Shuttle Pod: The Podcast Episode 6 – Mars Trek


Star Trek is all about exploring strange new worlds and the wonders of the 20-something-th century. But, you know what’s cool about living in 2015? We ARE exploring strange new worlds! Right now! All over our galactic neighborhood called the Solar System (and even a little bit beyond thanks to Voyager). The focus of humanity’s space exploration efforts currently centers on Mars. Join us this week for our thoughts on how the history of Mars exploration is depicted in Star Trek as we talk with special guest Andrew Britton, a scientist with Malin Space Science Systems who studies Mars for a living.

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Shuttle Pod: Episode 6 – Mars Trek

Tidbits from this week’s podcast:
There are a number of passing references to Mars throughout Star Trek, but one of the best is in TNG Season 1 where images of long extinct martian insects are seen in Okudagrams:

Extinct Martian insects depicted in files within the Enterprise’s computer banks

The Voyager episode “One Small Step” was one of Trek’s most Mars-centric story. Check out these clips from the episode with some behind-the-scenes commentary about the creation of the episode:


This week’s weather report on Mars

Our guest this week, Andrew Britton, is the Martian weatherman. Really! He uses satellites orbiting the Red Planet to observe the winds, storms, and other weather happening all around the Martian globe. He publishes a weekly Mars weather report for Malin Space Science Systems and NASA. Here’s this week’s weather report:

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 11.07.43 AM
Click to see this week’s weather on Mars (requires Quicktime). Credit MSSS

Afternoon water-ice clouds associated with the aphelion cloud-belt were more abundant for the past week on Mars. Dust-lifting activity near the northern polar ice cap led to murky conditions over Acidalia and the plains westward to those of Arcadia. Looking to the southern highlands, a small dust storm was observed over Solis Planum at the end of the week. Relatively calm conditions allowed for mostly clear afternoon skies over Hellas Planitia and Valles Marineris. The robotic explorers, Curiosity in Gale Crater and Opportunity on Meridiani Planum encountered storm-free skies throughout the week.



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Thanks for the Holiday Podcast , MUCH appreciated!

I’d like to ask Andrew Britton: how much of an issue is Mars’ lack of a magnetic field with regard to prospective terraforming of that planet?

I mean, I know that Mars not having a magnetic field means that any atmosphere—which I’m guessing would include water vapor—that we might create on that planet would be slowly sweeped into outer space and lost forever due to the effects of solar radiation. But, (1) how fast would that loss occur? And, (2) would it preclude us terraforming Mars? From what I’ve read, it would take something on the order of a hundred million years for a Martian atmosphere to fully bleed out into space. But, how would the rate of loss factor into terraforming efforts? And, in terms of sustainability, what do the prospects of permanently losing water and Oxygen to space bode for the potential of Martian terraforming? We get exercised here on Earth about recycling commodities like paper and aluminum. Imagine being on Mars where the water and air aren’t even fully recycled. . . .

I also thought that ENTERPRISE did a very good job of portraying Martian terraforming efforts in Terra Prime. They could have done even more with that Martian setting and premise. Or, another Trek could in the future. Though, if they wanted it to look realistic, they’d have to find a way to portray the lower gravity on Mars.

Here’s a tangentially related clip of Neil DeGrasse Tyson discussing the differences between the Enterprise (which he describes as “fake/real”) and the Millennium Falcon (which he describes as “fake/fake”).

Cygnus-X1, NASA’s latest Mars orbiter, MAVEN has recently found that the solar wind strips away atmosphere at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. Human’s could still possibly terraform Mars one day but we would want to do it so that the atmosphere would be around for a long time! Continuing to lose atmosphere would impose challenges over the course of a terraformed Mars. Future colonists could implement mining techniques to extract water and oxygen from the subsurface of Mars to combat the loss of atmosphere.

#6. Andrew Britton – December 3, 2015

How hard could it be to give the planet a magnetic field to stem that?

Could we do it artificially on the surface with two polar electromagnets, in space with orbiting solar powered satellites, or borrow Musk’s page and somehow cause a sustainable nuclear meltdown reaction in it’s core using the radioactive elements already there to re-moltenize it with the proper eddies?

Very few comments on this podcast so far, but I enjoyed it! Please keep up the good work! I appreciate your hard work on this endeavor.

Hopefully Trekmovie will cover this, but Starship Farragut has launched it’s Kickstarter campaign for their final TOS-era episode, “Homecoming”! This episode will have a cameo from the legendary Stan Lee! Check it out!

6. Andrew Britton – December 3, 2015

MAVEN has recently found that the solar wind strips away atmosphere at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second.

Thanks for the response.

I tried calculating how long it would take, at that rate, for the entirety of Mars’ atmosphere to be stripped away, assuming: A full atmosphere on Mars, which was 1/3 the volume of Earth’s atmosphere, given that Mars has about 1/3 the gravity of Earth, and that the Earth’s atmosphere weighs 5140 trillion tonnes.

The result that I get is that it would take over 400 billion years at that rate for Mars to lose all of its atmosphere if it started with a full atmosphere.

Even if my estimate is off by a factor of 100, that would still be a very slow rate of atmospheric loss. However, it’s still a gradual loss and there are no hydrocarbons on Mars that we could burn in order to replenish the CO2 that slowly bleeds out into space. Transporting hydrocarbons from Earth to Mars would be ridiculously cost-ineffective. So, we’d have to find a way to convert compounds already on Mars into atmospheric gasses at a rate that could be sustained at least on the order of hundreds of years if not thousands of years. The other problem with Mars’ lack of an EM field is that there’d be no protection from harmful solar radiation for humans on the surface of Mars. Creating an ozone layer would offer some protection, but I think that the Earth’s EM field protects us directly from solar radiation.

7. Disinvited – December 3, 2015

How hard could it be to give the planet a magnetic field to stem that? Could we do it artificially on the surface with two polar electromagnets, in space with orbiting solar powered satellites.

I’m no expert, but I don’t think that would be feasible. The Earth’s EM field is generated by the differential between the rotations of the Earth’s molten iron inner core and its semi-molten iron outer core. The energy that went into the Earth’s “system,” out of which comes all of the Earth’s geologic activity and some heat, went into that system when the Earth first formed: the Earth’s core was spinning back then, and it’s still spinning today (and the entire Earth follows suit). Mars simply lacks that original energy: it’s a dead planet. I don’t think that we could build electromagnets large or powerful enough to mimic the effects of the Earth’s core. And if we did, I suspect they’d wreak havoc on any number of other things, including any humans and their equipment on the planet.

But, I’m only speaking from a hunch here. For all I know, I could be wrong.

#11. Cygnus-X1 – December 4, 2015

Good feedback, but I think you are forgetting about the inverse square law. A magnetic field generator on the surface or in space would not have to generate the magnetic power at the earth’s core but duplicate the much weaker magnetic field on the surface or the even weaker one produced by Earth’s core in space to protect a planet. I think it’s doable.

Re-igniting Mars’ core, now that way’s not going to be easy, but we’ve had enough nuclear meltdowns under our belts that I suspect we could manage it somehow. As you pointed out, after that hurdle is jumped then long lasting powerful eddies have to be set up and that’s were artifical surface or space generators seem more practical.