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MIT researchers joining debate on Mars colony

A rendering of Mars One’s proposed Mars colony.
A rendering of Mars One’s proposed Mars colony.(Bryan Versteeg/Mars One)

Move aside, Pluto. It’s Mars’s turn to take center stage.

At a convention celebrating the planet this month, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers will debate the chief executive of Mars One, the nonprofit organization backing an ambitious mission to the Red Planet.

MIT students Sydney Do and Andrew Owens will “have it out” with Mars One cofounder Bas Lansdorp at the 18th annual International Mars Society Convention on Aug. 13.

Mars One was begun in 2012. Its founders want to establish a human settlement on Mars as early as 2027. Its 100 volunteers, including a Stoneham resident, have been picked as potential settlers, who, if they get there, have agreed to never return to Earth.

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The convention, which will be held at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., will feature scientists, elected officials, and space advocates versed in all things pertaining to Mars.

The format of the debate will consist of two 20-minute presentations — one from each side — followed by two rounds of rebuttals. Participants will then take questions from the audience.

Do said he expected a robust discussion, which would be live-streamed. “I’m hoping that it stays on topic, and that it remains fact-based,” he said.

Do, Owens, and other MIT researchers released a paper in October questioning the Mars One mission design and practicality. The debate will mark the first time that Do and Owens will meet Lansdorp face to face.

To Do’s surprise, the paper, called the “Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan ,” went viral.

“We had a sense that it would — after we came to our findings and conclusions — be somewhat controversial,” said Do, a graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate at the school’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “But seeing the reaction to our findings from the public was not expected.”

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The paper led to further scrutiny from both experts and the public, with some questioning Mars One’s promises of interplanetary livability.

Despite criticism, Lansdorp and potential Mars space explorers have held their ground, and will do so again during this month’s parley.

“There are not many events with so many fans of manned Mars missions as the Mars Society convention, so I always enjoy going there,” Lansdorp said in a prepared statement.

Do said he wasn’t looking to spoil dreams of further exploring a new planet; he just wanted a plan to be feasible.

“Our interest in the debate is to have an objective debate based on facts, quantitative numbers, and about the challenges of human space flight,” said Do. “We’re very much supportive of human space flight and the exploration of Mars.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.