Mars rover, Curiosity.
PHOTO BY NASA
DUBAI – Of all the planets in our solar system, Mars has been the biggest subject of science-fiction movies and has captivated the interest of billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson.
What exactly is the appeal of the Red Planet and what hope does it hold for the future of humankind?
The idea of humans living on Mars may seem today to be what used to be called a “moon shot” – an awesome, fantastic, almost impossible to achieve endeavor – until humans actually walked on Luna.
And it all starts with unmanned spacecraft mapping the surface, atmosphere, climate, composition, and a myriad other aspects of the Red Planet, culminating in building human settlements on Mars.
Many plans are announced each year related to missions and settlements on Mars. Culling the chaff from the wheat leaves, here are a few credible paths that may realistically take humanity there.
In November 2013, India launched the space probe Mangalyaan – literally translating to “Mars vehicle” – which entered the Red Planet’s orbit in September 2014 and is still there, gathering data. Although the Indian Space Research Organization has announced no plans to build settlements there, India’s space program has the capability.
After landing the Mars rover Curiosity in 2012, US space agency Nasa in October 2015 made public a plan to establish permanent settlements there using “deep-space habitation facilities” as stepping stones to a fully-fledged colony on the planet.
In September 2016, SpaceX Founder and CEO, Elon Musk published a plan on “Making Humanity a Multi-Planetary Species” that involves re-usable spaceships that will depart Earth en masse once every 26 months when it aligns with Mars, each carrying a hundred people and cargo. SpaceX has launched multiple rockets so far, including Falcon Heavy, a partially re-usable heavy-lift vehicle.
In February 2017, on the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai, the UAE announced that it would build a city on Mars by 2117, and even released images of what the city would look like. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center is working to achieve clearly defined goals.
China’s ambitious mission to create a robotic and human settlement on Mars in 2020 are “going smoothly”, Zhang Rongqiao, the chief architect of the mission, said in September 2017. China is seeking to become the first country to conduct joint orbital and surface exploration of Mars in a single mission.
Long before all of this comes to fruition, government and private sector organizations from the United States to the UAE to India will send tens of unmanned and manned craft into orbit around Mars to gather as much relevant information as possible.
Just how realistic is it to think that we can have a self-sufficient settlement on Mars in 10 decades? Should we get excited about a planet whose air is unbreathable and comprises mainly carbon dioxide (95 percent), which is lethal for human beings?
Atmospheric pressure on Mars is 100 times less than Earth, and because of the thinness of the air and the distance from the sun, the temperature drops below -100 degrees F in some places, and rises at its best to -20 F, about 60 degrees below zero.
“People can’t wait to create a settlement on Mars. But Mars is one of the very tough choices in our solar system to look for life or the existence of past life,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, said at the recent World Government Summit (WGS) in Dubai.
A planetary scientist, Elkins-Tanton is also co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative and Principal Investigator of the Psyche mission, Nasa’s 14th Discovery Program.
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, and the distance between it and the earth – about 400 million kilometers – presents a further challenge in the quest to placing human life there, said Rick Davis, Assistant Director for Science and Exploration at Nasa.
Distance is not the only problem. According to Universe Today, the surface of Mars is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than earth. And in addition to regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, it receives occasional lethal blasts from solar flares.
“Mars has many astronomical features similar to Earth, but it has issues such as radiation exposure. The day is almost identical to that on Earth, just a little longer than 24 hours, but the year is twice as long,” John Mankins, President of Mankins Space Technology, said at WGS.
For humans, the most important difference is the solar irradiance, which is significantly lower than what we enjoy on Earth. Mars receives only 590 watts of solar insolation per square metre (W/m2) on average, as opposed to 1,360W/m2 on Earth.
Food and wellbeing
Agriculture will also face challenges, being the most energy-intensive activity on Mars. According to Mankins, it takes 1,000 to 4,000 square meters to produce enough food for one individual on Mars, and that area must have solar insolation of around 500W/sqm – or 12 hours out of every 24.
“It’s going to be a tremendous energy requirement to bring food for a population on Mars, besides the significant amount of soil, water, and atmospheric conditions that are needed,” he said.
Certain crops, however, may be able to sprout on Mars. Peruvian national Julio Ernesto Valdivia-Silva, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA Ames Center who led a research into space farming, believes it will be possible to grow potatoes on Mars.
According to Silva, researchers at the International Potato Center in Peru planted a potato tuber in a CubeSat-size container that imitates Mars’ temperatures and atmospheric conditions.
The potatoes sprouted. Martian soil and the Atacama Desert have extremely low levels of microorganisms and organic material as well as high levels of oxidising chemical elements, making soils in the Atacama equivalent to Mars in research situations.
Besides food, there are concerns over the psychological wellbeing of astronauts sent to Mars as they would be the first humans to lose a direct visual link to their home planet. Human responses to such situations are still largely unknown.
“It is critical to improve human factors and biomechanical ergonomics, thermal comfort, light and lighting, as well as acoustics,” Franco Fenoglio, Head of Human Spaceflight and Transportation Unit at Thales Alenia Space, said.
Once solutions are found to these various barriers and mankind finally makes it to Mars, it would undoubtedly lead to global impact innovations. And that is where hope lies.
“The Mars 2117 vision will lead to technologies, techniques, talents, and generations that are focused on a quest that spans engineering, science, and technology. Medicines and technologies developed for this mission can be applied on Earth long before they are applied on Mars,” Elkins-Tanton noted.
Indeed, space exploration is critical as it promotes research on sustaining life on Earth. It also opens the door to valuable resources.
“The talk about space resources started 15 or 20 years ago, and it was just a small group at Nasa. But today we have the Russians, the Indians, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the European country of Luxembourg all showing interest. The UAE has also expressed interest in space resources,” Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut and the first Canadian to walk in space, said at the WGS.
And it’s not just governments but also the private sector – major rocket providers and small businesses are starting to set their sights on space resources. “We have a ‘gold rush’ – because Mars has gold, silver, platinum, uranium, and other metals as well as silicon and rare earth metals that we use in cellphones today,” Hadfield said.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re going to get to Mars. The real challenge is making the average person aware of the accessibility of space and space-related careers,” said Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, former Nasa scientist and an entrepreneur who has founded a number of space-related companies in Singapore.
While Mars may not become our second home, exploring it could lead to technological breakthroughs that serve objectives here on Earth, as well as help us become more evolved humans. “It’s in our genes to explore. As a species, if we’re not striving to do more and looking outward, we would have much smaller and less meaningful lives,” said Elkins-Tanton.
Going beyond Mars?
It is perhaps this innate need to conquer new worlds that is driving another group of researchers to look even beyond Mars. Scientist Stephen Hawking and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have joined hands with Russian scientist and Silicon Valley investor Yuri Milner to even explore adjoining star systems.
Announcing the initiative in 2016, Professor Hawking said: “I believe we have reached the point of no return. Earth is becoming too small for us, global population is increasing at an alarming rate, and we are in danger of self-destructing.”
He said nanotechnology could help develop a way of sending spacecraft millions of miles away from Earth in a matter of minutes, riding a laser beam. Such a system could reach Mars in less than an hour, or reach Pluto in days, and Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years, Hawking said.
The Alpha Centauri system – specifically Proxima b, the closest exoplanet, a rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone – is 4.37 light years or 40,000,000,000,000 km from Earth.
The project has already raised $100 million and may cost up to $10 billion by the time the nanocraft leave Earth.
Phil Lubin, the man who actually came up with the idea of tiny, laser-propelled spacecraft for interstellar travel, says the biggest challenge will be in building the huge array of lasers that focus into one powerful 100 GW beam.
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