The red planet has captivated human beings for as long as we’ve been looking up at the sky. In all that time it has been little more than a thing to awe over, something beautiful yet unattainable, that inspire stories of aliens, Greek gods, and zodiac signs.
It is only recently that the idea of Mars has taken on a different meaning: we are now able to physically go there. We have the capacity to explore Mars ourselves, and someday soon, we will likely possess the technology to live there in the long term. With some of humanity’s best minds working on the project, we may see humans going to Mars as early as the next 10 years.
In recent years the media has been captivated with space; movies like the Martian, Interstellar, and The Space Between Us give us a beautiful glimpse into what it could look like to leave our planet and explore the endless unknown that is space. Maybe it simply stems from our spirit as a species: we have colonized and succeeded in every environment on earth, and now we are ready for what comes next. For us, Mars is that frontier. But it is not without its challenges.
There is no environment on earth that can really compare to Mars; Antarctica shares the same average temperatures, but the red planet’s lack of a thick atmosphere makes it unable to retain much heat or provide the oxygen necessary for us to breathe. There is a reason that Mars carries no traces of life: it is not a world that possesses any of the characteristics to support it!
Some wonder why we would be interested in making the dangerous journey to a planet that will be against us every step of the way. But Mars represents a brave new world for our species, and may be the next great step in our evolution. Keep reading for some insights into humanity’s most ambitious journey; what will be required, who is contributing, and why we should even leave at all.
Why go to Mars?
There are a few good reasons for wanting to visit and eventually establish settlements on Mars. First, the resources actually do exist there for us to survive: water, sunlight, dirt with most of the elements necessary for building things. Given the time and the right technology, it is not out of the question to think we could adjust to the harsh conditions on Mars, and even produce crops on the large scale to support a large population. The presence of water and a thin atmosphere on Mars make it arguably the most habitable planet other than earth in the solar system, so if we’re going to try to live somewhere else, the red planet is the logical option.
Secondly, establishing settlements on Mars could literally ensure our survival. Think of it like a type of insurance. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and we have made a home in every available environment earth has to offer. But we are still subject to the cruel realities of the universe, and it would be naïve to think that we are invincible on our little blue rock. Asteroid impacts, nuclear war, environmental degradation, solar flares; when we consider simple probabilities, the likelihood that we could experience a devastating, possibly extinction-level event in the next several thousand years is fairly high.
Moving to another planet forces probability into our favor; the likelihood that an extinction-level event would impact both Earth and Mars is astronomically lower than it is for just one planet. Spreading our population throughout the solar system protects us from the cosmic dangers of the universe, and will make sure that we will be around for a long while without the threat of planetary destruction weighing too heavily on our minds.
Furthermore, living on Mars would give us a chance to look for signs of life on the rocky planet. If we find signs of life there, even traces of it from billions of years ago, we will have found evidence that life itself is not confined to our planet, that we are not the only life in the universe. This would be huge. And it would mean there’s probably a lot more life out there in the galaxy than we previously thought.
There is only so much we can learn from telescopes and rovers; to answer some of these questions, we will have to do the exploring ourselves.
Finally, one of the driving reasons behind going to Mars is simply because we can. We do things as a species not always because they are easy, but because they are possible, and along the way, they make us more capable of reaching higher heights. Going to Mars would be a giant stepping stone in the history of our species; it would change our role in the universe from that of observers to that of explorers.
Leaving our planet to colonize another would be like leaving your house for the first time after being confined there all your life, and getting to discover innumerable mysteries that might lie in the world outside. Going to Mars would shatter the tiny, sheltered snow globe that humanity was born in, and allow us to transcend ourselves.
Who’s doing it
It wouldn’t be a true space odyssey if NASA wasn’t involved. Historically, space exploration has been mediated by governments, mostly because of the expense, and thus have been motivated by politics. Because NASA is a government organization (as with the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos), it is often limited in its scope and therefore much more conservative than private agencies. Most of these national space organizations are currently planning manned exploratory missions which will depart in around 2035, but none have planned missions so far that intend to colonize. Within the scope of government, short exploratory missions are about as far as it gets.
The interest of private companies in establishing settlements on Mars, on the other hand, may be what finally gets us there.
Not limited by governments and public opinion, private corporations are often much more aggressive in their plans. A Dutch company called Mars One laid out the plans for the colonization of Mars by 100 astronauts in 2012, and began basic development and construction soon after. 100 Mars settlers were chosen online (from more than 250,000 applications), and the process was broadcasted on television as a reality show to raise money for the project.
Mars One plans to begin training the crew this year and plans to send a demo mission to Mars in the next couple years to test what equipment works best: the most efficient solar panels, water extraction equipment, satellite communication equipment, and the like. Over the next 10 years, Mars One plans to send 8 more cargo shipments containing communication satellites, rovers, habitats and life support units and supplies to support a colony on Mars, with the goal of having astronauts living comfortably on Mars by 2032. The one caveat: Mars One has made clear that this will be a one-way trip. The astronauts who go to live on Mars will be there to stay.
The greatest hope for going to Mars, however, probably lies with Elon Musk. Musk and his company SpaceX are the farthest along of any other organization in developing the technology and the infrastructure to live on Mars, including several critical technologies that will be discussed in the next section, such as reusable rockets and renewable energy. Musk plans to send astronauts by 2024, and following an exploratory mission or two, plans to begin sending cargo flights of materials to build fuel propellant plants and begin preparations for a larger, longer-term surface presence. Musk has been adamant in interviews that the goal of all of his work is to ultimately build settlements on Mars, and considering his great success with companies like Tesla and SpaceX, it stands to reason that this powerful CEO may really get us there.
What we need to accomplish first
In its simplest form, the technology that needs to be developed to sustain life on Mars is the ability to utilize resources more efficiently. We think of the red planet as lifeless and barren, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the resources which normally support life. As far as we can tell, every piece of matter in the universe is composed of the same elements, and the manipulation of those same elements is what gives us skyscrapers, rubber, cheeseburgers and everything else you interact with every day.
In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander analyzed Martian soil, or regolith, which appears to contain elements such as magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride, all of which are required for life. The better we get at extracting these substances, the more we can do with them; in fact, everything we could possibly need to keep ourselves alive already exists in space. We can extract water from Martian ice deposits and make fuel for our rockets, air to breathe and water to drink. We can extract metals from Martian rock, or maybe from asteroids, and make structures and tools. We can build solar panels and nuclear power plants to give us energy. With the right amount of containment, we could become independent from the earth, given enough time.
A few technologies need to be developed before life on Mars could truly be expected to flourish - right now it is possible, but it would be dangerous and likely uncomfortable. Pressurized, insulated habitat systems on Mars will need to protect us from the harshly cold temperatures and shield against harmful radiation from the sun, which Mars’ atmosphere does not protect it from (not every planet can have an atmospheric bodyguard as tough as ours).
We would need to produce our own energy, be able to extract water from the soil and turn it into fuel, and create our own tools, likely through 3D printing. We will need to improve the reusability of rockets, so that they may be used similarly to how we use airplanes: use them, fuel them up, and use them again. SpaceX recently constructed the first fully reusable rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), and is in the process of constructing the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), the transportation infrastructure that will allow us to visit and colonize the red planet.
At the end of the day, though, we have to be prepared for any of the challenges that Mars may throw at us. Massive dust storms often sweep Mars during the spring and summer; these superstorms are often months long and affect the entire planet. Solar panels don’t seem to work too well covered in dirt, so alternate energy sources will be required to keep astronauts alive.
Part of this preparation will come from redundancy; we will need to have multiple parts for every piece of equipment to ensure that we can address technical problems quickly and efficiently. This will require sending 4 or 5 times more equipment than is necessary, and the cost will be huge. But considering Earth is a 9-month space journey away from Mars (at its closest), any settlers there will need to be prepared to handle problems themselves.
If we’re going to send these brave souls out into the expanse, we’d damn well better make sure they’re prepared.
Mars was once a planet that looked a lot like Earth: it had an atmosphere, a warm climate, and its surface was shaped by the movements of oceans and rivers. This is because Mars lies in what we call the habitable zone, or the “Goldilocks” region in orbit around the sun: not too close for life to burn up, and not too far away for it to freeze. Earth lies in this zone too. Many believe that, given a little technology and a lot of time, we could someday terraform the planet into one that doesn’t look too dissimilar from our own.
A project this massive would have to happen in stages. First, if we could warm the planet a little, many of the greenhouse gases trapped in ice at the poles would melt, thickening the atmosphere and increasing atmospheric pressure. Some really creative ideas are currently circulating about how this would happen, the most popular of which would be a system of mirrors in orbit around Mars that would concentrate sunlight on the surface. At this point the air still wouldn’t be breathable, but with a thicker atmosphere, we wouldn’t have to wear pressure suits. Genetically engineered cyanobacteria and phytoplankton could be used on the surface of Mars to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, slowly forming a more breathable atmosphere, and redirecting comets from space to hit the surface could add more water to the system, which would eventually melt and form oceans. Someday, in the distant future, our solar system may possess two living, blue planets.
For now, though, we still have to get to Mars, to measure the risk of living there, and to decide whether or not our civilization will become a space-faring one, or if we will stay down here, enjoying the earth’s riches and tending our own gardens. The next decade will surely be telling, and in our lifetimes it is very possible we will see the birth of an off-earth community. Personally, I hope we venture out. Our beauty as a species lies in our bravery, our courageous spirit, and there is perhaps no greater adventure than toddling out of one’s cradle to explore the mysteries of an infinitely vast universe. Somewhere deep in Martian soil, or drifting in clouds of stardust swept along by interstellar winds, lie the answers that will bring us to the next great iteration of ourselves. Mars is the first step in this journey; to me, there really is no other option.