Would you like to live on Mars? This is a question that we here at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium ask on a daily basis. There never is a solid yes or no answer from any of the groups we ask, whether they be young or old. We usually get a few mutterings of yes and a few mutterings of no and sometimes we’re even told that it’s something they’ve never even thought about.
Living on Mars is something we should all think about, at least once in our lives. Sometimes it is nice to think about escaping the shackles of Earth and transporting ourselves to our red neighbouring planet. When we imagine this however, we’re usually there and back again in no time. We never consider it as a potential home.
We humans are pretty used to the notion of colonisation. We’ve been doing it for a long time. There are a couple of definitions of the term. We know it as the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area, or the action of appropriating a place or domain for one’s own use. Basically colonisation is the act of establishing yourself in a particular area. Plants do it, as do animals. Throughout history you can see where people have moved themselves into some of the most uninhabitable places on Earth, and even overthrown other civilisations to do it. Human beings can be found in some of the most far flung regions of the Earth, but as a people we naturally want more.
Mars is the next big colonisation step. We’ve been to the Moon, and there are plans for the Moon in the future, however Mars is the place we have our sights set on as our next habitat. I know what you’re thinking. Why? Why would anyone leave the wonderful comfort of our own planet, with internet, good food, family and friends? For the adventure of course!
Getting there is the crux of the matter. How can we ever achieve our new home on Mars if we can’t get there? We need a bigger rocket and NASA is currently working on building such a marvel. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, will launch astronauts in the Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. Once success is achieved it will open up possibilities for robotic payloads to explore further on to Jupiter and Saturn. There are also efforts being made by other organisations such as SpaceX (founded by Elon Musk) and Virgin Galactic (founded by Richard Branson). Musk is stating that he would like to get a Lander on Mars launched by 2020. Creating such massive rockets will cost tens of billions of dollars, something that seems quite impossible, but with more billionaire entrepreneurs coming into the Space Industry, who knows, we might see a joining of resources to make a manned mission to Mars all the more possible. A long shot, I know, but still a girl can dream.
Successful landing on Mars is also critical. So far only around 50% of the things that we have sent to land on Mars have actually been successful. Let’s practice a bit more before we start sending up people!
Once on Mars we need to be able to survive. There is a difference between surviving and living. Living, to me, implies there being some sort of comfort, knowledge that on a day to day basis you don’t need to worry about your food, or your habitat. To survive we need air, water, food and power. At the moment on Mars, there is none of this.
Air, this is the big one. If we don’t have air, how can we breathe? The Martian atmosphere is full of carbon dioxide, something that we learned a long time ago we cannot tolerate. There is a plan to essentially upgrade the Curiosity Rover. The 2020 Rover will be designed to do the first ever experiment on Mars that will see oxygen being extracted from carbon dioxide on the surface of Mars. It will be on a miniscule scale however and would not be enough to support life on the planet, but if successful, will be a huge step towards getting life on to the planet to survive.
Water is another essential for life. As we now know, Mars used to be covered in oceans of water, which evaporated away when the atmosphere on the planet started to thin. Over the years it has been the challenge for scientists to discover whether there is any water left on the surface of Mars. For years nothing was found. In 2015, however, NASA announced the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars. This was extremely exciting! The bad news is that you can’t drink it. It is full of salts known as perchlorates which are hazardous to human health. Finding this water might, however, lead scientists to a freshwater source, which could possibly be underground. How else may we be able to drink on Mars? One method will be to recycle water just like the international space station (ISS). The ISS takes human urine and filters it back into drinking water. This sounds horrid, I know, however it is a very effective method and already works incredibly well on the ISS.
Food is a big one. If you’re like me, then you love your food and going even half an hour without the whiff of some sort of snack makes you anxious. This is going a little too far, but still, we are a nation that loves food. When travelling to Mars we won’t be able to take a lifetime’s supply of food up with us. Instead, to properly colonise the planet and make a functional society, we will need to be able to grow our own food. For a long time we were unsure that we could properly grow plants on the red planet due to all of the rusty dust up there, however it has been found that the Martian soil does have nutrients needed to grow plants. An issue is that where the first astronauts land might not be an area where these nutrients are abundant. Also, there will be a distinct lack of fertiliser. You can’t really take up a lifetime’s supply of manure, especially when you can just make it yourself. When growing plants on Mars, it will be required to mix human faeces in with the soil in order to give the plant the extra nutrients. Reuse and recycle! It will be the way forward.
To sustain a successful colony on our neighbouring planet, a power source will be required. Initially solar power can be used during the early missions, but as the generations move on, some sort of heat source and electricity source will be required from the planet itself, and a sensible answer for this would be geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is a form of energy obtained from within the planet, originating in its core. This could provide a reliable, natural method of producing power for any colonists.
So, is Mars our next potential home? If we can get these issues of air, water, food and power figured out then I am going to state that yes, it will be. Maybe not for many years to come, but if we keep our best minds on the project then we will slowly, but surely get there in the end. My prediction? In the next 100-150 years there will be colonies on Mars and they will be opening up their first ever Starbucks and McDonalds.
Article written by Heather Taylor, Education Support Officer