This decade has baffled us with even more questions about the mysterious Red Planet. The most important question of them all: Can humans live on Mars?
NASA has discovered valuable resources such as water and ice just below the red surface. This is good news! If water is present, then human pioneers may thrive on the planet. Their robotic “scouts” have shown that Mars’ geological evolution and climate cycles are not very different from Earth’s, and that at one point in time, the planet could have had life-sustaining properties.
Some space organisations have been working on getting human life to planet Mars for more than four decades. What makes the venture to Mars so difficult, that four decades of work is still far from enough? Besides the lack of reliable technology, they haven’t figured out the parameters needed to settle on a planet with different gravitational or magnetic forces. Mars is just unknown territory, so the outcome of actually staying on the red planet would be rather unpredictable. No organisation is ready to risk human lives just yet.
Another reason why getting to Mars is so difficult is the risk of radiation the shuttles and crew would have to face once they’re there. Astronauts on planet Mars are far from the Earth’s magnetic field. The crew and technology will be exposed to high-energy particles, including infrequent, but potentially deadly solar flares and galactic cosmic rays. Dr Simon Foster from Imperial College London told WNOL: “Solar flares or coronal mass ejections that happen around sun spots launch masses of radiation out into space. They are lethal to astronauts.” According to him: “The Earth’s magnetic field protects us and that’s where we get the Aurora. We see the Aurora when one of these things hits the earth…if you’re going to Mars, you don’t have protection from solar flares.”
Coronal Mass Ejection. Image by: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), and the joint ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), 31st August 2012.
If a human being is exposed to that much radiation, it may adversely affect the immune system, and increase cancer risk. NASA’s Human Research Program is developing methods and technologies to protect, mitigate, and treat the effects of radiation on the crew and their exploration systems.
Here is a breakdown of the most prominent organisations who are working hard to get humans to Mars.
The Mars One organisation aims to land the first humans on Mars. Their main goal is to start a human colony on the planet by 2031. Mars One consists of two entities: the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation, and the for-profit company Mars One Ventures. It was founded by Bas Lansdorp from Netherlands, a controversial figure subject to a lot of scepticism in the media, mainly because he has no actual background in the field. The organisation came under fire in October 2014, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students Sydney Do and Andrew Owens released an independent research report on Mars One, which found that their publicised plans are simply not feasible. According to their report, it is likely that Mars One’s current plans would kill its astronauts within the first few months of the mission.
(From left to right) Sydney Do, Barry Finger, the Mars Society moderator, Andrew Owens, and Bas Lansdorp pose for a photo after a debate for the 18th Annual International Mars Society Convention . Image by: www.theverge.com
- 2022: Mars One plans to send a lander with visual communication technology to Mars as a “demonstration mission.” They plan to carry out a “water extraction experiment” to confirm that Martian soil may provide basic human resources.
- 2024: Their next course of action is launching a communications satellite to orbit the planet. This is for 24/7 Earth-Mars communication, except for when the Sun is between the two planets.
- 2026: They aim to launch a rover and a trailer to explore Mars’ surface to find the best location for human settlement. By then, they plan to launch a second communications satellite- this time to orbit the Sun- so they would have uninterrupted Earth-Mars communication even when the Sun is in between the two planets.
- 2029: They plan to launch six cargo missions, which includes a second rover, two living units, two life support units, and a supply unit.
- 2030: Their rovers would prepare the outpost location for the settlers. Their Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), powered by solar panels, will then be activated. Their goal at this stage is to produce breathable atmosphere and sufficient water before the first human crew starts their journey to Mars.
- 2031: This is when they plan to send the first human crew to permanently settle on Mars, followed by a second crew in 2033.
Mars One: A plan for their mission to Mars. Infographic by: Ainaa Mashrique. Powered by: Visme.
Lansdorp called for volunteers for their mission in 2013, and in February 2016 announced his first batch of successful candidates – the Mars 100. A young Dublin academic with a PhD in physics and astrophysics, Joseph Roche, told The Guardian in an article that he was leaving the Mars 100. According to him, the selection process was “laughably inadequate”, done via online forms and Skype.
Despite that, Mars One was still able to receive applications from 202000 potential volunteers. Overseen by Mars One medical director Norbert Kraft, a veteran of the US, Russian, and Japanese space programmes, the candidates were reduced to 1,058. And then, a medical routine conducted by their own GPs brought the numbers to a global 660. And then finally, the chosen Mars 100.
NASA’s goal is similar to Mars One’s: to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Their journey is already well under way as their orbiters, landers, and rovers have been exploring the planet for decades. The Curiosity rover was used to gather radiation data to protect future astronauts, and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover will attempt to uncover Martian resources, including oxygen.
NASA also shares their goal of finding a way for humans to settle safely beyond Earth. With a growing number of international and commercial partners who realise the economic potential of strengthening America’s leadership on Earth and in space, their goals seem achievable, but very difficult.
NASA’s journey to Mars is divided into three phases. Each subsequent phase crosses a new threshold of challenges as humans move farther from Earth.
Click here for a summary infographic (Infographic by: Ainaa Mashrique. Information from: www.nasa.gov)
Earth Reliant: now until mid-2020s
- This phase consists of International Space Station (ISS) operation through 2024, where there would be commercial development in low-earth orbit technology before moving onto deep space systems; customers may pay to go onboard the ISS.
- One of their goals at this stage is to study life support and human health stabilisation while in deep space.
- Research would be carried out aboard the ISS, as the orbiting laboratory would act as a testing ground for the technologies and communication interfaces required for deep space missions involving human crew.
- On the other hand, astronauts will learn about living and working in deep space for long durations.
Proving Ground: 2018 until 2030
- NASA would conduct regular crewed missions and spacewalks in cis-lunar space (the space around the Moon), by using the knowledge and technology previously acquired during phase one.
- This phase would ideally verify deep space habitation.
- NASA plans to conduct a yearlong mission to prepare for their mission to Mars.
- NASA also aspires to integrate human and robotic operations by redirecting and sampling an asteroid boulder into cis-lunar orbit.
- Astronauts on the ISS during the previous phase would be hours away from Earth, but the proving ground is days away. This is one step closer to an actual Mars mission, which will be months away from the Earth.
- NASA plans to launch their powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will carry the Orion spacecraft (without astronauts first) thousands of miles beyond the moon for approximately three weeks.
- After that, astronauts would embark on a similar mission on board the Orion, traveling farther than humans have ever travelled before.
Earth Independent: 2030s and beyond
- The final phase before the manned mission to Mars.
- With knowledge gathered during the previous two phases, it aims to prepare astronauts and technology for the upcoming mission to Mars.
- Science missions during this time will be in the final stages.
- NASA plans to demonstrate entry, descent, and landing (EDL) techniques that they plan to employ during the actual Mars mission.
- They would also demonstrate in-situ resource utilisation.
- They plan to send humans to low-Mars orbit or to orbit one of the Martian moons by the early 2030s.
- NASA’s main goal at this stage is to send humans to the Martian surface.
- At the moment, NASA is already looking at potential outposts on Mars that would propel scientific research and provide the most resources.
NASA’s Journey to Mars. Image by: www.nasa.gov
Space X is a private company founded by Elon Musk that builds rockets and spacecraft. With a 1.6 billion USD contract with NASA, the company is the first private company that has successfully built spacecraft for cargo resupplies at NASA’s International Space Station, previously a feat only achieved by the US government. The founder Elon Musk shares the dream of a manned mission to Mars, and says in a keynote speech in Mexico that he may be able to accomplish this in six years by upgrading one of his existing spacecraft called the Falcon-9.
His current plan to get to Mars involves a multi-stage launch and transport system- including a reusable booster- which will be a bigger version of their existing and tested Falcon 9 spacecraft. The booster, and an “interplanetary module” could potentially carry 100 passengers. Elon Musk’s ongoing feat to develop reusable rockets would also dramatically cut costs needed for deep space missions. He is one step closer as Space X had successfully launched and landed the first used rocket on 30th March 2017.
He also proposed using similar modules- also launched using reusable boosters- in the Earth’s orbit to refuel the interplanetary craft, so it could be used for multiple trips. This includes trips to other parts of the solar system.
Space-X spacecraft. Images by: www.spacex.com.