The Netherlands-based Mars One project, which aims to establish a human colony on Mars by 2024, may have run into potentially disastrous difficulties while still in its planning stages.
Based on computer simulations run by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems that the first colonists could be poisoned by the very oxygen they depend on in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
The source of this oxygen is the crop growth system, which the colonists would rely upon as their only source of food.
With no way of venting oxygen to a safe level, the concentration and pressure of oxygen would rise to over 30%; this presents a fire hazard in an enclosed space (such as that of a habitation module).
Additionally, the high pressure of oxygen in the environment would quickly result in a type of poisoning known as oxygen toxicity, which is most common in underwater divers.
Its symptoms include seizures, nausea, lung inflammation, damage to the eyes, coma and eventually death.
The paper published by the team at MIT contains considerable detail about many other potential failings of the mission, including difficulties with water supply, crop growth and life support systems.
It perhaps even goes a little too far in picking holes in the technologies proposed by the Mars One project; after all, the equipment required is all purely theoretical, based on predictions of how technology will progress in the next ten years.
When asked for comment on the issue, Durham’s own Mars One candidate, Astronomy PhD student Hannah Earnshaw, had this to say:
“This is a good study which raises issues that Mars One will need to address, and future studies like this will prove invaluable in the development and adjustment of the technical details of Mars One’s plan.
“Keeping people alive on the surface of Mars, like all space travel and exploration, is an incredibly challenging thing to accomplish, and criticism of Mars One’s plans is going to be absolutely vital to ensure that they are the best they can be and will actually work.”
Hannah’s full blog post on the issue can be found here.
This kind of study certainly raises a lot of questions that will need to be addressed in the next decade, but it shows that the scientific community has finally started to take the Mars One mission seriously.