6 Skills You’ll Learn in Martian Boot Camp

Energy & Sustainability Science Space

Going to Mars is humanity’s straight-up toughest engineering challenge yet. The difficulties in a mission like this range from gardening to communications, even the concept of having enough air to breathe becomes an issue.

If you wanted to be a part of a Mars mission, you’ll need to hone some serious skills. Here are 6 skills you might encounter in a Mars Mission “boot camp”:

DIY Ion Thruster

Photo Credit: Alexander Reifsnyder
Photo: Alexander Reifsnyder

Build a real ion engine that flings out charged atoms for thrust, just like NASA does. Danger: This is a high-voltage project. You’ll need to work safely with a neon sign transformer (NST) and they’re no joke. But ion drives are probably the only way we’re accelerating to Mars anytime soon — they eject ions 10 times faster than chemical rocket exhaust. Pick up some copper pipe and follow Alexander Reifsnyder’s how-to.

Or start smaller (and safer) with Simon Quellen Field’s tiny ion motor, using a soda-can Van de Graaff generator or an old CRT television screen as your high voltage source.

Martian Soil Gardening

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When your life depends on growing spuds in space, you’ll want to practice here at home. Buy a $500 bucket of Martian regolith simulant (as you humans call it) and develop your green thumb for the Red Planet.

Formulations known as JSC Mars-1 (from a Hawaiian cinder cone) and MMS (from the Mojave desert) mimic the chemical, magnetic, and mineral properties of Martian dirt: about half SiO₂ with loads of iron, aluminum, magnesium, and calcium oxides. In experiments, tomatoes and wheat liked it fine but legumes bit the dust. What will you grow?

Composting Toilet

Illustration: Alison Kendall
Illustration: Alison Kendall

Bonus for the non-squeamish: Real Martian dirt is devoid of the microorganisms that make for healthy soil on Earth. Enrich your regolith with your own “night soil” by using this DIY composting toilet, and learn more about Humanure for the City Dweller.

Satellite Communications

Photo Credit: Diana Eng
Photo: Diana Eng

If you can’t talk to orbiting comsats, your pitiful calls for help will never reach Earth. Build your own Yagi radio antenna with Diana Eng for listening to satellites. Then bone up on your satcoms with Mikal Hart’s Skill Builders on Iridium satellite network and the Global Positioning System (GPS). (And check out the amazing tale of “Rebooting a Forgotten Satellite”.)

Solar Panels

Photo Credit: Jennifer C. Rowe
Photo: Jennifer C. Rowe

What good’s a radio without power? When it’s time to MacGyver that SOS uplink, you’ll need to squeeze every last electron out of the weak Martian sunshine. Build your own 20-watt photovoltaic panels and daisy-chain them to battery banks with Parker Jardine’s Skill Builders for making DIY solar panels and setting up solar power systems.

Rover Bots

Photo Credit: Hep Svadja
Photo: Hep Svadja

A robot that can find its own way back to base and carry your unconscious carcass into the airlock is worth its weight in Martian regolith simulant. Learn to build autonomous rovers with Jason Short’s self-balancing Arduroller from Make: Volume 45, using the ArduPilot UAV controller board. (Just remember Mars is a looong way from those GPS satellites.)

Or hack up Sean Ragan’s R/C video telepresence Mini Rover and don’t leave the airlock in the first place.

Photo: Sean Ragan
Photo: Sean Ragan

Breathable Atmosphere

Photo Credit: Timmy Kucynda
Illustration: Timmy Kucynda

Even a successful Mars colony will be stuck inside icy life-support domes pressurized with artificial air, pining for a stroll someday in a balmy terraformed atmosphere. Practice making breathable air by using electricity to split water into hydrogen and sweet, sweet O₂. You can use the electrolysis rig from Tom Zimmerman’s Hydrogen-Oxygen Bottle Rocket — and then use the rocket to send up one last message if all else fails.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!