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03/08/2006

On to Mars?

No more morning walks on the Marco Island beach. It was back
to New Jersey last week with freezing weather and an icy
mixture of sleet, snow and rain that left a half-inch coating of ice
on our driveway. My wife and I also simultaneously developed
horrific colds. Back to reality! I left Marco realizing that this
year I did not see a single dolphin, starfish, sand dollar or conch
egg packet. I did not see the large heron standing at water’s edge
that I’ve seen the past few years. I fantasized that the heron,
standing in the water facing the western sky, shared my
appreciation of the beauty of the setting full moon.

I also did not see an eagle this year. In my last column, I
mentioned the controversy about the plethora of eagles in
Homer, Alaska. Well, a front-page article by Aisling Swift in
the Naples Daily News showed that eagles and the environment
are a serious matter in Florida as well. A construction worker
was on trial in Federal Court for cutting down a tree that housed
an eagle’s nest. The fellow claimed that his employer, a
development company, told him to cut down the tree and that he
didn’t know the nest belonged to an eagle. The first-degree
federal misdemeanor charge was brought under a provision of
the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and is punishable by a
one-year sentence in federal prison and a fine of $5,000! The
jury found the employee not guilty. However, the development
company agreed to pay over $350,000 in fines and restitution. It
doesn’t pay to mess around with eagles.

It’s been many years since Neil Armstrong said “Houston.
Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Just as John F.
Kennedy is remembered for initiating the venture to land on the
moon, George W. Bush would like to be remembered for his
initiation of a program to land on Mars. It’s probably a sign of
my age, but I never expected to read or find anything of interest
in Rolling Stone. Therefore, I was shocked to receive from Brian
Trumbore an article from the February 23 issue. The article by
Benjamin Wallace-Wells titled “Mars or Bust” was a
surprisingly good description of the proposed Mars mission and
the challenges that it poses.

I’ve written before about some of these challenges and, while I
endorse the concept of going to Mars, I’m of the opinion that it
highly unlikely man will ever land on Mars and return safely
back to Earth. Obstacles include the obvious ones of providing
sufficient food, air and water for the proposed six-man crew on a
trip lasting over two years. There are the huge psychological
problems associated with a crew being cooped up together for
that period of time, the problem of powering a spaceship big
enough to house the crew, the hostile environment once the crew
lands on Mars, the possibility of one or more of the astronauts
coming down with a serious medical problem, etc.

Initially, it was claimed that the Mars program would not take
money away from other space projects that were on NASA’s
docket. However, in the last week or so, there have been reports
of NASA canceling or delaying programs because of the shift to
emphasis on Mars. Among those mentioned are programs aimed
at finding earth-like planets outside our solar system, to my mind
an objective that should take precedence over any Mars mission.

While none of the above challenges are obvious show-stoppers,
there is a problem that must be addressed before a Mars mission
gets off the ground. The problem is cosmic rays, which aren’t
rays but are ions (mostly protons) hurtling through space at
nearly the speed of light. We’re fortunate in that we’re
surrounded by enough air that these cosmic bullets and the debris
that results when they strike the atmosphere get absorbed or
downgraded before reaching us on the ground. Eugene Parker,
in an article “Shielding Space Travelers” in the March Scientific
American makes the case that, unless there’s a breakthrough in
protecting astronauts from these cosmic rays, this could be a
show-stopper. Parker knows whereof he speaks. An emeritus
professor at the University of Chicago, he’s a leading expert on
interplanetary gas and is credited with first proposing the solar
wind and explaining how it works.

There are three approaches to shielding against the cosmic rays.
One is to surround the spacecraft with enough of some material
to mimic what happens in our atmosphere. Water is one
proposed material and is something the astronauts would need
anyway. However, for a relatively compact space capsule, the
water would have to be between 15 and 20 feet deep and would
weigh about 500 tons! That’s a lot of water to carry around. For
comparison, the Space Shuttle only carries a payload of some 30
tons. Instead of water, another suggested material is solid
polyethylene but the weight would still be exorbitant, about 400
tons!

Another approach is to use a magnetic field to deflect the cosmic
rays. Earth’s magnetic field helps in this regard for those living
near our equator but does little or nothing to deflect cosmic rays
at higher latitudes especially near the poles, where the field
provides little or no deflecting of the cosmic rays. The magnetic
field for our Mars spacecraft would have to be about 600,000
times larger than Earth’s magnetic field. However, Parker cites
the case of a colleague who once stuck his head between the
poles of an old particle accelerator magnet. When the fellow
moved his head, flashes of light appeared in his eyes and he had
an acidy taste in his mouth. The latter is thought to result from
electrolysis of his saliva! Not a good thing. And this was in a
magnetic field much weaker than that needed to shield the space
travelers.

While one proposed design of equipment to generate a large
enough magnetic field would “only” weigh 9 tons, that’s still a
lot of extra weight to carry to Mars and back. Furthermore, if
moving around in such a large field electrolyzes saliva and
causes flashes in the eyes, who knows what other effects it might
have on the body. It might be necessary to “neutralize” the large
field in the living quarters of the spacecraft but that would add
another degree of complexity and weight.

Another proposed approach to shielding the cosmic rays is to
charge the outside surface of the space capsule. The cosmic rays
are protons and other heavier nuclei with positive charges and
should be repelled by a positively charged spacecraft. Parker
points out that the charge would not only have to be huge to
deflect the positive cosmic bullets but, in addition, the solar wind
fills space with electrons, which are negatively charged. These
electrons would be strongly attracted and accelerated by a
positively charged capsule and generate gamma rays when they
hit the capsule. These gamma rays would create as much of a
health problem as the cosmic rays. So much for that idea.

Let’s assume that a crew does make it to Mars. With precious
little atmosphere, there will be cosmic rays galore and the
astronauts will have to quickly construct a shelter covered by
tons of Martian dirt. This is something that they aren’t likely to
be able to do with just a pick and shovel, especially if they
haven’t solved how to avoid the loss of bone mass during space
travel! It would seem that robots and heavy equipment capable
of building a shelter would have to be sent to Mars prior to the
astronauts’ landing.

Should a crew actually make it to Mars and back, Parker cites a
NASA estimate that a third of the astronaut’s DNA will be cut by
cosmic rays each year. Another estimate from the Federal
Aviation Administration is that 1 in 10 male astronauts and 1 in 6
female astronauts will die of cancer caused by cosmic rays on a
Mars trip. These figures are speculative because there just aren’t
enough data to make firm conclusions. On the biomedical front,
there is the chance that some people will be found to be
genetically more resistant to radiation and/or that some sort of
drug can be found to prevent or minimize radiation damage to
DNA. I’d like to thank my brother, an expert in the field of
radiation damage in DNA, for a tutorial in this field. He agrees
with Parker that so far the only compounds known to provide
some degree of resistance to radiation damage are themselves
toxic.

In spite of the odds cited above, I have no doubt that there will be
many brave men and women who will consider such odds to be
quite acceptable just so they can be a part of such a monumental
adventure. While a manned Mars landing won’t happen in my
lifetime and I am highly skeptical of the wisdom of spending
enormous sums of money on the project, I certainly wish any
astronauts that do embark for Mars a safe and successful journey.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-03/08/2006-      
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Dr. Bortrum

03/08/2006

On to Mars?

No more morning walks on the Marco Island beach. It was back
to New Jersey last week with freezing weather and an icy
mixture of sleet, snow and rain that left a half-inch coating of ice
on our driveway. My wife and I also simultaneously developed
horrific colds. Back to reality! I left Marco realizing that this
year I did not see a single dolphin, starfish, sand dollar or conch
egg packet. I did not see the large heron standing at water’s edge
that I’ve seen the past few years. I fantasized that the heron,
standing in the water facing the western sky, shared my
appreciation of the beauty of the setting full moon.

I also did not see an eagle this year. In my last column, I
mentioned the controversy about the plethora of eagles in
Homer, Alaska. Well, a front-page article by Aisling Swift in
the Naples Daily News showed that eagles and the environment
are a serious matter in Florida as well. A construction worker
was on trial in Federal Court for cutting down a tree that housed
an eagle’s nest. The fellow claimed that his employer, a
development company, told him to cut down the tree and that he
didn’t know the nest belonged to an eagle. The first-degree
federal misdemeanor charge was brought under a provision of
the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and is punishable by a
one-year sentence in federal prison and a fine of $5,000! The
jury found the employee not guilty. However, the development
company agreed to pay over $350,000 in fines and restitution. It
doesn’t pay to mess around with eagles.

It’s been many years since Neil Armstrong said “Houston.
Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Just as John F.
Kennedy is remembered for initiating the venture to land on the
moon, George W. Bush would like to be remembered for his
initiation of a program to land on Mars. It’s probably a sign of
my age, but I never expected to read or find anything of interest
in Rolling Stone. Therefore, I was shocked to receive from Brian
Trumbore an article from the February 23 issue. The article by
Benjamin Wallace-Wells titled “Mars or Bust” was a
surprisingly good description of the proposed Mars mission and
the challenges that it poses.

I’ve written before about some of these challenges and, while I
endorse the concept of going to Mars, I’m of the opinion that it
highly unlikely man will ever land on Mars and return safely
back to Earth. Obstacles include the obvious ones of providing
sufficient food, air and water for the proposed six-man crew on a
trip lasting over two years. There are the huge psychological
problems associated with a crew being cooped up together for
that period of time, the problem of powering a spaceship big
enough to house the crew, the hostile environment once the crew
lands on Mars, the possibility of one or more of the astronauts
coming down with a serious medical problem, etc.

Initially, it was claimed that the Mars program would not take
money away from other space projects that were on NASA’s
docket. However, in the last week or so, there have been reports
of NASA canceling or delaying programs because of the shift to
emphasis on Mars. Among those mentioned are programs aimed
at finding earth-like planets outside our solar system, to my mind
an objective that should take precedence over any Mars mission.

While none of the above challenges are obvious show-stoppers,
there is a problem that must be addressed before a Mars mission
gets off the ground. The problem is cosmic rays, which aren’t
rays but are ions (mostly protons) hurtling through space at
nearly the speed of light. We’re fortunate in that we’re
surrounded by enough air that these cosmic bullets and the debris
that results when they strike the atmosphere get absorbed or
downgraded before reaching us on the ground. Eugene Parker,
in an article “Shielding Space Travelers” in the March Scientific
American makes the case that, unless there’s a breakthrough in
protecting astronauts from these cosmic rays, this could be a
show-stopper. Parker knows whereof he speaks. An emeritus
professor at the University of Chicago, he’s a leading expert on
interplanetary gas and is credited with first proposing the solar
wind and explaining how it works.

There are three approaches to shielding against the cosmic rays.
One is to surround the spacecraft with enough of some material
to mimic what happens in our atmosphere. Water is one
proposed material and is something the astronauts would need
anyway. However, for a relatively compact space capsule, the
water would have to be between 15 and 20 feet deep and would
weigh about 500 tons! That’s a lot of water to carry around. For
comparison, the Space Shuttle only carries a payload of some 30
tons. Instead of water, another suggested material is solid
polyethylene but the weight would still be exorbitant, about 400
tons!

Another approach is to use a magnetic field to deflect the cosmic
rays. Earth’s magnetic field helps in this regard for those living
near our equator but does little or nothing to deflect cosmic rays
at higher latitudes especially near the poles, where the field
provides little or no deflecting of the cosmic rays. The magnetic
field for our Mars spacecraft would have to be about 600,000
times larger than Earth’s magnetic field. However, Parker cites
the case of a colleague who once stuck his head between the
poles of an old particle accelerator magnet. When the fellow
moved his head, flashes of light appeared in his eyes and he had
an acidy taste in his mouth. The latter is thought to result from
electrolysis of his saliva! Not a good thing. And this was in a
magnetic field much weaker than that needed to shield the space
travelers.

While one proposed design of equipment to generate a large
enough magnetic field would “only” weigh 9 tons, that’s still a
lot of extra weight to carry to Mars and back. Furthermore, if
moving around in such a large field electrolyzes saliva and
causes flashes in the eyes, who knows what other effects it might
have on the body. It might be necessary to “neutralize” the large
field in the living quarters of the spacecraft but that would add
another degree of complexity and weight.

Another proposed approach to shielding the cosmic rays is to
charge the outside surface of the space capsule. The cosmic rays
are protons and other heavier nuclei with positive charges and
should be repelled by a positively charged spacecraft. Parker
points out that the charge would not only have to be huge to
deflect the positive cosmic bullets but, in addition, the solar wind
fills space with electrons, which are negatively charged. These
electrons would be strongly attracted and accelerated by a
positively charged capsule and generate gamma rays when they
hit the capsule. These gamma rays would create as much of a
health problem as the cosmic rays. So much for that idea.

Let’s assume that a crew does make it to Mars. With precious
little atmosphere, there will be cosmic rays galore and the
astronauts will have to quickly construct a shelter covered by
tons of Martian dirt. This is something that they aren’t likely to
be able to do with just a pick and shovel, especially if they
haven’t solved how to avoid the loss of bone mass during space
travel! It would seem that robots and heavy equipment capable
of building a shelter would have to be sent to Mars prior to the
astronauts’ landing.

Should a crew actually make it to Mars and back, Parker cites a
NASA estimate that a third of the astronaut’s DNA will be cut by
cosmic rays each year. Another estimate from the Federal
Aviation Administration is that 1 in 10 male astronauts and 1 in 6
female astronauts will die of cancer caused by cosmic rays on a
Mars trip. These figures are speculative because there just aren’t
enough data to make firm conclusions. On the biomedical front,
there is the chance that some people will be found to be
genetically more resistant to radiation and/or that some sort of
drug can be found to prevent or minimize radiation damage to
DNA. I’d like to thank my brother, an expert in the field of
radiation damage in DNA, for a tutorial in this field. He agrees
with Parker that so far the only compounds known to provide
some degree of resistance to radiation damage are themselves
toxic.

In spite of the odds cited above, I have no doubt that there will be
many brave men and women who will consider such odds to be
quite acceptable just so they can be a part of such a monumental
adventure. While a manned Mars landing won’t happen in my
lifetime and I am highly skeptical of the wisdom of spending
enormous sums of money on the project, I certainly wish any
astronauts that do embark for Mars a safe and successful journey.

Allen F. Bortrum