Dr Adriana Marais is not your typical extraterrestrial. For that matter, she’s not even your typical Earthling. With a doctorate in theoretical physics, a passion for jazz and a lifelong love of reading, she sparkles with enthusiasm. Most of that energy is devoted to her pet topic: why a human colony on a distant planet is not just a good idea, but an essential one.
Adriana is the only South African selected for the Mars One project to establish a permanent human colony on Mars in the next decade. The catch: they can never come back.
Yet, the organisers claim 200 000 people applied for a spot on the mission. Just over a thousand made it to a second round pool, and 100 finalists were announced in February 2016. In September last year, six teams comprising two men and two women were selected – and one was from South Africa.
Many have questioned whether the project is even possible.
“That’s the point of dreams: the dreamers have a belief in themselves that propels dreams into reality,” she said in an interview this week. “As Nelson Mandela said, something is always impossible until it is done.
“The American announcement that it would put people on the moon was an impossible dream, but it was achieved in eight years. Team size and budget and determination made it happen. We’re in a similar position. I think it will happen unless we self-destruct as a species before then, we will be a species living off Earth in a few decades.”
The question Adriana is asked most often is not an engineering one about space travel, but a psychological one: how will she cope with the desolation of potentially being one of only 24 human beings on an entire planet, for the rest of her life?
She jokes at first: “I’ll finally have some peace and quiet, and have time to read, which I’ve loved to do since I was a child. Seriously, any price you’d need to pay to be one of first members of a new society on a new planet would be worth it.
“I’m very lucky to have been born in this very narrow window of human existence, of life on earth. These few decades are the most unique in the history of the planet.”
Meanwhile, she is likely to be kept busy for some of the ten years that have been scheduled for training the astronauts.
Far from leaving everything behind, Adriana’s selection for the project kickstarted a new career: the enterprise software company SAP, which runs 15 Co-innovation Labs across the world, approached her to run the South African facility. She was appointed head of innovation at SAP Africa, where her duties include driving strategic co-innovation projects and taking responsibility for the SAP Start-up Focus programme, which provides small and medium enterprises with digital solutions to help accelerate growth.
At this week’s Saphila 2017 SAP user conference in Sun City, she teamed up with a mining software specialist to present her perspective on a topic as visionary as a colony on Mars: mining the asteroids.
“I believe mining resources from asteroids is a more ethical way of mining than disrupting unique ecosystems on Earth, which is teeming with life. And there are far more metals in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter than have ever been detected on planet Earth, on these bodies floating in space not having life on them, waiting to be harvested.”
She gives the example of the asteroid Anteros, a 2km-diameter lump of rock that is so packed with rare minerals, it has been valued at US$5.57-trillion. A methodology has already been developed for asteroid mining, going by the acronym SHEPERD (Secure Handling by Encapsulation of a Planetesimal Heading to Earth-moon Retrograde-orbit Delivery). Adriana enthuses about the engineering innovations that will make the mission profitable.
“While bringing the samples back to Earth, you can already start mining, using electroforming, which uses gases to differentiate metals from volatiles, which burn off so that you can collect the metals. As you’re electro-forming, you’re doing spectral analysis of the particles flying off. If at any point you find that the metals accumulating are not of sufficient value, you can abort the mission. It provides real time profit analysis.”
Empie Strydom, vice president of marketing at mining software company MineRP, joined Adriana in the presentation to explain the way minerals embedded in asteroids can be detected and valued. His company already provides that services to conventional mining houses on Earth, saving millions through eliminating human error in detecting mineral deposits.
He was equally enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“The time for putting together a space mission is the same as the time it takes to sink a mine shaft, and the cost is the same. The difference is 30 years life of a mine here, in which time you retrieve the minerals and make a profit over time. But when bring back a big rock in one go, you have potentially, for example, a trillion dollars of platinum right there.”