Race to Mars Mission Plan: Mars vehicles

Project Olympus is the mission depicted in the Race to Mars expedition miniseries, set in the year 2030.  The following details apply to that particular mission, designed in consultation with teams of top scientists and researchers.  Other proposed mission-designs vary in timeline, duration of surface stay, mission-trajectory, mission objectives, propulsion-types, etc.  The Race to Mars mission represents the best efforts of our science-advisory team based on technological, scientific, political and socials projections for the first human Mission to Mars– but we of course acknowledge that this is one vision among many.  Care to differ?  Please take part in discussions on our Community Message Boards.

The mission to Mars is a multistage journey that involves sending three cargo vehicles to Mars in addition to the crew transport vehicle, the Terra Nova. With the exception of the Earth Return Vehicle, which launches the crew into space and attaches to Terra Nova, the vehicles will be launched into space in parts using an heavy lift launch vehicle  and then assembled in low Earth orbit.  The cargo ships and Terra Nova will be sent well in advance of the crew, ensuring the vehicles will be ready and waiting for the crew on Mars or in parking orbit around the red planet.

Race to Mars: Habitat ‘Atlantis’ landing on Mars in advance of the human crew

Cargo

Although all three cargo transit vehicles use very similar exterior aeroshells, they will contain very different cargo. The Shirase cargo lander will transport tools and supplies the crew will need on Mars, including the Surface Exploration Vehicle rovers, the wireline drilling and the surface power reactor. The second cargo lander contains the Mars surface habitat, the Atlantis, while the third cargo ship will transport the Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle, the Gagarin, to Mars orbit where it will wait for the Terra Nova to transport the crew to the surface of Mars. Each cargo ship must arrive safely to its destination in order for the crew to successfully land and carry out their mission on Mars.

Launching from Earth: the Earth Return Capsule

The crew of Project Olympus will be launched into low Earth orbit in a vehicle resembling the command module of Apollo-11, the first lunar lander with a human crew. Relatively small, it will contain seating for the crew, controls, electronics and communications systems and protective heat shielding. Once it reaches low Earth orbit, it will dock with the assembled Terra Nova, the craft that will take the crew from Earth to Mars.  Although the crew will transfer into Terra Nova for the duration of their journey to Mars, the Earth Return Capsule will remain docked, returning the crew to Earth at the end of the mission.

The Mars Trajectory: Terra Nova

The crew transit vehicle, the Terra Nova will be engineered around a truss-based structure of supports and joints that will connect four drop-fuel tanks, an in-line tank, the core stage, the docked Earth Return Vehicle and the six-person Habitat Module. It will weigh approximately 325 tons and will be powered by the nuclear reactor.

The cylindrical habitat module of the Terra Nova will house the crew in three levels of living and work space. Equipped to function in both microgravity and artificial gravity, the Terra Nova has ample storage for food, oxygen, water and supplies, including a freezer for food and some medication. Because of its location along the walls, the stowed supplies will provide extra radiation shielding. The crew compartments (compact rooms for sleeping and privacy) are encased in materials that provide the maximum amount of radiation shielding. While the recreational area is equipped with telecommunications screens for communicating with Earth and watching movies, a window will allow the crew to literally stare out into space.

Race to Mars: Terra Nova crew-module Airlock

The habitat module’s full kitchen includes a food preparation station, a convection oven that doubles as a microwave, a sink, dishwasher, coffeemaker and utensil storage. To accommodate all six astronauts, there will be two washrooms on board. Although crew members will only use the shower once every three days to conserve water, they will stay healthy and fit by using on-board exercise equipment and visiting the medical bay as required. For exit to other vehicles or exterior repair, the airlock area is equipped with an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) preparation area. After the mission is complete, the Terra Nova will remain in space in a heliocentric orbit around the sun.

Race to Mars: Terra Nova docking with Gagarin (still in it’s protective aeroshell) in Mars orbit

Descent to Mars: The Gagarin

The MADV (Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle) Gagarin is a vertical lander. The crew will use the rocket-propelled Gagarin for two short duration flights: landing on Mars and later, ascending back into space. To allow the crew to transfer between the Terra Nova and the Gagarin, the two ships will dock together in Mars orbit. The Gagarin will remain in Mars orbit after the crew has returned to Earth.

Race to Mars: ‘Atlantis’ surface habitat and an SEV
(Surface Exploration Vehicle)

Descent to Mars: The Gagarin

The MADV (Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle) Gagarin is a vertical lander. The crew will use the rocket-propelled Gagarin for two short duration flights: landing on Mars and later, ascending back into space. To allow the crew to transfer between the Terra Nova and the Gagarin, the two ships will dock together in Mars orbit. The Gagarin will remain in Mars orbit after the crew has returned to Earth.

Life on Mars: The Atlantis and surface equipment

On Mars, two battery-powered Surface Exploration Vehicles (SEV) rovers will transport the crew from the landing site to their surface habitat, and allow them to explore the area. Each rover carries three astronauts, and because the rovers are unpressurized, the crew will have to wear their spacesuits while on board. Like a cross between an all-terrain vehicle and a pickup truck on Earth, each of the ruggedly-designed rovers will have a small flat bed for transporting samples and equipment. The rovers are rechargeable via the Surface Power Reactor.

The compact nuclear Surface Power Reactor will provide power to the surface habitat and equipment on Mars. Only a meter wide and three metres high, the Surface Power Reactor is designed to fulfill the surface power requirements of between 20,000 and 50,000 watts. A generator within the reactor transforms the nuclear energy into electric power.

Based on a wireline design, the Mars surface Drill is a light, energy efficient and designed specifically for the Mars environment. Packed in one-metre lengths to be assembled by the crew on-site, the drill will be bolted to the ground for stability.  The drill will be used by the crew to search for liquid water on Mars.

While on Mars the crew will stay in the Atlantis Surface Habitat. Sent in advance, the Atlantis should be ready and operational for the crew’s arrival on Mars. This horizontal, cylindrical structure rests on an octagonal aluminum frame and stands a meter off the ground. At four meters in diameter and 10.6 meters long, it is like an advanced-technology mobile home. Although it will only have a single floor of working and living space, it will be well-equipped. The main Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) and airlock facility will be electrostatically charged to remove Mars dust. A second pressure port at the back of the habitat will provide an emergency exit. The habitat will be fully equipped with necessary supplies, including food, oxygen and eight spacesuits (two are spares). It also includes crew compartments, a washroom with a shower, a kitchen, a dining table with seating for six and windows in the private crew bunks. The Atlantis will remain on the surface of Mars after the crew has departed for Earth.

Race to Mars: Interior of the Atlantis surface habitat

Race to Mars Mission Plan: Timeline

Project Olympus is the mission depicted in the Race to Mars expedition miniseries, set in the year 2030.  The following details apply to that particular mission, designed in consultation with teams of top scientists and researchers.  Other proposed mission-designs vary in timeline, duration of surface stay, mission-trajectory, mission objectives, propulsion-types, etc.  The Race to Mars mission represents the best efforts of our science-advisory team based on technological, scientific, political and socials projections for the first human Mission to Mars– but we of course acknowledge that this is one vision among many.  Care to differ?  Please take part in discussions on our Community Message Boards.

When do the crew wear spacesuits?

To ensure safety, the crew will be required to wear their spacesuits during critical times in the mission, including:

  • The launch from Earth
  • Landing on Mars
  • While outside their habitat, conducting surface operations on Mars
  • The launch from Mars
  • Extra-vehicular activity (EVAs) in microgravity
  • Landing on Earth

The “Race to Mars” Mission Plan

With a Venus fly-by on the way, it will take about 11 months to get to Mars. Once there, the crew will spend two months on the surface, exploring, drilling for water and conducting experiments. The return trip, which will be more direct, will take six and a half months. By the end of the mission, the crew will have traveled 900 million kilometers, spending 19 months in space (just over 1.5 years).  They will be the first humans to experience first-hand a close view of planet Venus, and the first humans to walk on the surface Mars. Their observations will greatly advance our knowledge of these planets. Their overriding goal will be to finally provide conclusive evidence to answer the longstanding questions of whether there is life on Mars.

A multistage task

Because this is a complex mission, it will occur in stages, beginning with the launch of cargo vehicles carrying the Mars surface habitat, Mars ascent/descent vehicle (lander), surface-exploration rovers, a drilling rig, surface power reactor and other supplies. The Terra Nova Crew Transit Vehicle will be assembled in space and parked in low Earth orbit awaiting the arrival of the crew on board the Earth Return Capsule.

The plan for propulsion

The propulsion system on board the Terra Novawill function using Bi-modal Nuclear Thermal Rockets. These rockets conduct nuclear fission the same way that nuclear power plants or submarines do, using energy to heat a liquid hydrogen propellant and forcing the exhaust through the nozzle to create thrust. Although this is a new technology, it will have the following benefits

  • Performs more efficiently than chemical propulsion systems.
  • Can multitask by also providing electrical power for the crew-habitat.
  • Simplifies operations, therefore reducing mission mass and risk.  One example of how BNTR reduces risk involves arrival at Mars: many robotic missions aerobrake and capture into Mars Orbit by skimming across the surface of the Martian atomosphere.  A slight variation in angle, and the craft can skip off the atmosphere and back into space (or burn up on a premature entry).  BNTR propulsion allows the Terra Nova to do a propulsive capture – firing the engines in order to slow down and precisely enter orbit.
  • Easily integrates with artificial gravity systems.
  • Reduces the amount of fuel required (as compared to chemical propulsion), which in turn makes the mission more affordable.

The Mars trajectory

Once the crew has boarded the Terra Nova, they will begin their journey towards Mars by initiating a number of “burns,” to get on the right trajectory to Mars and later to enter and leave Mars orbit. To create a burn, the rocket propulsion system is fired. Rocket thrust, which propels a spacecraft through space, is created by the rapid release of exhaust gases.  The Terra Nova uses a bi-modal nuclear thermal rocket for main propulsion and for electrical power.  This mission will involve a number of critical burns, beginning with two initiating the Trans Mars Injection, which will set the Terra Nova’s course towards Mars. Later, a burn will allow the Terra Nova to capture Mars orbit. Once the surface expedition on Mars is complete, the Terra Nova will use a burn to enter the trajectory towards Earth.

Creating artificial gravity

Even though the astronauts will be in microgravity during critical points of their mission, including burns, artificial gravity is possible, making it more comfortable and less of a health risk for the crew during their long mission. After a burn is complete, the crew will be able to initiate a spin up of the Terra Nova, using the Reaction Control System thrusters. The ship turns sideways to the direction of motion and begins to rotate, until it is traveling like a propeller.  This creates centrifugal force that in turn creates artificial gravity. It takes 40 minutes to achieve a rotation speed of 4.5 RPM, which generates an artificial gravity that’s only 30 percent weaker than that of Earth’s.

Venus fly-by

Flying past Venus is not only a way for the Olympus crew to experience an incredible planetary view, it’s also a way to save fuel. A gravity ‘slingshot’ maneuver can change trajectory (speed/direction of motion), so veering towards Venus and into its gravitational field will cause the crew’s spaceship, the Terra Nova, to turn towards Mars without needing to use as much fuel. Although the outbound journey (with the Venus fly-by) will take 11 months compared to the return journey (without Venus fly-by) which will only take 6, the reduced energy requirements for the mission will be significant. And the less fuel you need to haul out from Earth with you, the cheaper the mission.  The Venus fly-by was a successful route for the Mars-bound Mariner 2 in 1962.

Transit Vehicles

Some equipment for the mission will be sent ahead in separate cargo-vehicles, while some will travel along with the astronauts in their Crew Transit Vehicle.

There will be three cargo carriers:

Shirase Contains two Surface Exploration Vehicles, a drilling-rig and the surface power reactor
Atlantis The surface-habitat for the astronauts
Gagarin The Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle (MADV), which will bring the crew from orbit around Mars to the surface of the red planet, and back again when the surface-mission is completed.

There will also be the Crew Transit Vehicle, the Terra Nova, which will bring carry the crew to Mars and home again.

The Terra Nova carries six astronauts from Earth orbit to Mars orbit.