its ability to recover from radiation damage is lessened by its size.

“If you are a very small thing, one piece of radiation absorbed is very bad for you”

His recommendation against this was to possibly double up on shields and to protect the BioFrags and seedlings from radiation during travel.

Team MTU_Cork would like to sincerely thank Dr. Niall Smith for his time and commitment to helping project BioR.E.M. and for his insightful advice and expertise. Team MTU is also committed to commencing further studies in this field and are actively seeking further collaborations with other like minded entities.