Welcome to my Sinkhole, Premium Martian Real Estate

A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)

A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)

It might not look like much from space, but this depression in the Martian landscape might be considered to be a priceless feature when viewed by future Mars colonists.

In December 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flew silently over the Tharsis bulge, the location of a series of ancient volcanoes. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) captured what appears to be a deep hole. This kind of feature has been seen before, like a Martian pore, deep and foreboding. Usually these sinkholes aren’t as deep as they look, but they are deeper than the surrounding landscape. They are also similar to their terrestrial counterparts in that they have very steep sides (unlike the gentle, eroded slopes of crater rims) and they are caused by a lack of material below. On Earth, sinkholes often form due to water flowing beneath, removing material, causing the overlying rock/soil to slump, forming a sudden hole. In the example above, the sinkhole (or “collapse pit”) was caused by tectonic activity. In this case, it is likely that the material dropped into a void left over by magma-filled dykes (lava tubes from old volcanoes).

A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)

A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)

The result is a hole with very steep sides. It has been suggested that these sink holes may be useful to future Mars colonists, as they can use the natural feature for shelter. On Mars, humans would be subject to an increased dosage of radiation (due to the tenuous Martian atmosphere and lack of a global magnetic field), so it is preferable to find any form of natural shelter to build your habitat. The depth of this kind of sinkhole will afford some protection, and drilling into the cavern side would be even better. Perhaps even put a dome over the top? No need to build walls around your building then. Also, there’s the interesting–if a little frightening–prospect of accessing underground lava tubes. Therefore, colonists won’t need to dig very far to create a subterranean habitat with all the radiation protection they’ll ever need (the insulation would also be impressive).

Although this scenario might be a little far-fetched, and probably only suitable for an established human presence on Mars (after all, the numerous valleys would probably suffice for most permanent habitats drilled into cliff faces), it does go to show that the current missions in orbit around Mars are doing a great job at seeking out some possible housing solutions for our future Mars settlers…

Source: HiRISE, Marspedia

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When the Space Hotel’s a Rockin’…

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)

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You can’t go on vacation any more without your video camera, especially if you’re going some place spectacular and exciting. When the new wave of space tourists soars into orbit, they’re going to come back with some spectacular home movies. Some of them may be a lot steamier than others because there’s bound to be a couple just itching to be the first humans to have sex in space and capture it on high definition video to bolster their claim to fame. Yes, sex in space in inevitable and the moment people finally get a little privacy and a little room in which to play (something that’s missing on today’s space missions), it’s going to happen.

But before you rush to reinvent the Kama Sutra in 360 degree freedom, a few tips for you aspiring 60+ mile high club members…
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The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
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The Link Between Beer and the Colonization of Space

A Japanese brewery has successfully produced 100 litres of Space Beer. Hurrah!

The beer won’t actually be consumed in space (which seems a shame somehow), but it was made totally from barley grown on the International Space Station. For a lucky few, 60 people will get to sample the beer in Tokyo next month. So, what can they expect?

Alas, there won’t be much difference between the Sapporo Brewery’s 100% space barley brew when compared with a terrestrial grain as there is no measured difference in the DNA of barley grown in space when compared with barley grown on Earth. Therefore I doubt there will be any “eureka!” moment for the alcoholic beverage industry and therefore no immediate plans to launch a micro(gravity)brewery into orbit…
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Interview with World of Weird Things: Colonizing Space, at a Profit

A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.

A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.

This morning I had a thought-provoking interview with Greg Fish, owner and writer for the superb website World of Weird Things. Greg wanted to get my insight to the world of commercial spaceflight and future colonization of other worlds, writing up a brilliant article called Colonizing Space, At A Profit based on my interview.

We examined the benefits mankind can reap from the exploration of space, but the responsibility of doing so is not exclusive to NASA or any other government-funded agency. The future of spaceflight rests in the hands of entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and primarily, businessmen. Manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt could open a new frontier of mineral exploitation, in turn opening a new era for mankind. It may be our best hope in the long-run to survive as a race.

We could be on the verge of a Solar System-wide “gold rush”, it just depends who will be the first to have the vision for such an endeavour.

If you were the company to build the first colony on Mars, the planet is all yours for the taking,” – quote from Colonizing Space, At A Profit, on World of Weird Things

Thank you Greg for wanting to speak with me, and for preparing a very inspiring interview! Be sure to check out World of Weird Things, there are some very interesting articles and essays, delving into a huge array of topics, each written with a high degree of thought and intellect. A firm favourite on my reading list.

Apollo Astronaut Highlights Threat of Asteroid Impact

In a renewed attempt to bring the concern about a potential asteroid strike to the world’s attention, former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart briefed UN officials on Tuesday about a report entitled “Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response.” The report has been drawn up by the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation (IPATM), formed by space explorers and scientists in an effort to put a contingency plan into action to limit the devastation caused by a theoretical impact.

The key point here is that the IPATM is not predicting an immediate catastrophic asteroid collision, it merely wants the UN to recognise there is a danger out there and to enact procedures to save lives and possibly remove the threat all together…
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Strangest Kuiper Belt Objects: The Top Five

From Pluto, looking at its icy moons in the Kuiper belt (NASA)

The Kuiper belt is strange. Most of this strangeness probably comes from the fact that we are only just beginning to uncover this mysterious region of the Solar System. Unlike the Oort Cloud which (possibly) lies beyond 3 × 1012 km away (over 20,000 AU, or a whopping 0.3 light years), we can actually observe the objects inside the Kuiper belt as, compared to the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper belt is on our interplanetary doorstep.

But that doesn’t mean it’s close. The Kuiper belt exists in a region of space 30–55 AU from the Sun; this is where Pluto lives (as Pluto itself is a “Kuiper belt object”, or KBO). As astronomical techniques become more advanced however, we are able to discover more KBOs in the zoo of icy-rocky bodies that live in this region.

Having just written about an oddball pair of “highly split” KBOs, I feel compelled to list my top five favourite KBOs. Here are my favourites, as some are really funny-lookin’ and others have some serious personal issues…
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Meet Antipholus and Antipholus, a Very Odd Kuiper Belt Couple

2001 QW322 is a highly split Kuiper Belt pair, orbiting eachother at a distance of 125,000 km

The highly-split Kuiper Belt pair 2001 QW322 (CFEPS)

The Kuiper Belt is an eerie, mysterious and cold region of the Solar System. In it, there are billions of small pieces of rocks with lots of fancy names. As a general designation, all objects in the Kuiper belt are called “Kuiper-belt objects” (KBO’s for short). As the Kuiper belt is located in a region just beyond Neptune, they may also be known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNO’s). Inside the Kuiper belt, we have Pluto-like objects known as “Plutoids”, classical KBO’s called “Cubewanos” (the largest being the recently discovered Makemake) and a whole host of other objects such as icy objects soon to become the next generation of periodic comets.

We are only scraping the surface, finding only a small portion of KBOs. We know of a thousand, but astronomers believe there may be as many as 70,000 measuring over 100km in diameter, plus countless other smaller objects.

Therefore, it is not very surprising that some rather strange KBOs exist, and possibly the oddest one has just been observed. From the same team that discovered KBO 2008 KV42 — a piece of rock orbiting the wrong way in a one-way Solar System — a binary Kuiper belt object has been found with a huge orbit…
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How Long Would it Take to Travel to Proxima Centauri?

Project Orion - Using nuclear explosions as pulsed propulsion (NASA)

This is one of those articles I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: How long would the interstellar transit be from Earth to the nearest star (and no, I don’t mean the Sun)? It turns out that there is no practical way, using today’s available technology that we can travel to Proxima Centauri (a red dwarf star, 4.33 light years from the Solar System). This is a shame as there are so many stars and so many exoplanets to explore, which space enthusiast wouldn’t want to envisage interstellar space travel? However, there may be help at hand, using modern technology and materials; we might be able to mount a manned expedition to Proxima lasting a little under a century…
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The Eden Project and Mars Settlement

The Eden Project, nr. St Austell (©Ian O'Neill)

On our travels last week, we decided to stop off at the Eden Project down near St. Austell in Cornwall for a few hours. It’s been one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, especially since my involvement with the Mars Foundation. Well known in the UK for its “Biomes” – huge geodesic domes composed of hexagonal cushions of flexible but durable plastic – the project supports a huge number of plants and animals from around the globe. So, apart from looking pretty cool, why have I decided to mention it on astroengine? Well, Eden hasn’t only inspired environmentalists, it could aid the future design and implementation of structures beyond Earth…
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