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Space

Science offers a very long trip to Mars for two

A foundation seeks a man and a woman, preferably married, for a roundtrip to Mars in a capsule outfitted with a life-support system to recycle air, water, urine and perspiration. The journey would take 501 days.

The United States currently has no human spacecraft in operation, but several should be up and flying by 2017, just in time to catch a tight planetary alignment that would allow a ship to comes as close as 150 miles (240 kilometers) to Mars. The launch window opens on Jan. 5, 2018. The next opportunity would not arise until 2031.

"If we don't make 2018, we're going to have some competition in 2031," said project founder Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire who in 2001 paid $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station. "By that time, there will be many others that will be reaching for this low-hanging fruit, and it really is low-hanging fruit," added the 72-year-old Tito, who set up the nonprofit Inspiration Mars Foundation for the mission.

If the launch goes off on Jan. 5, 2018 as hoped, the capsule would reach Mars 228 days later, loop the planet's far side and slingshot back toward home on a return leg that lasts 273 days and ends nearly with a bang: an unprecedented 31,764-mph (51,119-kph) slam into Earth's atmosphere.

'Risk worth taking'

The mission, expected to cost upwards of $1 billion - what Tito says is about the tag for a robotic mission to Mars - would be privately financed by donations and sponsorships, in addition to the multimillionaire's own investment.

NASA has lent its support to the spirit of the project: The program is "a testament to the audacity of America's commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America's citizen-explorers," a statement released by the US space agency read.

Taber MacCallum, the project's chief technical officer, said that US industry is up for the challenge.

"That's the kind of bold thing we used to be able to do," said MacCallum, who also oversees privately owned Paragon Space Development Corp. "We've shirked away from risk," he added. “I think just seriously contemplating this mission recalibrates what we believe is a risk worth taking for America."

Interplanets and intimate

The question now is finding two people up for spending 501 days together in a space of about 600 cubic feet (17 cubic meters). Mission planners have especially sought a male-female married couple. The crew of two would spend much of their time maintaining their habitat, conducting science experiments and keeping in touch with people on Earth. Those looking for a little Red Planet romance ought to know that the craft won't in fact be touching down on Mars.

And there's no guarantee of a two-way ticket.

"If something goes wrong," MacCallum said, "they're not coming back."

mkg/dr (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)

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