It won’t be too long before we’re sending people on their way to the Red Planet. Jack Flanagan explains what life on Mars would be like.
There are people willing to put billions of dollars into putting people on Mars. Entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX program has been considering the idea for some time, and some related organisations have gone public with their intentions, such as Mars One, a non-profit seeking to establish a colony by 2022. They intend to put a group of chosen applicants through 7 years of rigorous training, and will to fund it as a “global media event” – a.k.a., reality television.
These programs are called “Mars to Stay” missions, and there’s a sensible reason behind wanting to colonise Mars before attempting a return mission. We do not have technology to land humans on Mars and get them back again. However, we can load a spacecraft with the equipment needed to live there. Mars to Stay advocates say that, given the need to colonise Mars someday, why not just rip off the bandaid?
These people aren’t mere daydreamers: high-profile cosmologists and engineers, as well as Buzz Aldrin, fiercely advocate that we ought to colonise Mars as soon as we can.
Colonisation strategies vary. There are, broadly, two options. The first is creating an artificial environment which protects humans from the planet’s inhospitable surface. If we were to colonise Mars in the next few years, this is our only option, as the second option – terraforming – could only happen in the long-term.
The idea behind terraforming – literally “Earth-shaping” – is to change the surface and atmosphere of a planet so it resembles our own. Mars has the nutrients needed for life – water, nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus – and it is believed it once had a wet climate, given the valleys on the surface which can only have been carved by running water. So, with enough intervention the planet could be pushed back into a life-harbouring environment.
Suggestions on how to do that range from using “extremophilic” microbes (who can live in poor conditions) to guiding asteroids to the Martian poles with lasers, melting the carbon monoxide Glaciers and creating a greenhouse atmosphere similar to Earth’s.
Beside trying to grasp a sense of how we can live on Mars, is another question: what will it be like? Will I be reading a centuries-old Aldous Huxley novel in a Martian outpost, looking out at other disparate outposts? Or tending to my bionic plants in the subterranean network of tunnels, safe from solar flares and space radiation? What will life for the Martian people be like?
A little like Earth
The truth is: our bodies evolved to suit life on Earth. Space travel has already shown that a lack of gravity and not much space can lead to depression, tiredness, muscle atrophy (wasting away) and even changes to our eye physiology.
Simply put: we’re not naturally adapted to be space cowboys. So life on Mars will have to follow rules set by our own planet: exercise, an appropriate diet, and Earth-like gravity levels. (Mars’s gravity is about 38 per cent of what we’re used to.) There are more complex requirements we might also not fully understand yet, such as the importance of bacteria in our day-to-day life, which will not flourish in a sterile environment like Mars. Whatever we do, we have to make our home on Mars similar to what life was like back on Earth.
… But Also Different
Mars’s atmosphere is very thin, about 1 per cent of Earth’s. This means the surface of Mars is not as protected from space radiation as Earth’s. Although terraforming could offset this in the long-term, in the short-term, living quarters and suits for exploring will have to be able to withstand that radiation.
Early colonisers, if Mars to Stay advocates get their way, will have to live in extremely frugal communities. Complex technology will be imported – at massive expensive – from Earth, most likely by SpaceX, while everything else must be salvaged from the rover wrecks and the soil.
This is and isn’t as horrible as it sounds. The soil on Mars contains a lot of water crystals, and so – hopefully – there will be no need, as on space stations, to recycle urine. The water also means that hydroponic agriculture – growing plants in nutrient water without soil – will be much easier. Although this depends on the number of people and how much they’ll need to eat.
There is also some question of how viable hydroponics is in the long-term, because of the importance of bacteria in Earth’s soil, and there may be more we don’t understand.
Close quarters are also likely to be an issue given how expensive transporting anything to Mars is, let alone spacious apartments. Tests of how people cope in such isolated conditions have been done. The Mars500 experiment took place on Earth between 2010 and 2011. Six men were isolated for 500 days to simulate a back-and-forth trip to Mars. It found four of six “showed at least one issue” that could have jeopardised the mission, so Mars colonies will call for some extremely serene individuals.
The other, probably predictable, feature of life on Mars would be the possibility of error, system failures and the accidental extinction of the colony. Beyond the danger of travelling and entry into Mars’s atmosphere, the planet itself is hostile to humans.
Mars is ravaged by dust storms that can occur at any part of the planet, or across the whole planet simultaneously, often ranking as “strong gale” or “storm” on the Beaufort scale (enough to break a tree). These storms are frequent, but don’t seem to do any harm to rovers currently on the planet. The storms, however, would delay construction and make foraging difficult, if a Martian doesn’t time it right.
Mars is also cold: with an average planetary temperature of −55 °C (−67 °F). At the poles it’s much worse, with lows going down to around −153 °C (−243 °F). Ground temperatures on the equator can be above 0 ⁰C (32 ⁰F), in summer. During dust storms, ground temperature can drop by 20⁰C (68⁰F), while the dust-choked atmosphere warms by about that amount. All this is to say that: if the technology fails extreme survival equipment would be needed.
You’ll want a camera
We are obsessed with the strange. And there is little more alien to us than a different planet. Mars is wasteland: photos from the Curiosity rover show us miles upon miles of desolate red sand, iron oxide, or rust; steady hills and blowing dust, all of which sits underneath a depressingly orange sky. It is similar to the White Desert or Gilf-Kebir in Egypt and Libya.
But Mars is also home to incredible spectacles. The foremost is the volcano Olympus Mons (“Mount Olympus”), which is the tallest mountain on any planet in the Solar System – three times taller than Mount Everest. Conversely, the Valles Marineris, a system of canyons, is 4000 km long and 7 km deep. From space, it looks like a visible scar on the face of the planet. For comparison, the Grand Canyon is 446 km long and 1.6 km deep, in places.
During the day, Mars’s skies are a rusty red colour; dawn and dusk are blue and violet, tinged with red. The planet also has two moons, Deimos and Phobos, and while both are much smaller than our moon, they are visible from the surface. Phobos, the larger moon, whizzes round Mars at two and half times the speed that Mars rotates, so you’d see it twice a day – and it is close enough that, standing on the equator, it seems to expand and shrink as it passes by.
One of the most spectacular photo opportunities might be of Earth: although just barely visible, on clear days you could make out the speck of a blue planet… and reminisce.
Mars represents the next frontier for the human race. Although the question of whether it’s possible to live there within the next few years is still hanging in the air, there are plenty of companies and people who will not wait for approval to move ahead with their plans.
It looks like in the next few decades we will see a lot of talk about visiting the Red Planet – and maybe Mars To Stay advocates will take the next step – and we’ll see how life on Mars will shape up. Potentially on MTV.