By Andrew Hough – The Telegraph UK
Space agency officials confirmed feasability studies were under way to asses whether astronauts could be permanently sent to the red planet, or its moons, to establish human colonies.
The multi-billion pound mission, titled Hundred Years Starship, is being spearheaded by the Ames Research Centre, one of Nasa’s main research centres, based in Moffett Field, California.
Officials from the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are also heavily involved in turning the science fiction idea into a reality.
Early estimates put the cost of such a mission, which has “just started” at more than £7 billion and could be achieved by 2030.
Scientists have been given £600,000 government grant – including £100,000 from Nasa – to start research into the idea, according to US reports.
The world’s billionaire’s, including Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, have been asked to help fund the project.
Pete Worden, the Ames director, confirmed the plans to a conference in San Francisco at the weekend.
“You heard it here. We hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship fund,” he told the Long Conversation event at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.
“Within a few years we will see the first true prototype of a spaceship that will take us between worlds.”
Such a space journey would take up to nine months with volunteers embarking on the mission knowing they would never return to earth.
This is because the cost of returning astronauts to earth would make the project prohibitively expensive. Supplies would be sent to make them self-sufficient.
Such a mission would be gruelling for humans with forbidding conditions including sub-zero temperatures and a thin atmosphere.
Mr Worden said Mr Page was keenly interested in the project.
“Larry asked me a couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to Mars and I told him $10 billion and his response was, ‘can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion’,” he said.
“So now we’re starting to get a little argument over the price.”
But he admitted that he did not know how such a mission would work in reality.
“How do you live in another world? I don’t have the slightest idea,” he said.
“If you’re a conservative, you worry about it killing us; if you’re a liberal, you worry about us killing it.
“I think things like synthetic biology have lot of potential for that. I think rather than make an environment on Mars like Earth, why don’t we modify life … including the human genome … so it’s better suited to [Mars]?”
A DARPA spokesman later confirmed details of the mission.
“A key element of the study is exploring models by which sustained co-investment by the private sector in these areas can be incentivised,” he said.
“The study is currently in the early formulation stage, but will be entirely open and unclassified, with more details forthcoming in early 2011.”
It comes as researchers claimed such a human mission was technologically feasible and was cheaper returning astronauts to earth.
Their new study, in the Journal of Cosmology, found the costs of safely returning a crew would eat up the majority of such a mission’s budget.
Dirk Schulze-Makuch, from Washington State University and Paul Davies, from Arizona State University, said four volunteer astronauts could undertake the first mission to permanently colonise Mars.
“A one-way human mission to Mars would not be a fixed duration project as in the Apollo program, but the first step in establishing a permanent human presence on the planet,” they said.
“There are many reasons why a human colony on Mars is a desirable goal, scientifically and politically.
“The strategy of one-way missions brings this goal within technological and financial feasibility.”
They added: “Nevertheless, to attain it would require not only major international co-operation but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays being replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.”
Such a mission would come with natural “ethical considerations”, they admitted.