A little house on the Martian prairie

Image: NASA

Sunrise in the biosphere. Soft LEDs shine from the roof of the habitat, replicating the perfect dawn. Illuminating the ‘alien’ crops nestled within their hydroponic beds and breathing life into humanity’s first Martian colony.

On a planet where dust storms can last for days and almost entirely block out sunlight, growing crops can be a challenge. Plants would need to be kept in artificially-lit biospheres to keep them photosynthesising and this is where Nasa’s prototype biosphere – built by a research team at the University of Arizona – will prove invaluable to any extended Mars mission.

Two of the most basic components for sustaining a healthy crew is air and food, and thankfully plants are perfect for providing both. But, due to the aforementioned limitations, researchers have already determined that food consumption on Mars will have to be tightly regulated. If the crew ever harvests beyond the allocated amount of plant life for eating, then they increase the long term risk of the entire colony suffocating.

Every eventuality must be fully considered when you’re sending humans to another planet. As a governmental organisation, Nasa has a duty of care over the individuals it has recruited, and must ensure that they have considered every conceivable  before placing people’s lives in danger. Michael Hecht; Assistant Director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory and former Research Scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains that if we chose to go to Mars, protocols must be in place to ensure a safe and speedy return, if conditions dictate: “When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet.”

Hecht’s team have been instrumental in developing a MOXIE, a “reverse fuel cell” which will make use of Mars’s CO2 rich atmosphere to generate usable oxygen for craft and crew alike. However this revolutionary new technique will not be put into practice until 2020; perhaps explaining why Nasa has chosen to focus on unmanned Mars missions and kicked the notion of an Apollo-style landing well into the long grass.

Yet, Mars One – a privately owned, “not-for-profit” company – thinks they have a way of getting to Mars faster. They opened their selection process in 2013, allowing anyone to apply. There was just one caveat; this was strictly a one-way ticket.

As a private company, Mars One seeks to generate their own funding for the mission, claiming they will exploit the media frenzy that will surely be surrounding the event. The creators of Big Brother, Endemol, were apparently planning to broadcast the training process the participants would be put through before departure, netting Mars One a cool $6 billion – but many sources are reporting that this deal has fallen through.

  The chances of Mars One reaching the red planet any time soon are pretty slim, even if they had the money, many point out the budget for their program is laughably small. 

Even Nasa has stated that any manned mission would not depart before the late 2030s. Whatever happens, there is one major challenge that can never be tested before departure: what will it feel like to live 225 million kilometres away from the rest of humanity? Mars One argues that by not having the option to ever come back to Earth, the pioneering astronauts will be have all the more reason to make the Mars colony work, but I’m not so sure. On Earth, you can sometimes see Mars with your naked eye as a shining orange light. But when the first humans on Mars look up to the stars, they’ll realise it’s much harder to see the Earth’s light blue hue amongst a midnight sky of navy.

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