Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Power on Mars

On Mars power is everything. The ability to have uninterrupted access to power means the very difference between life and death. With power, there is life. When the power stops flowing, everybody dies. That is and will be the story of humans and Mars exploration.

When our plucky pair of Mars Rovers landed on the red planet, they were given each a life span of 90 days. The chief limitation on their robot lifetimes was determined by one thing: power. The theory went that because of the nature of the Martian environment – very cold – and because of the dust flying about in the air – the batteries could only be reliably changed over a 90 day cycle. After that, the engineers had no idea what would happen. But the rovers are still alive today – more than two years after the expected date of death. Why? Power.

The rovers solar panels have been periodically dusted off by “wind events”, allowing the batteries to charge and charge and charge. The lithium-ion batteries (think - 'my cell phone...') have been kept healthy by eight small plutonium canisters slid into their hearts to keep them warm during the colder-than-hell Mars nights. And finally, the engineers at JPL know how to cycle and charge the batteries and share power between roving, picture taking and scientific data collection. But in the end – it is all power and power alone that has kept them alive. On any given human Mars exploration mission – it will be the same story. Stop the power and the humans will die just as certainly as any robot.

In my book, Abyss of Elysium – this plays a very central role to the story, just as it will on any real Mars colony. The humans will have to keep their habitats warm inside. The atmosphere outside is more then just bitterly cold – dropping to as low as -175 degrees Fahrenheit on any given winter night. The colonist will also have to circulate air and scrub the carbon dioxide and power their lights, communications, computers, systems and even provide entertainment. They will also need to process their own rocket fuel and clean their water. It all comes down to a single fact – to them power is life. Power is everything. Without power, they will not be able to stay. And if there is no way home, without power they will die. Check out Abyss of Elysium – I tell the whole story between its covers – it is an exciting read!

(Illustation from ABYSS OF ELYSIUM - MARS WARS by Brett English)