There has always been a fascination with life outside the cosy realms of Earth. Mars, the red planet in particular is one that has been immortalised in science fiction. We like to imagine that Martians could come over to visit, or that humans could even hop over there to live.
Bizarrely, the latter is a theory that is gaining real traction, and it looks as though we might actually see humans landing on Mars in our lifetime.
This plan is far from safe, and will be extremely costly. So it begs the obvious question…..why?
Simple curiosity and exploration aren’t really good enough reasons to send people on a one way trip to the unknown (yep, a one way trip!). While we do know that the growing population on our planet is leading to overcrowding here on Earth, that isn’t it either.
The actual motivation behind wanting to explore Mars and assess it’s potential for supporting Earth-life is to increase the chances of human survival in the case of an enormous disaster on our humble abode. That could be anything from movie style armageddon, a gigantic meteor crash landing or even the impact of our own planet-devastating actions, accumulating over time.
There is a very valid reason for worrying about this. We are extremely vulnerable in our Universe, balancing precariously on a spinning rock while it circles an enormous ball of fire. With space junk and rocks constantly diving at us, plus lava bubbling up from within, knocking the shaky plates all over the place, we are at the mercy of many elements that are entirely outside of our control.
In addition, the very fact that we evolved at all is a biological miracle. It has taken millennia of tiny mutations to bring us to this point of intelligence, and it is certainly worth devising a contingency plan in order to protect the hard earned knowledge that we have developed over hundreds of years, thanks to countless individuals.
So why have we chosen Mars? There are some similarities between Mars and Earth, which make it a potential candidate for human exodus. It is the most hospitable alternative to Earth in our solar system, and uses the least energy per mass unit to reach than most planets (besides venus).
Another thing is that a day on Mars lasts for 24 hours, 39 minutes and 25 seconds. The seasons are similar too, but each lasts for twice as long, because a Martian year measures 687 days.
The Martian landscape surprisingly resembles some parts of Earth – albeit the most desolate areas such as arid deserts and deep dry valleys!
The most important Earth-like aspect of Mars is that there is plenty of water, covering more than 1,000,000 cubic miles. The problem is that virtually all of it is ice.
This is because the temperatures are similar to those found in Antarctica, with highs of around 70 degrees fahrenheit at the equator, dropping down to -100 degrees fahrenheit at night.
Mars is approximately half the radius of Earth, but it’s mass is only 1/10th.
So, although there are some similarities to be drawn, they tend to be of the most extreme and hostile aspects of our own planet.
The similarities were the good news, now we get to the real challenges that humans would face on Mars. The biggest issue must be that of the atmospheric pressure, which at 1 tenth of Earth’s is below what is known as ‘The Armstrong Limit’, making it unsuitable for human life. This would mean that people could only survive in pressurised suits and pressurised vessels. Even plants may not be able to handle the extremely low pressure, although we do not know this for certain.
The atmosphere itself is made up of 95% carbon dioxide! The remainder consists of 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and 0.4% of other trace gases….including the all important oxygen.
The total concentration of carbon dioxide is 0.71 kPA compared with 0.031 kPA on Earth. Again, it is not known if this will also prove toxic for plants. The air that we breathe down here is composed of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, which is an absolutely perfect balance for us – nitrogen doesn’t react with our lungs, and it helps to ensure that we get the right level of oxygen.
To make Mars a ‘breathable’ space would therefore mean replacing the carbon dioxide with a safe carrier gas (such as nitrogen) as well as raising the levels of oxygen. But removing the CO2 would also cool the planet down further, causing another problem for the potential inhabitants.
Another concern relating to the thin atmosphere is that it does a poor job of shielding radiation from the sun. It is measured at 7 millibars, which can be likened to the thin atmosphere found at an altitude of 21 miles on Earth.
Fortunately Mars is 52% further away from the Sun than we are, but the lack of ozone layer and thin air means that there will still be constantly high levels of radiation, which could lead to an increased risk of cancer amongst other things.
A further difference that is a cause for concern is the fact that there is no global magnetic field on Mars. This allows ionising radiation, which we are protected from on Earth.
We must also take into account the lower force of gravity on Mars, which is 38% of what we experience here. Scientists are not sure how this will impact the human body over time. Theories are that it will effect bone density, and muscle tone. There will probably be a need to exercise our legs everyday to counteract the weakening effect of the lower gravity. The repercussions could be larger than this though, as gravity even plays a part in the formation of foetuses, demonstrating once again just how perfectly suited we are to Earth – and dependant on it for many vital aspects of life that we may have never considered.
Despite these challenges, missions are being planned to land humans on the red planet. So far no technology exists to make this a return trip – so the volunteers are signing up to spend the rest of their days in a pressurised bubble. This first step towards full terraforming is known as para-terraforming.
The initial need will be for funding as intergalactic relocation obviously requires enormous upfront investment, the cost has been estimated at $56.5 million per launch of a unit of up to 13,150 kg. This would be done with zero guarantee of success, indeed the full programme could not be achieved in just one lifetime, so it would require individuals and corporations that have a vision of a greater plan for future generations. Fortunately, Elon Musk, a South African billionaire entrepreneur has Martian colonisation in his sights, in a company he founded called SpaceX. The details of a Mars Colonial Transporter designed by his team will be unveiled later this year.
“The Mars transport system will be a completely new architecture. I am hoping to present that towards the end of this year. Good thing we didn’t do it sooner, as we have learned a huge amount from Falcon and Dragon (explorative missions)”.
Hi intends to to send 100 metric tons (110 tons) of “useful payload” to Mars, which “obviously requires a very big spaceship and booster system”.
SpaceX will also unveil new plans for Martian spacesuits. He believes he has “a decent shot of sending a person to Mars in 11 or 12 years”.
Richard Branson is another pioneer with his sights set on the red planet. He has said that in his lifetime, he is “determined to be a part of starting a population on Mars. I think it is absolutely realistic. It will happen… I think over the next 20 years, we will take literally hundreds of thousands of people to space and that will give us the financial resources to do even bigger things”.
Getting there is the next challenge, and that is expected to take somewhere between 6 and 7 months. This depends entirely on the technology and fuel employed to travel. The cost, duration and exposure to sun radiation all vary depending on the method to be employed. New spacecraft propulsion technologies could cut the time of travel drastically when compared with chemical rockets. Nuclear rockets are another choice that is being considered.
Then, assuming that enormous journey was a success, the next concern would be landing the craft on Mars. The low gravity means that it would be difficult to land a heavy craft using thrusters alone. The thin atmosphere would also render aerobraking useless.
Another consideration is sterilisation of the rocket in order to protect Mars from being overrun by spores of Earth’s super resilient bacteria.
So far exploration has allowed us to earmark some potential sites for early camps to be situated. There are caves and underground lava lamps, which would provide some shelter from the radiation, and even deep valleys, which would have a higher atmospheric pressure at the bottom. The equator is also a likely candidate due to the higher temperatures there.
To colonise successfully, the astronauts would require a number of basics to allow them to thrive for a sustainable duration of time. Air and food is a fundamental requirement, while rations could be transported, a longer term self-sustainable solution would need to be found.
Habitats would need to be pressurised, and must provide shelter from the elements and radiation, as well as heating. Energy would need to be harnessed to provide electricity, a likely option for this is solar energy. In addition the inhabitants would require fuel to transport them on surface explorations.
Communication would depend on the trajectory of Earth to Mars, which varies from day to day as each planet follows it’s orbital path. It can take up to 21 minutes for a radio signal to reach between the two. At some points, for example when the sun is between them, communication could be blocked, although there are plans to use a satellite (or a series of satellites) as intermediaries between the two in these situations.
As our knowledge of Mars grows, and innovation increases, solutions could be found to some of the seemingly insurmountable problems. Fraser Cain discusses the challenges that we would face with our current technology.
The longer term goal is to truly terraform Mars, which means to transform it into an environment in which humans could thrive, without living inside a pressurised vessel, and with no need for breathing tanks.
Elon Musk has considered the figures required to make this a reality, specifically the number of people that would need to live there to make it a viable sustainable population. ”Even at a million people [working on Mars] you’re assuming an incredible amount of productivity per person, because you would need to recreate the entire industrial base on Mars… You would need to mine and refine all of these different materials, in a much more difficult environment than Earth”.
In addition to this, small confined populations are at increased risk of disease and lack of genetic diversity, which keeps us in robust health.
Mars One intends to make a start on the missions however, with a plan to deliver 4 people to the planet every two years.
Mars One is a not for profit foundation with the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars. To prepare for this settlement the first unmanned mission is scheduled to depart in 2020. Crews will depart for their one-way journey to Mars starting in 2026; subsequent crews will depart every 26 months after the initial crew has left for Mars. Mars One is a global initiative aiming to make this everyone’s mission to Mars, including yours.
Because, as they state on their website, the most complex, expensive, and risky part of a mission to Mars is the return trip. It requires developing bigger rockets that need a larger landing systems and launch capability on Mars. Permanent settlement is not easy but it is far less complex and requires much less infrastructure sent to Mars than return missions. Mars One has already started contracting established aerospace companies to work on the required systems. All systems require design, construction, and testing, but no scientific breakthroughs are required to send humans to Mars and to sustain life there.
Unsurprisingly, there are multiple the requirements to become a Mars One astronaut, yet there are people lining up to be considered.
With recent positive outcomes on tests for the survival capacity of lichen and cyanobacteria, after 34 days in a Martian simulated environment, the future could be rosy. This could be the early stages in providing food, fuel and oxygen. The plants could even potentially support the growth of other organisms.
Dark plants and algae would also gradually increase the levels of methane in the atmosphere, as well as absurd sunlight – to increase the temperature of Mars over time.
Some scientists have suggested that the moon is a better alternative for an emergency evacuation from Earth.
The distance is the main reason for choosing this as an option. When we consider that with a two-year round trip time between Earth and Mars, with a fleet of 25 ships would it would take 50 years to relocate 10,000 people, and 400 years for 80,000 people. Doing this, with the same type of program to the moon, we could relocate the first 10,000 in less than six months, and the first 80,000 in less than four years.
Obviously the moon comes with it’s own set of challenges, but emergency trips back to Earth for supplies would no longer be out of the question.
One thing that is highlighted for me is the fact that Earth is truly a miracle, it provides everything we need to survive and thrive. Our own actions could force us to relocate to incredibly hostile alternatives, and that seems like lunacy to me!
What are your thoughts? Would you sign up for a one way trip to Mars?
We would love to hear from you!
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