In just over a decade, Lockheed Martin will have built a base orbiting Mars. And only a few years later, Mars’ surface will have a base camp for astronauts.

On Tuesday at the National Space Club Florida Committee’s meeting, Tony Antonelli, Lockheed Martin’s chief technologist for civil space exploration and a former NASA space shuttle pilot, spoke about the company’s concept for an orbital Mars base by 2028.

The base camp will rely on systems that are already available or in development, and the concept assumes NASA will end International Space Station operations in 2024 and redirect funds to exploration systems.

To get it into space, NASA will leverage the Orion deep space capsule and the Space Launch System, a launch vehicle. This spacecraft orbiting Mars will have Orion capsules on either end, as well as laboratory modules. This six-person mission would last about three years.

On the orbital base, astronauts can search for life, analyze Martian rock and soil samples, study Mars’ moons, and find the best place for humans to eventually land. Six astronauts will launch on Orion, which serves as the heart of the Mars base camp ship. Orion will be built with life support, deep space communications, navigation, and Earth re-entry capability.

“Now picture yourself as a scientist or geologist around Mars, and you’re able to fly drones, quadcopters and rovers as well,” Rob Chambers, Orion spacecraft production lead engineer at Lockheed Martin, tells Inverse. “You can get global exploration in a very short amount of time. You can get access to the entire planet.”

By 2033, NASA plans to land humans on Mars, and that’s when Lockheed Martin hopes to place a surface base camp on Mars.

“Getting to Mars and landing on Mars are really, really hard,” Chambers says. “It’s very very difficult, very very challenging, but we’ve been doing it for decades.”

This diagram shows how Lockheed Martin's Mars base camp will work.
This diagram shows how Lockheed Martin's Mars base camp will work.

Here are some problems Lockheed Martin will need to solve as it prepares to build a base for Mars.

Sustainable Propulsion Technology

For the base, Lockheed Martin plans to use two types of propulsion: solar electric propulsion and chemical propulsion. Solar electric propulsion is highly efficient, as it generates electricity from the sun. The Asteroid Redirect Mission will also utilize solar electric propulsion.

However, just using solar electric propulsion to put supplies into orbit is not enough. While it’s highly efficient, using solar electric propulsion alone would take humans three years to get to Mars, Chambers says.

That’s why Lockheed Martin will also use chemical propulsion, which includes liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel. One problem engineers will work on solving is how to keep these fuels cold in orbit, since they can only be liquefied at extremely low temperatures. Spacecraft fueled with liquid hydrogen must be carefully insulated to keep the hydrogen from boiling off.

That being said, chemical propulsion will give the thrust that’s needed to get the base into Mars’ orbit.

Habitats and Shielding

Inside the Mars base camp, there’s a habitat where the crew will live and work.

“They’re safely shielded from radiation,” Chambers says. “This is where the crew spends most of their waking hours. This is where the high integrity life support is.”

Right now, space radiation is a major obstacle preventing humans from taking deep space missions, so this is something Lockheed Martin will have to address. One possible solution is using hydrogen to shield astronauts from galactic cosmic rays.

Humans will also have to shield themselves from solar events. According to Chambers, this problem is easier to address. Engineers plan to build polypropylene (similar to plastic) habitats.

“If there is a solar event, we call out to the crew, and they get into the habitats,” Chambers says. “It’s like building a fort in your living room and climbing inside there.”

In addition, if solar events occur, the crew will wear protective vests.

Deep-Space Communications

The base will use two main forms of communication: radio frequency transmissions and laser communication. With the planned propulsion system, it will provide enough power for radio frequency transmissions.

“Once you’re done propelling, you have a really nice power system,” Chambers says. “You can pump up the power on RF really high and get good old-fashioned bandwidth.”

Laser communication uses flashing lasers to communicate, similar to sailors on two ships flashing lamps at each other. This has previously been tested from the moon to the Earth, and Lockheed Martin plans to use it for the Mars base camp as well.

However, since Mars is so far away from Earth, there will be obstacles to communication. Literally. For example, as Mars orbits around the sun, it will reach a point where Mars is on one side of the sun, and Earth is on the other. Since the sun is in the way, astronauts on the base camp won’t be able to communicate with their friends on Earth for a week.

“For about a week, you won’t be able to communicate with the crew because the sun is so noisy from a radio frequency perspective,” Chambers says. “That’s one of the interesting parts of all this. Can you imagine being 200 million miles away from home and not being able to talk to anyone from home?”

Food and Water

On the orbital space camp, astronauts will eat mostly food with high caloric density that is low in volume and mass. This is because there’s only limited space. Astronauts will also grow some food on the base, but they will rely mostly on food they brought aboard.

Once Lockheed Martin builds a base camp on Mars, astronauts can set up larger gardens to grow food like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and strawberries, similar to how Mark Watney from The Martian started his own potato garden.

Scientists from the International Potato Center successfully grew potatoes grown in soil that mimics the Martian earth.
Scientists from the International Potato Center successfully grew potatoes grown in soil that mimics the Martian earth.

“They can set up larger gardens where you can grow your own food that is both pleasurable and keep you from starving to death,” Chambers says.

A Water-Based Economy

Once we start exploring and settling in deep space, the politics will probably be a bit complicated, but astronauts will likely start a water-based economy. After all, we need water to live, and it’s versatile for other uses, too — cracking it into oxygen for breathing and burning it for fuel.

“Wherever humans want to go, there’s water there,” Chambers says. “That’s why it’s interesting to go there. It really opens up the trade space from a design standpoint.

Phobos and Deimos
Scientists believe water can be found on Mars' two moons, Phobos (the large moon) and Deimos (the small moon).

Engineers plan to tap water from Mars’ two moons, and having a base in orbit will give astronauts access to these moons. The water used on the base will also be recycled. Right now, engineers are still studying how to recycle water efficiently, especially since it’s crucial for survival.

“We believe there’s a lot of ice content on those two moons,” Chambers says. “If there is, those are orbiting gas stations. If that ice is easy to access, you can drink it, breathe it or use it as rocket fuel.”

Photos via Lockheed Martin (1, 2), International Potato Center, Flickr / sjrankin