3 Questions: The launch of the MIT Climate Change Conversation

On Sept. 19, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, announced the membership of a community committee to plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation. As Zuber noted, “The Committee should seek broad input from the Institute community on how the US and the world can most effectively address global climate change. The Conversation should explore pathways to effective climate change mitigation, including how the MIT community — through education, research and campus engagement — can constructively move the global and national agendas forward.”

Roman Stocker, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, spoke with MIT News about the committee’s charge, its progress to date, and its next steps.

Q. What does the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation aim to achieve?

A. We aim to explore and assess the broad range of actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to address climate change. The global nature of this problem and the amount of debate and polarization that surround it are daunting, but the premise of the committee is that the complexity of the problem is uniquely suited for MIT, given our strong problem-solving ethos, and that a leading technical institution can have unique roles to play in responding to the climate crisis. Identifying and evaluating these potential roles is the purpose of the Conversation.

Importantly, the committee will only be the catalyst of the Conversation: Its main actor will be the MIT community! In other words, what we really aim to achieve is the engagement of the widest possible fraction of the MIT community in developing and debating bold ideas — MIT-style! — to help identify the pros and cons of different options. We believe that this approach will allow us, as a community, to identify a broad spectrum of action items; estimate the effectiveness of each action in addressing the problem; and thereby determine how our Institute can most effectively drive forward the national and global agendas on climate change.

We will consider actions at all levels: from new educational initiatives at MIT and via its edX megaphone, to new opportunities for research that capitalize and expand on MIT’s presence in the field, to improvements to campus infrastructure and operations aimed at reducing MIT’s own carbon footprint, to leveraging MIT’s visibility to drive more effective policy.

These are but examples, as we do not want to constrain the creativity of the MIT community. We will welcome any and all ideas through the multiple opportunities for input and feedback that we will construct. We look forward to this Conversation as a catalyst for original ideas, debate, and sound analysis.      

Q. What has the committee done to date, since its membership was announced on Sept. 19?

A. Devising the right ingredients to make this MIT Conversation successful is what has kept us busy during this first month, and still is. Part of this effort consists of educating ourselves, within the committee, about the landscape of activities that already exist at MIT in the area of climate change, as some of these activities could represent important nucleation sites for bold ideas for action. At the same time, this knowledge will allow us to engage the MIT community in a more informed and meaningful way, through the Conversation activities we have begun to plan for the fall and spring.

Personally, this first month has also allowed me to appreciate the expertise we have on the committee, which I feel will be an invaluable asset in catalyzing this Conversation. The committee is composed of one faculty member per school, as well as representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, from the postdocs, and from the staff. Collectively, this group encompasses a wide range of expertise, covering both the science and the economics of climate change, as well as the on-campus infrastructural and operational aspects of a university planning for climate change.

The committee is unanimous in its feeling not only of the urgency of the problem — expressed with particular emphasis by the younger generations — but also of the unique opportunity that this Conversation represents for MIT to take on a visible leadership role in the solution of the problem.

Q. How can a member of MIT get engaged in this Conversation?

A. We will create multiple opportunities for engagement throughout the current academic year. In the next few weeks, we will launch both an Idea Bank and a survey. The Idea Bank intends to capture the expertise and creativity of the MIT community and to engage it in a campus-wide brainstorm about what actions MIT could take to address climate change. We will welcome input on the full spectrum of possible actions that MIT could take. We will particularly welcome bold, creative ideas, because we feel that the spectrum of options for action available to a leading technical institution has not been fully explored to date.

The survey is being designed to provide input for the committee in structuring the Conversation. With the survey, we aim to reach a wider fraction of the MIT community — hopefully, all of you! — and to understand how we can best support the community in this important Conversation.

We will carefully review the input we receive through both the Idea Bank and the survey, distill it into broad categories for potential action, and use it to inform the centerpiece of the Conversation, a series of high-profile forums to be held in the spring term. These forums will focus on the different action categories that MIT can consider investing in to further its role in addressing climate change, including education, research, financial actions, policy, campus operations — with specifics that will be refined based on community input.

The months ahead will represent a vibrant time to discuss climate-change actions at MIT. We invite everyone in the community to be part of this Conversation! 

By News Office

Image of the Day: Daya Bay antineutrino detector

Full Text:

In this image, photomultiplier tubes line the walls of the Daya Bay neutrino detector. The tubes are designed to amplify and record the faint flashes of light that signify an antineutrino interaction. This experiment aims to measure the final unknown mixing angle that describes how neutrinos oscillate.

Image credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

George Shultz: “Climate is changing,” and we need more action

You might not picture former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49 as someone who drives an electric car, or has solar panels on the roof of his home. But he does — and Shultz has become a vocal proponent of action to combat climate change.

Shultz brought that message to MIT in a talk on Tuesday afternoon, advocating further policy and research efforts to address the problem, and discussing ways to engage people who have not previously supported action on climate change.

“The climate is changing,” Shultz told an audience in MIT’s Wong Auditorium. Speaking of those who have resisted the scientific consensus on the matter, he added, “If you don’t like the science, use your eyes.”

Shultz’s preferred approach involves two main steps: a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and increased government funding of research on clean technologies. The carbon tax would apply to the sale of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases that become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and raise temperatures; money raised by that tax would then be refunded to citizens — making the approach “revenue-neutral,” meaning the government would not take in added revenue.

Shultz suggested referring to such initiatives as an “insurance policy” in recruiting support among those reluctant to take climate action. These policies, Shultz emphasized, would not be costly, especially compared with the long-term expense of dealing with climate change.

“The insurance policy isn’t even that expensive,” Shultz asserted. When it comes to R&D funding, he said, “The amount of federal government dollars is trivial. It isn’t even a rounding error.”

Moreover, he added, “You get a multiple out of the federal effort”: Private-sector investors will want to join a growing area of technological innovation.

In particular, Shultz emphasized, better electricity storage, whether through batteries or other technologies, would be a highly significant development, allowing intermittent solar and wind energy to be used when the sun is not shining, or when there is no wind.

“One of the real breakthroughs is when someone figures out long-term storage capacity,” Shultz said.

He added that implementing policies can bring about subsequent cultural or social changes as well.

“Once you have something like this in [place], it has an effect on people’s attitudes,” Shultz said. He noted that the Canadian province of British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008, and has subsequently seen sales of hybrid and electric vehicles rise, perhaps as a result.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged”

Shultz’s talk, titled, “How to Think about Energy and Climate,” was hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative, where Shultz serves on the external advisory board. Working to address climate change “is very much in the MIT tradition,” Shultz told the audience.

Shultz received his PhD in economics at MIT, and served on the economics faculty in the 1950s. From 1969 through 1974, he served as U.S. secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and secretary of the Treasury. Shultz served as secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, during which time he helped construct the last major international agreement on the atmosphere — the Montreal Protocol of 1987 phasing out chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer.

Then as now, Shultz recalled, some observers adopted a skeptical position about the scientific evidence. However, he noted, “In the case of the Montreal Protocol, the people who were worried [about the atmosphere] were right.”

Then-President Ronald Reagan also “thought we should take out an insurance policy,” Shultz said, and backed the treaty.

While a significant gulf exists between the nation’s two major political parties on the issue of climate policy, Shultz tried to persuade the audience that progress was still possible among congressional Republicans. “We have to think about how we approach people to find a common ground,” Shultz said, urging diplomacy toward those currently opposing action.

In 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have limited carbon emissions through a “cap-and-trade” system, but the measure died in the Senate. The Obama administration has since directed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gases, a directive the Supreme Court largely upheld this summer, but the EPA’s efforts are still in their early stages.

Shultz also recommended that the U.S. and China pursue a bilateral agreement regarding climate and technology items where they could find common ground, and then use that to get other countries to sign on for further climate action, rather than waiting for global acceptance of a climate accord.

Shultz has made climate change one of his major interests as a policy advocate. In a 2013 interview with Scientific American, he noted that he had solar panels installed on his house several years ago and now drives an electric car, saying, “I figure I’ve got to walk the talk.” The presence of his four great-grandchildren, Shultz noted in those remarks, has helped give him a sense of urgency about the matter.

As difficult as the issue might seem, Shultz told his MIT audience yesterday, there is some progress being made, and more is possible.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged and think that nothing is happening,” Shultz said.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Dava Newman nominated for NASA post

The White House has announced the nomination of MIT’s Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, as NASA’s deputy administrator, the space agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Newman’s appointment will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Newman, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1993, is director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and MIT Portugal Program, a faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and a Margaret McVicar Faculty Fellow.

Newman earned her BS from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, followed by three graduate degrees from MIT: two SM degrees, in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, in 1989, and a PhD in aerospace biomedical engineering, in 1992. She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), an introductory engineering textbook, and more than 200 papers presented in journals and at refereed conferences.

Newman’s research has included the development of a radical new spacesuit design that is tighter-fitting and would afford much greater mobility and lighter weight than today’s bulky pressure suits. She has focused on quantifying astronaut performance in space, including computer modeling of the dynamics of human motion in microgravity conditions. Newman has also developed exercise countermeasures, serving as principal investigator for three spaceflight experiments, and specializes in understanding partial-gravity locomotion for future planetary exploration. Her development of patented, wearable compression suits has also led her into research on assistive technologies for people with locomotion impairment.

“It’s very exciting, and an enormous honor,” Newman says of her nomination as NASA’s deputy administrator. “Aerospace engineering, of course, is my passion. Maybe I’ve been training for this my whole life!”

Newman says that NASA has “a clear vision” aligned with goals set by the Obama administration, with Mars as the destination in its long-term strategic plan. While the space program may draw most of the agency’s public attention, NASA’s research in aeronautics is no less significant, she says, and has produced “significant aviation advancements.”

The deputy administrator’s specific duties, Newman says, include NASA’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs; communications; the Mission Support Directorate; and international relationships, including the multinational partnership that manages the International Space Station. In addition, the post oversees educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Helping to spur the interest of young people in space, and in engineering in general, will be “a privilege,” Newman says. “I’d like to change the conversation with kids about what it means to be an engineer” — which she calls “the best job in the world, where you get to solve really challenging and extraordinary problems in the service of humankind.”

Newman and her partner Guillermo Trotti, an architect and designer, completed a round-the-world sailing voyage on their boat in 2003. The two are now live-in housemasters at MIT’s Baker House, an undergraduate residence hall.

Newman says she is eager for the challenges of her new job: “I love NASA’s portfolio, and what it’s tasked to do for the nation: pushing the boundaries and leading in aeronautics and space — aircraft, space, planetary and earth sciences, exploration, technology development, and education. I look forward to doing the best work I can, to applying myself 100 percent, to learning a lot, and to advancing our national aerospace goals.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

Dava Newman nominated for NASA post

The White House has announced the nomination of MIT’s Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, as NASA’s deputy administrator, the space agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Newman’s appointment will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Newman, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1993, is director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and MIT Portugal Program, a faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and a Margaret McVicar Faculty Fellow.

Newman earned her BS from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, followed by three graduate degrees from MIT: two SM degrees, in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, in 1989, and a PhD in aerospace biomedical engineering, in 1992. She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), an introductory engineering textbook, and more than 200 papers presented in journals and at refereed conferences.

Newman’s research has included the development of a radical new spacesuit design that is tighter-fitting and would afford much greater mobility and lighter weight than today’s bulky pressure suits. She has focused on quantifying astronaut performance in space, including computer modeling of the dynamics of human motion in microgravity conditions. Newman has also developed exercise countermeasures, serving as principal investigator for three spaceflight experiments, and specializes in understanding partial-gravity locomotion for future planetary exploration. Her development of patented, wearable compression suits has also led her into research on assistive technologies for people with locomotion impairment.

“It’s very exciting, and an enormous honor,” Newman says of her nomination as NASA’s deputy administrator. “Aerospace engineering, of course, is my passion. Maybe I’ve been training for this my whole life!”

Newman says that NASA has “a clear vision” aligned with goals set by the Obama administration, with Mars as the destination in its long-term strategic plan. While the space program may draw most of the agency’s public attention, NASA’s research in aeronautics is no less significant, she says, and has produced “significant aviation advancements.”

The deputy administrator’s specific duties, Newman says, include NASA’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs; communications; the Mission Support Directorate; and international relationships, including the multinational partnership that manages the International Space Station. In addition, the post oversees educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Helping to spur the interest of young people in space, and in engineering in general, will be “a privilege,” Newman says. “I’d like to change the conversation with kids about what it means to be an engineer” — which she calls “the best job in the world, where you get to solve really challenging and extraordinary problems in the service of humankind.”

Newman and her partner Guillermo Trotti, an architect and designer, completed a round-the-world sailing voyage on their boat in 2003. The two are now live-in housemasters at MIT’s Baker House, an undergraduate residence hall.

Newman says she is eager for the challenges of her new job: “I love NASA’s portfolio, and what it’s tasked to do for the nation: pushing the boundaries and leading in aeronautics and space — aircraft, space, planetary and earth sciences, exploration, technology development, and education. I look forward to doing the best work I can, to applying myself 100 percent, to learning a lot, and to advancing our national aerospace goals.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Humpback whale

Full Text:

In this picture, a humpback whale emerges out of the water off the Antarctic Peninsula. Humpback whales are so called because of the habit of raising and bending their backs in preparation for a dive, accentuating the hump in front of the dorsal fin. They have relatively the longest flippers of any baleen whale, which may be up to a third of the total body length. These have a range of uses from feeding to social signaling. These are probably the best known of the large whales as they often collect in groups along coasts where they feed and breed, drawing attention to themselves by their behavior. Breaching, lob tailing and flipper-slap are common and often occur several times in a row.

Image credit: Ari Friedlaender, National Science Foundation

Image of the Day: Hooded merganser

Full Text:

Photographed in Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the hooded merganser is a species of small duck. The hooded merganser is the smallest of the three species of mergansers, also known as saw-bills or fish-ducks, and the only one whose range is entirely restricted to North America.

How do you do math like a girl?

On Sept. 27, a warm Saturday afternoon, 270 students, their families, and volunteers gathered in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium to hear the results of the Math Prize for Girls competition, the world’s largest math prize for female students in grades 7 through 12.

Earlier that morning, the students spent more than two hours working through 20 short-answer problems in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, vying against some of the most competitive “mathletes” from the U.S. and Canada for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money divided among the top 10 finalists. First prize went to Celine Liang, a junior at Saratoga High School in California.

But the matter of who would take home the top prizes was neither the first nor most important question to settle in the auditorium that afternoon. The more pressing question would be, as Arun Alagappan, co-creator of the Math Prize for Girls and president of the Advantage Testing Foundation asked: “How do you do math like a girl?”

Finding an answer is no small matter, given the glaring gender gaps in math and science in the U.S. Negative stereotypes about women’s ability to excel at math discourage many students from pursuing math, often before they have a chance to discover their talent and passion for it. Alagappan says this gap emerges as early as middle school, “when too many smart, hardworking girls lose their confidence and lose their footing.” 

As women advance through high school, college and beyond, they find fewer and fewer female peers and mentors to encourage them to persevere in their pursuit of math — role models who can help them imagine themselves as female mathematician.

Math competitions for middle- and high-school students are no exception to the gender gap: The competitors are predominantly male. It can be dispiriting for female competitors to find themselves in a sea of “boys, boys, and boys,” as Math Prize for Girls alumna Sindy Tan puts it. 

Yet these competitions can be an effective way to cultivate a lifelong love of math in students. Anna Ellison, a senior at Newton North High School in Massachusetts and four-time Math Prize for Girls competitor, started participating in math competitions in sixth grade. She didn’t have a particular passion for math to begin with — she joined the math team because, she says, “I thought it was cool.”

She found that she needed to hone her math skills to be competitive, so she began taking extracurricular math classes. But soon she was pursuing math for its own sake, doing self-directed reading online and in textbooks. This year, she’s taking a class in multivariable calculus.

The Math Prize for Girls was founded in 2009 by the Advantage Testing Foundation to make sure students like Ellison have a chance to discover a love of mathematics and be part of a community of peers, mentors, and role models that many aspiring female mathematicians are missing. Each year, competitors are given opportunities to network with their peers and Math Prize for Girls alumnae at events such as a lunch held after the test and a games night hosted by Microsoft the evening before. At each awards ceremony, they hear from women in mathematics who share their work and their experiences, showing the participants different ways to “do math like a girl.”

In this year’s award ceremony, Alagappan contended that the answer to his question — “how to do math like a girl?” — is “brilliantly.” He went on to say that, “Doing math like a girl, doing math like a woman, means approaching problems with imagination and persistence and grit and power.”

MIT professors and industry leaders who spoke after him provided ample evidence for his assertion. Gigliola Staffilani, an MIT mathematics professor and member of the Math Prize for Girls board of advisors, discussed the frustrations and ultimate triumphs of working on complex mathematical theorems. Dina Katabi, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, showed the audience her new mathematics-based wireless technologies that can track movements behind walls and monitor heart rates remotely. Noelle Faris, president of the Akamai Foundation (one of the event’s sponsors), shared how mathematics developed at MIT was used to create new technologies at Akamai to support internet access. She invited Math Prize for Girls participants to think of themselves as mathematicians and inventors. 

Katie Sedlar, an MIT sophomore and Math Prize for Girls alumna, was also among the speakers. Sedlar urged participants to continue as mentors and leaders in mathematics. She emphasized the importance of building mathematics communities that welcome girls and women, especially since they so often face discouragement and lack support. Sedlar believes that one such welcoming community can be found at MIT.

“We love holding the Math Prize at MIT,” she told the audience, “because MIT maintains an outstanding record in supporting and encouraging all its students and faculty. Women as well as men persist in their efforts to solve the hardest problems.”

By Bendta Schroeder | School of Science

Image of the Day: Inside the Milky Way

Full Text:

Is matter falling into the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way or being ejected from it? No one knows for sure, but astrophysicists are searching for an answer. This composite of Sagittarius A-Star (A*), the source that marks the Milky Way’s black hole, combines radio images from the NRAO Very Large Array (green), BIMA (red) and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope (blue). This massive black hole – which contains 4 million solar masses – does not emit radiation but is visible due to the gas around it. The gas is being acted upon by the black hole’s very strong gravitational field. The wavelengths that make Sagittarius A* visible are scattered by interstellar gas along the line of sight in the same way that light is scattered by fog on Earth.

Image credit: NRAO/AUI

Mars One (and done?)

In 2012, the “Mars One” project, led by a Dutch nonprofit, announced plans to establish the first human colony on the Red Planet by 2025. The mission would initially send four astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars, where they would spend the rest of their lives building the first permanent human settlement.

It’s a bold vision — particularly since Mars One claims that the entire mission can be built upon technologies that already exist. As its website states, establishing humans on Mars would be “the next giant leap for mankind.”

But engineers at MIT say the project may have to take a step back, at least to reconsider the mission’s technical feasibility.

The MIT researchers developed a detailed settlement-analysis tool to assess the feasibility of the Mars One mission, and found that new technologies will be needed to keep humans alive on Mars.

For example, if all food is obtained from locally grown crops, as Mars One envisions, the vegetation would produce unsafe levels of oxygen, which would set off a series of events that would eventually cause human inhabitants to suffocate. To avoid this scenario, a system to remove excess oxygen would have to be implemented — a technology that has not yet been developed for use in space.

Similarly, the Mars Phoenix lander discovered evidence of ice on the Martian surface in 2008, suggesting that future settlers might be able to melt ice for drinking water — another Mars One goal. But according to the MIT analysis, current technologies designed to “bake” water from soil are not yet ready for deployment, particularly in space.

The team also performed an integrated analysis of spare-parts resupply — how many spare parts would have to be delivered to a Martian colony at each opportunity to keep it going. The researchers found that as the colony grows, spare parts would quickly dominate future deliveries to Mars, making up as much as 62 percent of payloads from Earth.

As for the actual voyage to Mars, the team also calculated the number of rockets required to establish the first four settlers and subsequent crews on the planet, as well as the journey’s cost.

According to the Mars One plan, six Falcon Heavy rockets would be required to send up initial supplies, before the astronauts’ arrival. But the MIT assessment found that number to be “overly optimistic”: The team determined that the needed supplies would instead require 15 Falcon Heavy rockets. The transportation cost for this leg of the mission alone, combined with the astronauts’ launch, would be $4.5 billion — a cost that would grow with additional crews and supplies to Mars. The researchers say this estimate does not include the cost of developing and purchasing equipment for the mission, which would further increase the overall cost.

Olivier de Weck, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, says the prospect of building a human settlement on Mars is an exciting one. To make this goal a reality, however, will require innovations in a number of technologies and a rigorous systems perspective, he says.

“We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible,” de Weck says. “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.”

One of the great insights we were able to get was just how hard it is to pull this [mission] off,” says graduate student Sydney Do. “There are just so many unknowns. And to give anyone confidence that they’re going to get there and stay alive — there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Do and de Weck presented their analysis this month at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto. Co-authors include MIT graduate students Koki Ho, Andrew Owens, and Samuel Schreiner.

Simulating a day on Mars

The group took a systems-based approach in analyzing the Mars One mission, first assessing various aspects of the mission’s architecture, such as its habitat, life-support systems, spare-parts requirements, and transportation logistics, then looking at how each component contributes to the whole system.

For the habitat portion, Do simulated the day-to-day life of a Mars colonist. Based on the typical work schedule, activity levels, and metabolic rates of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), Do estimated that a settler would have to consume about 3,040 calories daily to stay alive and healthy on Mars. He then determined crops that would provide a reasonably balanced diet, including beans, lettuce, peanuts, potatoes, and rice.

Do calculated that producing enough of these crops to sustain astronauts over the long term would require about 200 square meters of growing area, compared with Mars One’s estimate of 50 square meters. If, as the project plans, crops are cultivated within the settlers’ habitat, Do found that they would produce unsafe levels of oxygen that would exceed fire safety thresholds, requiring continuous introduction of nitrogen to reduce the oxygen level. Over time, this would deplete nitrogen tanks, leaving the habitat without a gas to compensate for leaks.

As the air inside the habitat continued to leak, the total atmospheric pressure would drop, creating an oppressive environment that would suffocate the first settler within an estimated 68 days.

Possible solutions, Do says, might include either developing a technology to extract excess oxygen or isolating the crops in a separate greenhouse. The team even considered using nitrogen extracted from the Martian atmosphere, but found that doing so would require a prohibitively large system. Surprisingly, the cheapest option found was to supply all the food required from Earth.

“We found carrying food is always cheaper than growing it locally,” Do says. “On Mars, you need lighting and watering systems, and for lighting, we found it requires 875 LED systems, which fail over time. So you need to provide spare parts for that, making the initial system heavier.”

Twisting the knobs

As the team found, spare parts, over time, would substantially inflate the cost of initial and future missions to Mars. Owens, who assessed the resupply of spare parts, based his analysis on reliability data derived from NASA repair logs for given components on the ISS.

“The ISS is based on the idea that if something breaks, you can call home and get a new part quickly,” says Owens. “If you want a spare part on Mars, you have to send it when a launch window is open, every 26 months, and then wait 180 days for it to get there. If you could make spares in-situ, that would be a massive savings.”

Owens points to technologies such as 3-D printing, which may enable settlers to manufacture spare parts on Mars. But the technology as it exists today is not advanced enough to reproduce the exact dimensions and functions of many space-rated parts. The MIT analysis found that 3-D printers will have to improve by leaps, or else the entire Mars settlement infrastructure will have to be redesigned so that its parts can be printed with existing technology.

While this analysis may make the Mars One program look daunting, the researchers say the settlement-analysis tool they’ve developed may help determine the feasibility of various scenarios. For example, rather than sending crews on one-way trips to the planet, what would the overall mission cost be if crews were occasionally replaced?

“Mars One is a pretty radical idea,” Schreiner says. “Now we’ve built a tool that we can play around with, and we can twist some of the knobs to see how the cost and feasibility of the mission changes.”

Tracy Gill, a technology strategy manager at NASA, says the tool may be applicable for assessing other missions to Mars, and points to a few scenarios that the group may want to explore using the settlement-analysis tool.  

“This [tool] can provide a benefit to mission planners by allowing them to evaluate a larger spectrum of mission architectures with better confidence in their analysis,” says Gill, who did not contribute to the research. “Included among those architectures would be options ranging from completely growing all food in situ with bioregenerative systems, to packaging all food products from Earth, to various combination of those two extremes.“

Some of the students on this project were supported by NASA fellowships.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

« Older Entries