Is the Red Planet giving us a Green Flag?

Sci Tech Aug 12, 2017

Given our progress as a species – embracing the modern era of multimedia, multitasking and much more, are we yet ready to become a multi-planetary species? Big players like Elon Musk and NASA are here to convince us to take the leap. However, before we get to that, let’s cover a few FAQs gathered and consolidated from one of Elon Musk’ speeches.

Why another planet?

The path that lies ahead of us is likely to bifurcate. One is that we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization. Humanity will invariably be drawn to one of them and a choice will have to be made.

Why Mars among other planets?

Our options for becoming a multi-planetary species, with our Solar System in mind, are limited. We have Venus; but Venus is a high pressure hot acid bath, so that isn’t a feasible option. Then, there is Mercury, but it is way too close to the Sun. We could potentially go to one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, but those are quite far out, much further from the sun, and much harder to get to. It really leaves us with only one option. Mars it is.

How similar is Mars to Earth?

To give some comparison between the two planets, they are remarkably close in many ways. As of September 2016, Mars is believed to have been like earth in its early stage. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.

Earth and Mars (Image credit: NASA)

Mars is about half as far again from the sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements. This means that we can cultivate plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere. Another key element is that the gravity on Mars is 37% that of Earth’s gravity. So you would be able to lift heavy things. Furthermore, the duration of one day is notably close to that of Earth.

Journey to Mars

With that knowledge, let’s move on to the actual steps and efforts made towards colonizing Mars.

The quest to explore Mars began in the 19th century, and they continue today via telescopic investigations and landed missions. While early works bordered on fantasy, modern scientific inquiry has insisted on the search for water, chemical biosignatures in the soil and presence of biomarker gases in the atmosphere.

In 2014, India became the first country in the world to succeed in an inter-planetary mission in its maiden attempt. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan is a space probe orbiting Mars since 24 September 2014. It was launched on 5 November 2013 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The new Rs 2,000 note displaying the motif of Mangalayan on the back, depicting India’s first venture into interplanetary space (By Reserve Bank of India)

Later on, in November 22, 2016, NASA reported finding a large amount of underground ice. The volume of water detected has been estimated to be the same as the volume of water in Lake Superior, one of the largest lakes in North America with a surface area of 31,700 square miles.

Among the latest endeavours, the SpaceX project is a significant one. SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. In 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon Spacecraft became the first private spacecraft to visit the international space station.

What sets Dragon apart from other Mars landers is its use of supersonic retro-propulsion, which means it will use rockets embedded in the hull to allow for the larger spacecraft to land safely. Should the technique prove to be successful, this lander will be the biggest vehicle to land on the planet thus far. SpaceX plans to put humans in Mars by 2026, almost 10 years ahead of a similar mission by NASA.  However, using traditional methods, taking an Apollo-style approach, an optimistic cost would be about $10 billion per person and that is a steep price to pay. Creating a self-sustaining civilization when the prices are $10 billion per person poses an issue. SpaceX believes that if we can get the cost of moving to Mars to be roughly equal to a medium house price in the Unites States, which is around $200,000, then the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilization is very high.

Another interesting aspect of this would be that only a relatively small number of people would actually want to go to Mars, but enough would want to go given they can afford it. This gives rise to sponsorship opportunities and the likes of it. Basically, if people saved up for it, they could buy a ticket to Mars and provided that in the initial stage, there will be labour shortage, jobs would not be in short supply.

To make trips to Mars possible on a large scale, full reusability of commodities is essential. In case of Mars, it is hard to reuse spaceship pods since Earth-Mars rendezvous i.e., when the Earth aligns itself with Mars, occurs every 26 months. Therefore, you get to use the spaceship approximately every 2 years. Much more on this front is work-in-progress at the moment.

Colonizing Mars

Assuming that we do figure out a cost-effective way to move to Mars, establishing civilization would be the next big challenge because it is one thing to land but thriving is another. NASA is already considering what kind of habitation we’ll need to survive on the surface of Mars. Six companies began designing possible habitat prototypes in 2016, with completed prototypes expected in 24 months. All these habitats will likely have a few things in common — they have to be self-sustaining, sealed against the thin atmosphere, and capable of supporting life for extended periods without support from Earth. Musk guesses that early on, for every spacecraft that goes to Mars carrying people, ten will need to go carrying cargo and supplies.

Some initial things early settlers will need:

  • Nuclear is a possibility, but since Mars is close enough to the Sun, solar is a feasible source of energy too.
  • There will need to be an oxygen-producing plant. Plentiful raw materials include atmospheric CO2 and ground H2O, so making oxygen won’t be that hard.
  • Lots of ice on the poles and supposedly ice at other latitudes too, as well as ice underground, so they will be able to bring plenty of liquid water into the settlement.
  • Farmers and botanists will be needed along with fertilizers and pressurized greenhouses.

This is just a bare-bone list of the requirements needed to support survival.

Science fiction also does a great job helping the public imagine what this future mission will look like. The recent film The Martian portrayed the kind of habitats NASA is investigating for Mars. Nine pieces of technology showcased in the movie are accurate to the kind of equipment astronauts on the planet will use. Quite naturally, cultivation is the first step towards inhabiting a place. The presence of Red soil and oxides do pose a challenge, but with moisture and organic fertilizers it can be made cultivable. Consequently, cultivation paves way for oxygen and with large greenhouses we can induce precipitation thereby overcoming the absence of natural water on the planet. Low gravity enables easier travel due to lack of a rugged terrain. The possibilities are endless and the best part is that this is just the beginning.

They say that curiosity killed the cat. But ever since NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the progress that mankind has made has been in leaps and bounds. And in the interest of doing what’s best for our race, I believe we are right on track.

Article on SpaceX’s goal
Elon Musk’s Presentation


Oviya G

Oviya is passionate about poetry, literature and music. She is also interested in coding, TV shows and is an absolute dog lover.