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Mars: our next home planet?

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As we look to the other planets in our Solar System for a potential candidate for human colonization, Mars seems to be our first choice. Since the 1960s numerous missions have been sent to Mars, and we continue to learn a great deal from them about the conditions there. The latest missions, and the ones to come, are now looking more deeply at the possibility of human settlement.


Image of Mars, taken by the Viking 1 Orbiter in  1980

Image 1: Image of Mars, taken by the Viking 1 Orbiter in 1980.


So what makes Mars our favorite choice of a home away from home? Firstly, it’s a rocky planet just like Earth. This means that we can land on a solid surface, construct habitation, and even dig deep inside (in fact we may need to build under the ground to protect us from solar wind and space radiation). Mars also has a few aspects that would make adapting to life there that little bit easier: the days are only 40 minutes longer than here on Earth, and gravity is 38% of Earth’s gravity … which is a lot more than the 17% gravity on the Moon, for example. This is important as human physiology works best with a certain level of gravity. Another important factor is that it has been confirmed recently that Mars has large amounts of ice water buried only a few feet under ground, making it fairly easy to access and mine. Water is essential for life, and thus for human settlements, and this makes Mars more viable than other places, as ferrying water to another planet would be too costly and difficult.


Another recent study has also shown that plants can grow in Martian soil. However as Mars only receives 44% of the amount of light Earth receives, while growing plants on Mars is possible it will require clever technology to make it happen. Great news for coffee loving astronauts is that the study also found that plants do even better with a bit of help from coffee grounds; so they have a good excuse for lugging along those bags of coffee beans!


Having looked at the fairly easy and surmountable challenges that Mars has to offer, what are the harder ones? For starters the journey to Mars is fraught with dangers for the astronauts. Living without gravity for the year or more that the journey takes could have serious health consequences, such as reduced bone density and loss of muscle mass. This would make it quite hard for the astronauts to settle once they have reached their destination. The exposure to radiation during their trip can also cause serious health problems, and this won’t stop once they arrive as the thin atmosphere on Mars provides little to no protection against solar wind and space radiation. It is also very poor at retaining heat. Temperatures on the surface can drop as low as -130°C (-200° F) at times, which is much lower than the −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F) lowest temperature recorded on Earth. The dramatic changes in temperature on Mars also power dust storms that can last for weeks, and every 3 Martian years or so the dust storms are so large that they can cover the whole planet, decreasing the amount of light reaching the surface. Mars is a very dusty planet, and the very fine dust particles are slightly electrostatic, causing them to stick to surfaces. It is the kind of dust that will get into everything, affecting the mechanism of machines and the efficiency of solar panels. Scientists are currently working hard to overcome these and the many other potential challenges, so it is very likely that colonization will happen eventually.


A new house on Mars?

Image 2: A new house on Mars? (Image credit: NASA).


So who’s going to send the first humans to Mars, and when? The technology required to send humans to Mars and have them settle is not quite there yet. So while NASA is still planning to send rovers and orbiters to Mars, they and the other major space agencies are focusing on settling on the Moon first to develop the technology (see my article on the Moon for more details). The earliest NASA plan to send humans to Mars is mid-2030, but this will be only to orbit Mars and then return to Earth. Roscosmos in Russia is planning a manned mission to Mars between 2040 and 2045, whilst the Chinese CNSA’s timeframe is 2040-2060. However it’s possible that the earliest landing of humans on Mars could come from a private space company rather than one of the space agencies. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is working on delivering humans, and cargo, to Mars using their Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) by 2024.


Apart from transporting humans to Mars, there are many other projects looking at making life there more manageable. Teams are exploring and researching solutions as varied as artificial magnetic fields and terraforming. It might be that one of those projects will make all the difference, and will make the rush for Mars a reality. Now that private companies have entered the space industry it is likely that we will see space exploration happening at a greater pace..


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