We do an awful lot of talking about Mars, and sometimes it seems like we forget about Earth’s closest neighbor, Venus. That needs to change, because it is just as interesting as the Red Planet. They call Venus the Morning Star, because it can still be seen with the rising morning sun. Oddly, enough the Morning Star in Latin is Lucifer, and some Christian traditions have linked the word with the Devil. Maybe that is appropriate, as Venus’ surface it is comprised of sulfuric acid clouds, and temperatures that can reach 462 degrees Celsius or 864 degrees Fahrenheit. So basically it’s hell, but recent studies have found that the planet may not have always been like that. In fact, in the ancient past it may been something better suited for a goddess of love than the representation of evil incarnate. Either way, maybe its time we get a closer look.

Venus de Melting Pot
Venus takes 224 days to orbit the Sun. On average the planet is 40 million kilometers or 25 million miles away from Earth, making its closest approach every 584 days. Compare that to Mars, which when at its closest to Earth is still 54.6 million kilometers or 33.9 million miles away from us. The planet Venus is also roughly the same size as ours, about 12,104 kilometers or 7,521 miles in diameter, which is 0.95 times that of the Earth. It’s mass is also 0.81 times that of our home. Both planets seem to be relatively young -cosmological speaking- but our closest neighbor rotates slower than Earth and in the opposite direction as we do. It takes about 117 Earth days for the planet to complete one rotation.

However, what most people talk about when they talk about Venus is its thick greenhouse atmosphere. The planet has several kilometers of deep layers of clouds, mostly comprised of sulfuric acid. It contains about 0.1 to 0.4 percent water vapor, and 60 parts per million free oxygen. The atmosphere is made up of mostly carbon dioxide, and according to findings by two Russian Venera probes lightning is extremely common. Massive electrical strikes happen about 10 times per second in the Venusian atmosphere. The surface -if you can reach it- is mostly of rolling hills and active volcanoes. The highest peak is 11 kilometers or 6.8 miles, and is located in the Maxwell Mountains. It is also worth noting that these mountains -named after astronomer James Clerk Maxwell- are the only features of the planet named after a man. The majority of features on the planet are named after women, as per the rules set down by the International Astronomical Union. Most scientists believe that the Venus has tectonic plates, like those on Earth, and the core of the planet is iron surrounded by a molten rock mantle. However, unlike Earth Venus doesn’t have a magnetosphere, which means it is more exposed to cosmic radiation and solar activity.

Venus not Venice
However, our neighbor wasn’t always the hellish landscape of heat, volcanoes, and death that it is today. A recent report suggests that for 2 billions years of its early history Venus may have been a heck of a lot like Earth. Shallow oceans, puffy white clouds, and possibly even sufficiently temperate climates to create life. The trace amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere always hinted that the planet could have once had oceans, but most scientists believed that Venus was too close to the sun to sustain liquid water for long, believing that constant evaporation would have proved too large a problem. However, recent computer modeling seems to confirm that it would have been possible even with the planet’s slow rotation.

This also hints that 2 to 3 billion years ago the sun may have been 30% dimmer, thus easing the evaporation effects for the young planet. Even so Venus was still receiving about 40% more sunlight than Earth does today, but according to some scientists those conditions would have still resulted in a stable, warm, and wet climate that would have created thin a cloud cover that blocked UV radiation and kept the surface a few degrees cooler than modern Earth. Venus’ current state is theorized to be a result of several factors. First the increasing brightness of the sun would have certainly sped up the evaporation cycle. The ultra-violet radiation breaks down the water vapor and releases hydrogen into space, which has led to a carbon dioxide build up over billions of years. Also, intense volcanic activity in the lowland regions was very likely a big contributing factor. This all would have resulted in a feedback loop that sped up the process even further. Thus, the greenhouse gases grew out of control and resulted in the thick and acidic atmosphere of today.

Home Sweet Venus
Of all the planets Venus is the first planet humans ever sent probes to, starting in 1961, but penetrating the clouds has always proven to be difficult. There have more than 20 missions to Venus, and a lot of unsuccessful ones. The most interesting missions tend to be the Soviet Venera missions between 1961 and 1983. They included orbiters, landers, and even balloons to study the atmosphere. Most probes could not survive more than an hour inside the planet’s atmosphere, even those designed for intense heat and pressure quickly succumb to the hellish conditions. That means we do not have anything on Venus comparable to Curiosity or the other Mar’s rovers, but we do actually have some pictures of the surface… Yes, we know what the surface of Venus looks like and you can Google it.

venus-2Yet, despite the incredibly hostile conditions there is a growing contingent of NASA scientists that believe the planet might be ripe for manned missions, and even colonization. In a now famous report by Geoffrey Landis, it is suggest that humans don’t colonize the surface but the skies of our sister world. At about 50 kilometers or 30 miles above the surface the planet’s atmosphere is the most Earth-like place found in the solar system- outside of… you know… Earth. Floating zeppelins would allow scientists to conduct research, live, and work, on a planet that has similiar gravity, atmospheric pressure, and even enough protection from solar and cosmic radiation to provide for relative safety for the people living and working there. Additionally, since oxygen is lighter than the Venusian atmosphere, the balloons could float and be breathable for the colonists at the same time. The entire area of the blimps could be habitable for explorers.

Venus’ relative proximity to Earth compared to Mars, also means that travel times would be decidedly less. The missions would be cheaper and have less transit time through space for humans. That is a good thing, as one of the biggest technological challenges we are having with a Mars mission is the amount of cosmic radiation that astronauts will be exposed to during the 6 to 8 month transit period. Going to Venus would only takes 3 months using today’s technology. That is still not ideal but it does mean that humans are left exposed for less than half the time. Also -and we’re just going to throw this out there- we could have Cloud City.

All in all whether you think Venus is a love goddess or a living hell, you have to admit that it’s a pretty interesting place. Who knows maybe we might even live there someday. Just call us Lando Calrissian.

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The science fiction novel, The Martian, by Andy Weir is a love letter to NASA and the human desire for space exploration. It is also one of the most plausible and scientifically accurate sci-fi novels in recent memory. Now, this weekend, the movie adaption comes to theaters and we here at the NYRD couldn’t be more excited, but then again we have always been big fans of journeying to the red planet. So to celebrate the opening of a movie that has its foundation in real science, we thought we would take you through some of the technology and aspects that you will be sure to see if you venture to the theaters to watch two-hours of Matt Damon trapped alone, without even a volleyball for company.

Hab Sweet Home
In the book and movie the story’s hero, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars, but at least he has some things going for him. First of all, he has the habitation module or Hab for short. This is good because we all need a roof overhead, whether it be a one room studio walk up in downtown Manhattan or a multi-room state of the art module on the surface of Mars. Even if development of a real Hab is still a few years off, NASA has been testing crews in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). This analog helps crews learn to work and live together in a simulated deep-space mission. The two-story habitat is complete with living quarters, work spaces, a hygiene module, and a simulated airlock. Currently NASA is running just 14-day duration missions with crews but that will soon be increased to 60-days.

While on Mars, Watney is also forced to grow food in the inhospitable soil of Mars. He accomplishes this by mixing the Martian soil with nutrients and samples from Earth soil, along with his own special brand of compost… eww… Eventually he even yields a full crop of potatoes, but he is not the first person to grow plants beyond the limits of our little blue orb. Vegetables are grown everyday on the International Space Station, but lettuce is the staple of choice for our real-life astronauts. In fact, last year aboard the ISS they even grew Romain lettuce and ate it. That sounds unremarkable, but it is a big step in sustained space living. The vegetables are grown under red, yellow, and green lights in bags of soil mixed with fertilizer, which harvested by the astronauts… eww.

Of course now that Watney has all those potatoes to eat he needs something to wash it down with, and that is where the water recycling system would come in. The one used in the book is a bit more sophisticated than what we have today but still entirely plausible. The Environmental Control and Life Support System aboard the ISS recovers water from sweat, hand washing, tooth brushing, and even urine… eww… However, current methods of water reclamation return only about 85% of pre-used water. The WRS runs water through a series of filters and a centrifuge, since micro-gravity makes separation of gasses and liquids tricky in zero-G. Even better, the technology is being put to use here on Earth, to help developing countries and communities have safe and reusable drinking water.

One Small Breath for Man
Things like water, food, and a roof are only the creature comforts of a Martian stay. In the book and movie Watney needs to work and sweat for every accomplishment he makes, and one of his biggest problems is getting more oxygen. He uses a method of electrolysis to create more for himself, by splitting carbon dioxide to release the oxygen. On the ISS astronauts use a very similar process, except with water but where Watney was the air around him, the ISS just uses water. The excess hydrogen is then bled out into space or pumped back to the Sabatier System which uses it to create more water.

In 2020, the organization will sending a rover to Mars that will test taking in Martian atmosphere and applying electrolysis to produce oxygen right from the air itself. Also, NASA is now looking to get a leg up on their fictional counterparts. Since the writing of the book it has been discovered that water may be more prevalent in the red planet’s soil than originally thought. That would mean they could actually create oxygen straight from the ground.

A Walk on the Martian Side
However, if astronauts want to go outside they will still need to carry the majority of their oxygen with them. The atmosphere of Mars is cold and inhospitable. Mark Watney’s space suit, though it is still bulky and obnoxious is years ahead of the suits employed by astronauts today. Watney spends hours in his suit doing strenuous work and making long journeys. Current suits have too limited of a life span and are way too heavy to allow much work to get accomplished. Yet, NASA is currently testing the Z-2 suit prototype. This is by no means the final design, but the tests being conducted with it will help in the creation of the Z-3 suit, which will then help with the creation of the real suit that astronauts will wear on the surface of Mars.

Our future Martians are going to need a set of banging wheels, though, if they want to get anywhere worth going. We’re talking chrome rims, cherry red chassis, and maybe even a moon roof -considering Mars has two moons. Watney has two rovers in The Martian, which he cannibalizes and alters quite extensively to suit his purposes. NASA is currently testing the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). With a top speed of a blazing 6 miles per hour (10 kph), the vehicle has six wheels for stability and is being developed not just for use on Mars, but also on asteroids and moons. Some of the technologies are still begin perfected, such as lighter weight and more powerful batteries, but the MMSEV seems to be pretty close to what Watney uses on his little adventure.

However, one of the biggest problems with going outside on Mars is the dust. The soil in places can be very fine and it gets everywhere. Think, glitter except more annoying. The Martian dust can do everything from muck up sensitive equipment to cover energy-giving solar panels. Dust storms can last for weeks at a time and be as large as countries on Earth. They can even change the face of the planet in a matter of days. Currently the probes we have on Mars can wait out any dust storms before resuming there mission, but humans may not have that luxury. Going weeks without power in the middle of dust cloud that blocks out your solar panels is a death sentence. Watney encounter this situation later in the book, and currently NASA uses Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG), which doesn’t rely on solar power, and instead uses the decay of plutonium-238 to generate electricity for Curiosity and the upcoming 2020 rover, but we may not be too keen on having a radiation battery so close to our men and women on Mars.

Getting There
In The Martian, Watney and his crew are brought to Mars by the Hermes, a reusable ion-drive ship that was created expressly for making the round trip from Earth to Mars and back again. Ion thrusters are a very real thing. They use beams of ions -electrically charged atoms or molecules- to create thrust in accordance with momentum conservation, and though NASA has yet to develop a wing of TIE fighters -TIE stands for twin ion engines– it does present a very reliable source of thrust for spacecraft, albeit a very slow one. Relative to chemical engines the ion engine is lumbering, but way more efficient. NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) has a fuel efficiency of 10 to 12 times great than that of chemical rockets. Unfortunately, it needs to operate in excess of 10,000 hours to accelerate any space-bound object fast enough to reach even the asteroid belt.

Any ion engine will never be enough to get rockets off the ground, but once in space you can turn them on and leave them on, generating acceleration over time. In fact, we already have probes that use ion thrusters, including Deep Space 1, a project so named because I can only assume the geeks at NASA had hoped we could make at least 8 more of them. The Hermes follows the same principal, a small amount of applying a constant thrust to speed the craft up, but it takes the same amount of reverse thrust to slow the ship down, thus braking takes as long as acceleration. It becomes a factor in the movie, but we won’t spoil anymore of it for you.

Our recommendation is that yuo go see the movie, and if anything sparks your interest NASA has a whole lot of information about everything that is going on with our current plans or Mars. They are hoping to have a human on the red planet by the 2030’s, but that is going to take a massive investment of time, money, and passion by the American people, and the people of the world at large. With any luck movies like, The Martian, can help lay the ground work for the enthusiasm we need to get there. All the technological problems and challenges can be overcome, but without a willingness to go, we may never get off the ground.

Humanity needs to be able to fly or we will fall.

One of our great modern adventurers once said, “It’s a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The name of that explorer was none other than Bilbo Baggins, and he is someone who knows a thing or two about dangerous and far-off expeditions. In fact, to a hobbit who is standing at the door of his comfortable and well furnished hole in the ground, a journey to the Lonely Mountain must seem as impossible as a trip to another planet.

2015 marks 50 years since humans have been exploring the red planet, Mars. Mariner 4 was the first human made craft to successfully approach the planet on July 15, 1965, giving humans our first real view of the Martian surface. Since that day we have been sending probes, satellites, and rovers, but we have yet to set our big hairy feet on the planet’s surface. This is the dream of space exploration, the golden ring that NASA and others are reaching for. Our precious. However, to achieve it we need to embark on a journey unlike we have ever undertaken. We will face goblins and spiders, there will be peril and discovery. Yet we cannot turn away, because the riches we will find will be greater than any dragon treasure or magic ring.

Riddles in the Dark
There are many questions we must answer if we hope to get humans to Mars, and not the least of them has to do with the distance. Any communication between Earth and Mars could face a delay of up to 40 minutes and that means if our astronauts run into trouble anywhere between home and that far off land there will be no eagles there to catch them. Self-sufficiency and training is going to be key. Right now the plans for sending humans to Mars calls for a six person mission. Each crew member will not only need to have a specialty, such as mechanical engineering, flight training, Elven archery, or medical training, but also a good amount of cross training as well, because if you only have one doctor and he/she falls to the Balrog what do you do then? Additionally, the distance means that the crew does not have the ability to resupply. Any journey between Earth and the red planet could take anywhere between 150 to 300 days, depending on how the orbits of Mars and Earth line up. Astronauts will need to take all the water, air, and food they need to survive with them. It is true that we can recycle water from human waste and oxygen from the air we exhale, but the return is not 100%.

Of course, bringing all this extra oxygen, water, and food adds extra weight, and we’re not even talking about hobbit-meals with the option for second breakfast. At the bare minimum, NASA estimates that a crewed mission to Mars would need to lift twice the mass of the International Space Station, about 1.76 million pounds (800 metric tons.) Even worse a need for back ups and secondary expendables like air filters and spare parts also adds more weight. These are the types of things that, if broken, the astronauts would not be able to repair on their own, and are mission – if not survival- critical.

Then of course there are the more intangible dangers, the subtle Sauron-esque black magics of the universe. Environmental hazards, isolation-based psychological issues, and possible long-term health problems. Mars is a lot like Mordor except instead of orcs and the Dead Marshes, you would probably be more worried about things like freezing to death or getting microwaved. In fact, the planet has an average temperature of about -75 degree Fahrenheit (-60 degree Centigrade) which is colder than the average temperatures in northern Russia. There is also very little protection offered from solar activity. Mars does not have a magnetic field like Earth and the atmosphere is too thin to breathe, let alone absorb UV radiation. Even the gravity can be a problem, being only 38% of Earth normal. When humans are exposed to weak gravity for too long our muscles and bones degenerate, growing weaker and atrophied. Astronauts on the space station exercise constantly to combat the effects, and even then they still come back and go through months of physical rehabilitation, so you can imagine what an extended trip to and stay on the red planet might do to the humans who undertake it. Combine all that with the isolation, possibly claustrophobic travel/living conditions, and constant danger and our astronauts are going to be have to made of mental mithril just to make it through one mission, which could last up to two years.

Barrels Out of Bonds
The good news is that, much like Biblo, we can handle the journey, even if we don’t realize it yet. Any adventure starts with putting one foot in front of the other and we have already been doing that for more than fifty years. Everything we have learned from the Apollo missions, the Mars probes, the International Space Station, and more are being applied to vanquishing these trolls. New technologies are being developed every day, nano-tech materials that are harder and lighter than anything we currently have, new power and engine solutions, and even renewable food sources. Some of our best and brightest are already close to making breakthroughs in several of these fields, and most top thinkers believe that we will have the solutions by the time we are ready to finally face down the dragon that is the red planet.

That is not to say we have been sitting around and waiting. We already have a lot of the answers we are looking for. First of all, no Mars mission will happen in one blast-off, which means that the weight can be distributed over several rocket launches and trips to Mars. Equipment will be sent ahead of the manned crew capsule and will be waiting for the astronauts upon their arrival. We even have techniques for possibly extracting air and rocket fuel from the Martian environment for the return journey. That means we can send a return rocket to the Martian surface and let it collect fuel and confirm remotely that it is working and safe before we ever even send any humans into space.

Secondly, NASA has also been testing the Orion capsule and the SLS rocket, both of which are on track to get humans to Mars by the 2030’s. The Orion capsule will hold a crew of six people but will need to work in conjunction with a larger trans-planetary vessel. The Orion is little more than a modern version of the Apollo capsule and it will be too cramped for six people to spend four or five months making the journey to Mars. After all, even Bilbo had more personal space with thirteen dwarves and Ian McKellen always hanging around on his journey. So a larger ship with room to move about and some personal space could go a long way to helping our brave adventures keep fit both physically and menatally. That vessel is still begin designed.

Over the Hill Under the Hill
Human beings have been obsessed with the red planet for as long as we have had the capability to look up into the sky. Mars has always held a special place in our legends and stories, and that is odd when you think about it. Mars is not the closest planet to our own, that is Venus. It is not particularly large either, at least as planetary bodies go. Yet, we have had an obsession with it for at least 120 years, when Percival Lowell first believed that he discovered the canals of an extraterrestrial civilization. Much like Thorin Oakenshield and his Lonely Mountain there is something compelling us to go, as if it was our destiny all along, but we still need to find the will to undertake this incredible endeavor.

Gandalf pushed Biblo Baggins into his journey because he knew he was ready. The hobbit was more than comfortable to stay at home and live out a peaceful, if uninteresting life, among the creature comforts of the Shire. Like Bilbo we too could stay on Earth, biding out time with iPhones and blackberry tarts with slabs of butter, or we can accept the calling that has been set before us. Gandalf recognized something special in the small hobbit, and though we may not have a wandering gray wizard to give us a kick in the right direction, this is an adventure we know we must undertake. We can feel its pull as keenly as Bilbo did.

Chalk it up to curiosity, stupidity, or the human need to explore, but Mars is the next logical step, and not just for NASA but all of us. We went to the moon with Apollo, to prove that one country was better than another. Now we need to go to Mars to prove that humanity is better than what we once were. The goal of any journey is the destination, but the experiences along the way are what change us. There will be challenges and hardships, triumphs and cheers, but if we choose not to take the road laid out before us we will regret it. The Bilbo Baggins that returned to the Shire was not the same one who left it. Like the hobbit, humanity will emerge from this great endeavor bolder, wiser, and with a new understanding about what we are capable of accomplishing. Watching members of our own species set foot on an alien world and shift the red sands of Mars will remind us of how small we really are and the amazing things we can achieve together.

On the Doorstep
We are going to Mars. NASA has the plans laid out, and have been underway with preparations for years. In our lifetimes we will see a human being touch the surface of another planet. There are still a lot of questions about budget and technology, but those can be resolved. Our science, our understanding of the universe, and even our drive have never been higher. The journey will not be an easy one, but the best ones never are. We do not yet have all the answers to escape the goblins and slay the dragons that lay ahead, but we will learn. Whether it be a magic glowing sword, or an answer for artificial gravity we will discover new solutions for whatever stands in our way, and we will be better for it.

We are not saying that humanity will change all at once, but it will happen. We have already come so far from the world that once sent three men to the moon, that one small step for man. It would be easy to rest there, to not push on. We have already reached Rivendale, a milestone in our greater journey, a place we could stop and say look what we have already done. Yet, we must once again set out into a cold world full of danger and possibility. Mars is the destination, and even that is just another step in some greater journey. Humanity will expand our reach to another planet and beyond, because that is where the road is leading and it is one we must follow:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And [we all] must follow, if [we] can.