From our archives:
We would like to know if it would be
possible to use plastic or aluminum in construction on Mars? We have
discussed what we could use to store our food and water, and want to
recycle everything we can. We know that aluminum shouldn't rust, and
we thought that if we filled cans with dirt, they could be used in constructing
homes or buildings, and the dirt would add to the insulating factor.
Then we thought plastic might be a good way to store water, and possibly
could be used in construction also......but it might biodegrade in
the Martian elements. We are trying to be wise in the way we use
our resources. Thank you for your help.
ANSWER from Andrew Petro on March 10, 2000:
You have some good ideas. Aluminum is used for many things in space
and it should be OK on Mars. The idea of filling used containers
with dirt is really good. I don't know a lot about all the different
kinds of plastics but you are right to be concerned. There may
be some kinds of plastics that would have a problem on Mars but
there may be other types that are OK. We may need to learn a little
more about the conditions on Mars in order to be sure.
From A.T.P. group, working on a habitat
we could live in on Mars. We were trying to figure out what material
to build a dome with when we came across a problem: What would insulate
our dome more efficiently, plastic or glass?
Answer from Bill Clancey: I'm not an expert on materials, but I think
one would need to consider not just the insulation value, but also
1) the radiation (is a glass
dome safe on Mars?) and
2) the effect of the cold & UV (would plastic
become too brittle?).
There are several projects to build habitats that are documented
on the web. Most impressively, see: http://www.marshome.org/
The gallery (http://www.marshome.org/images2/) provides
a good index, with ideas about other kinds of materials that could
be made on Mars.
Many science fiction stories and this Homestead project examine the
possibility of living in caves or underground. Students should consider
why that's a good option, too.
From Katie: Can we use battery powered objects
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Yes, batteries work
on Mars. In fact, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity that are
roving on Mars right now use rechargable batteries (in addition to
their solar panels).
From Erin: Can we use radios on Mars? Can disposable
cameras work on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Radios should work on Mars. Since
Mars is so remote we likely won't have a lot of interference
with others using the same radio frequency.
Disposable cameras (if designed correctly) could also work
on Mars. What would you need for a disposable camera? Would
you bring a darkroom with you to develop the film? What other
options might make things simpler? How about digital cameras?
From Sarah: Have the Martian ice cpas been explored?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: We have explored the Martian ice caps from orbit but we have never
landed there! Not yet, anyway. However, the next mission NASA is planning
to send is called Phoenix and it will land at a high latitude with
the goal of scooping of some of the ice that we think is on Mars! Phoenix
will land in the "Martian Arctic".
You can search for more information about Phoenix online. Here
are two websites to start with:
From J. Ditze: Is the snow going to melt on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: This is a great question and is precisely
what we hope to learn through our work at Lassen! We don't know if
the snow will melt on Mars. That is why we are collecting data at
Lassen to use in our computer models to simulate how snow behaves.
Then once we verify that these models are correct and that they work
on Earth, we can use them for Mars to see if the snow will melt or
From Z. Richards: What materials shield humans from radiation?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: There are many materials that shield
humans from radiation. Water can shield us from radiation. Martian
regolith may also be able to shield us from radiation so perhaps
we should pile a lot of Mars dirt on top of our habitat. On Earth
we have the Earth's magnetic field which helps deflect much of the
harmful radiation that comes from space so that it doesn't reach
us here on the surface. But what about Mars? Mars doesn't have such
a strong magnetic field, so what does that mean for the amount of
radiation that would reach the planet's surface?
The following are questions from Chaise:
1. Could we colonize on Mars' moons?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: That is a good question. Some people have thought about going to the
moons of Mars before going to Mars itself. Going to the one (or both)
of the Moons would introduce many new engineering challenges. For example,
Phobos and Diemos are small, so what does that mean for the gravity
on the surface of these Moons? Is it more or less than on the surface
of Mars? Could we land there? Try to find some images of the Moons
-- what does the surface look like?
2. If we lived near the volcanoes, would we might be able to colonize
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: This is an important consideration
for landing site selection. Volcanoes might be useful to humans because
if there is a higher amount of heat in the subsurface then maybe
water could be liquid underground instead of being frozen permafrost
which is common on Mars. We would also want to look at the topography
and make sure we could land there -- for example, the landing site
can't be too steep. We would also want to understand any volcanic
system that we are near so that there isn't an eruption too close
3. If we colonized on Mars, how would we get food (i.e. meat)?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: This is a good question for mission
designers. Of course it is very expensive and very time-consuming
to ship all our food from Earth, isn't it? If we want to stay on
Mars and colonize the planet then we might want to be self-sufficient
and grow our own food, just like we do on Earth. What would you need
to do this? Can you imagine greenhouses on Mars where we could grow
crops? How would we accommodate livestock so we could have things
The following are questions from Garrett:
1. How would we transport
material from Earth to Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: We have to use rockets to launch
material off of the Earth and then put it in a cruise trajectory
to Mars. Once we get to Mars then the spacecraft has to enter the
martian atmosphere. Since the spacecraft is traveling so fast it
gets very hot due to the friction with the atmospheric molecules
(even though there is very little atmosphere on Mars!). Then we have
to decide what is the best way to land on the surface of Mars? We
can use retro-rockets to slow the spacecraft down for a nice landing.
The MER rovers used big airbags that allowed the spacecraft to land
and bounce around on Mars but allow the rovers to survive. In your
design you should figure out a way to avoid a crash landing on Mars!
2. How would we design suits to withstand the heat that is on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Designing suits is a tough job. Not
only do you have to shield the astronaut from the harmful martian
environment (low pressure, low temperature) but you also have to
try to keep the astronaut comfortable in the suit (when you are outside
working hard do you ever get really hot and start to sweat?). Plus
the astronaut has to be able to do his/her job while wearing the
suit - things like collecting samples, deploying field equipment,
maybe driving a Mars rover? We can test these suits here on Earth
before sending them to Mars, both outside with people doing field
work and also in special chambers that can replicate the low pressure
and/or low temperature environment of Mars. What sorts of things
might you test?
3. How could we build a habitat that could withstand extreme heat
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Building a habitat is also a tough
job. Engineers have to design a habitat that will survive the extreme
conditions on Mars, including low temperature, low pressure, and
other things such as gusts of wind, possible dust storms, etc. Engineers
can mathematically model how a material and/or design might respond
to such conditions. We also need to understand what the people living
in the Habitat will need on Mars. Will they need a laboratory for
scientific research? Will they need a machine shop to build equipment?
How about a kitchen for their food? Do they need bedrooms? There
is a lot to consider when designing a Habitat. A good place to start
is to think of all the conditions that the Habitat must survive (temperature,
pressure, etc) and also the needs of the users (the astronauts).
4. Could we melt the ice caps to get fresh water? Would we have to
sanitize it first?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: We know that the polar caps contain
water ice so yes, in theory we could melt the ice caps and get water.
However, we do not know if the ice is pure or if it contains anything
else within it so we would want to test the water first and make
sure it is ok. That would tell us if we need to sanitize it.
5. How could Mars have dried out, if it is farther than we are from
the sun? The Earth has a stronger atmosphere than Mars.
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: One of the biggest questions planetary
scientists are trying to answer is where did all the water go that
used to be on Mars! Some is probably underground as frozen ice. Some
is frozen in the polar caps. Some may be deeper underground, perhaps
as liquid in the form of groundwater. A very small amount of water
vapor is in the atmosphere. There may have been more there in the
However, because the atmosphere of Mars is so much less dense than
the atmosphere of Earth and because Mars is so much colder, liquid
water is not stable on the surface of Mars. It will boil and freeze
very fast, all at the same time. So today we can't have open oceans
of water on Mars like we do on Earth.
6. How could we design a barrier for incoming asteroids?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: That is a good question that we haven't
even solved for Earth yet! There have been thoughts of trying to
nudge the asteroid into a different orbit - how might you do that?
From Mary Betke's 8th grade:
Habitat/Living Group (1st/7th period)
Is it true that astronauts recycle urine for extra water?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Researchers are working on this technology.
We don't have full recycling yet -- Here are a few links:
Have the astronauts on the space station experimented with growing
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Yes, there have been several experiments
on both the space shuttle and space station for growing plants in
the microgravity environment. Here are some links:
Do you think it is possible to grow food on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Hopefully we will be able to grow
food on Mars! We have been experimenting with plant growth on the
shuttle and space station. Also, here at NASA Ames we have conducted
experiments to grow plants in simulated martian soil. So far we are
optimistic that we will eventually be able to grow plants on Mars.
Are there any analogs for growing food on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: In the Canadian Arctic and the Mars
analog site located on Devon Island there is a Mars analog greenhouse.
Here is a link for more information. http://www.marsonearth.org/
There are also webcams here
so you can follow the progress of the plants!
Do you have to be secured down when you sleep in space?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Yes, you should be secured down when
you sleep in space because otherwise you would float around! You
don't want to get hurt by banging into a wall or some other object
when you are asleep. Here is a link about sleeping in space:
We are unsure about the air pressure on Mars and how it might affect
us. Can you tell us a little about that?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: The air pressure is VERY low on Mars
- the density of the air is 100 less than on Earth. The pressure
is so low that liquid water is not stable -- it is below what we
call the "triple point" and so it will
boil, even at the low temperatures on Mars. That means you can't
just walk outside on Mars without a spacesuit because humans need
the pressure to be higher to survive.
What kinds of plants do you think would be most likely to thrive on
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: That is a good question. What plants
would you suggest that we test? We have never grown plants on Mars
so we don't know what will thrive. A variety of plants have been
tested and seem to do ok.
Protection/Clothing (3rd period)
What new technologies are being tested for spacesuits? Are these being
tested specifically for wearing on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: An interesting new spacesuit technology
is the mechanical counterpressure suit (MCP). There is a project
called MarsSkins that is looking at this new type of suit.
Is NASA considering wearing a spacesuit made from a different material
than what was worn on the Moon?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Yes, NASA is looking at alternatives
to the suits worn on the Moon during Apollo. Those suits were very
large and bulky which made it hard for the astronauts to work. They
also had some problems with the lunar dust getting into some of the
joints and seals on the suits. Mars has a lot of dust on the surface
so this is something we need to look into.
Transportation (4th period)
Do you think it is possible to power a vehicle with the materials
found on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Hopefully we will be able to power
the vehicles, habitats, etc. with materials found on Mars. One idea
is to use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars and process
this into rocket fuel and liquid water. What else might we be able
to use on Mars? Think about what we use on Earth -- would we have
rocks on Mars? Can we mine the surface and subsurface of Mars? Can
we drill for material?
How was the Moon buggy powered?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: The lunar rover was powered by batteries.
Here is a website with much additional information on the moon
How are the two Mars rovers powered? We guess solar.
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Yes, Spirit and Opportunity (the
two Mars rovers) are solar powered (they have solar panels) and they
also have rechargable batteries.
Assistance (8th period) -- Hopefully Bill Clancy will be able to answer
Would it be possible for an "assistant" to switch from voice
command to keyboard?
Answer from Bill Clancey: Yes, this would be possible if you were
inside the habitat, for example, or in a pressurized rover. When do
you think a keyboard is more convenient than voice? Can you think of
ways using voice command would be easier than using the keyboard? Would
it be possible to use the conventional keyboard when you are wearing
a space suit?
Do you have any designs for assistance robots currently in the works?
Answer from Bill Clancey: Yes, we have developed and tested such
systems for five years. See for example this link: http://www1.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/exploringtheuniverse/utah_robots.html
Or read the reports from Crew 38 at the Mars Desert Research Station
How do you think a robot assistant should move around on Mars?
Answer from Bill Clancey: It depends where the people are going
and how fast the people are moving. If the Mars crew is in a fast
pressurized rover, they would probably like some robots to follow
them, right? How fast can the MER rover move? Why is it so slow?
Geologists often work on the sides of hills or cliffs, and deep in
ravines. Could a robot on wheels go where people climb? How could we
move the robot assistant to where it needs to be?
Sometimes we will want robots to go where it is unsafe for people,
or where we lack the necessary tools and equipment. For example,
what is the highest mountain on Mars? Do you think people will go
to the top first or robots? Why?
What is the PSA (Personal Satellite Assistant) designed to do for
Answer from Bill Clancey: You can learn about the PSA at this link:
educational site for PSA)
By the way, I found this by doing a Google search with the words "Personal
Satellite Assistant" -- I look up things like this, even if
I have some knowledge, just to read first-hand what the scientists
and engineers have to say.
Science/Instrumentation (2nd period
- these are the ones who watched the webcast live)
What tools do you think someone exploring Mars would need the most?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: The best way to figure this out is
to do field work here on Earth that is similar to what we would do
on Mars and then see what equipment we needed the most. From the
webcast and from the images posted online, what tools did you see
us using a lot?
What kind of navigating system would you need?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: Good question. On Earth when we do field
work we rely on GPS for navigation. We also use things like topographic
maps, aerial photos, etc. We don't want to get lost on Mars so good
navigation capabilities are very important!
Is it possible to have a GPS like system on Mars?
Answer from Jennifer Heldmann: We could have GPS if we have a constellation
of GPS satellites orbiting around Mars like we have orbiting around
the Earth. Do you think this might happen someday?