Humans on Mars in 8 years? From any other president it would be lunacy, but with Trump at the helm it just might work

Last month US President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that further focused NASA’s continuing goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Laying out in detail the steps the agency will take to reach this goal, it was welcomed by those at NASA, who have been itching to visit the Red Planet as quickly as possible.

“We’re all very much looking forward, as directed by your new NASA bill, we’re excited about the missions to Mars in the 2030s,” the brilliant Commander Peggy Whitson, who yesterday broke the US cumulative space record, told Trump in a live streamed video call from the International Space Station. “We are absolutely ready to go to Mars. It’s going to be a fantastic journey getting up there and very exciting times. All of us would be happy to go.”

But yesterday during the conversation with Whitson, Trump made comments that suggest he’s hoping to move that target forward significantly. First, he asked the Commander how quickly she thought humans would get to Mars, to which she reiterated the 2030s goal and explained some of the challenges associated with getting to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour.

“Well we want to do it during my first term,” Trump then responded, to laughs from his daughter Ivanka, who also was in attendance, “or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

This, naturally, was jumped on by the left-wing press as the latest way to lambast Trump, but is it possible that it could be achievable?

Well, if we’re talking about first term – no, unfortunately not. NASA is still in the process of building its Space Launch System, the rocket that will be capable of manned missions to Mars, and the first test flight is not due until next year. There are also a huge number of issues that remain unresolved – not least that unless a solution to the vast amounts of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to is developed, there’s a good chance they could arrive at Mars with little clue about why they were there.

Add the fact that a flight to Mars would take between 150 and 300 days depending on planetary alignment and fuel usage, and a goal of just three years and nine months to arrive is simply not achievable.

Seven years and nine months – ie at the end of Trump’s second term – however is considerably more plausible, albeit still very ambitious. But Trump is nothing if not ambitious, and if he’s prepared to provide the support to make it happen, it really could be pulled off.

Mars by 2025?

If Trump were to formally move forward the Mars goal, he’d likely be looking at right at the end of his third term, so 2025. Conversely, his NASA bill has a tentative date of 2033: eight years later, meaning he’d effectively be halving the time left before humans landed on the Red Planet.

But there’s a lot to do. Only so much can be determined in low-Earth orbit – phase one of NASA’s work toward the Red Planet – and from next year NASA plans to embark on phase two of its Journey to Mars, using cis-Lunar space to test humans’ ability to live without reliance on Earth. That would have to be sped up – meaning more missions more quickly – in order to move to the third and final phase, and ultimately a manned trip to Mars.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. Image courtesy of NASA. Above: President Trump on call to Commander Peggy Whitson and NASA’s Jack Fischer. Image courtesy of NASA TV

However, even on the longer target of 2033, the mission is going to require vast funds and international support, as Whitson explained during her video stream.

“Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful, just because it is a very expensive endeavour,” she said. “But it is so worthwhile doing.”

The funding, in particular, is going to be a serious challenge. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal sees NASA escaping the gouging cuts faced by many other departments, but it is set to lose 1% of its budget. However, its remit will be more tightly focused on the Mars mission, with education and Earth observation taking the damage.

But while that is relatively promising for fans of a manned Mars mission, if Trump is going to follow in John F Kennedy’s footsteps and make a short-term, big-goal space project a central morale booster, he’s going to have to follow Kennedy’s approach to funding the space agency. And that means adding far more money to NASA’s pot – potentially at least at the levels of Kennedy’s NASA, which would be equivalent to more than twice the current NASA budget.

In real terms, NASA’s current budget is slightly under half its peak during the run up to the Moon landing

For some the answer may lie in the commercial space industry, which is seeing dramatic growth, and is set to be dominated by US companies. And Trump’s NASA bill continues this support, showing there is certainly a strong business case to be had in transitioning low-Earth orbit activities to private companies. But while the commercial space industry is undoubtedly going to provide massive incomes in the future, in general it is not currently a profitable field, and so is unlikely to be a major source of financial gain for NASA within the time Trump would need.

Whatever you think of Trump, it’s clear that he’s a fan of space, and as part of the generation that watched the Moon landing live on black and white televisions, it’s no surprise. Now he’s at the helm, it seems he wants to ensure that next great moment in US space-faring is under his command. I probably would too if I were president.

But no matter how enthusiastic he is about the space agency and its plans, if he wants to make it happen, he’s going to need to put a lot more money behind NASA. Will alone will not speed up the journey to Mars, so if Trump is serious we should see a big uptick in the NASA budget next time around.

US wants to use the Moon as a petrol station

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross has said that the Trump administration aims to turn the Moon into a petrol station, which will allow for the exploration of deeper parts of the solar system. According to Ross, explorers would use ice from the moon's craters to refuel on the way to other destinations.

SpaceX’s first broadband satellites are now in space

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has confirmed the company's first broadband satellites – named Tintin A and Tintin B – have been deployed and are now "communicating to Earth stations". The satellites are being used to test SpaceX's future Starlink broadband service, which aims to provide gigabit broadband worldwide.

Source: Ars Technica

Nissan to trial self-driving taxis in Japan

Nissan and Japanese tech giant DeNA have announced field tests of Easy Ride, the self-driving taxi service they developed together, will begin on March 5 in Yokohama, Japan. The cars will take passengers along a 4.5km route between the Yokohama World Porters shopping centre and Nissan’s corporate complex.

Source: Tech Crunch

Elon Musk quits AI ethics group

Elon Musk has always been quick to urge caution when it comes to AI, but now he has quit the board of the research group he co-founded to look into the tech's ethics. OpenAI said the decision had been taken to avoid any conflict of interest as Mr Musk's electric car company, Tesla, became "more focused on AI".

Source: BBC

Beef companies file petition against lab-grown meat startups

The US beef industry is fighting back against tech startups who are creating meat in a lab using animal cells. The US Cattlemen’s Association has filed a petition arguing that lab-grown meat startups should not be able to call their products "meat," since they do not come from slaughtered animals.

Millions of dollars in Ethereum are vulnerable to hackers

Researchers claim that having analysed almost one million smart contracts stored on the Ethereum blockchain, 34,200 are "critically vulnerable". A sample of roughly 3,000 vulnerable contracts that the team verified could be exploited to steal roughly $6 million worth of Ether, Ethereum’s in-house cryptocurrency.

Source: Motherboard

Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.