Footsteps on the Red Planet

According to scientists, in about seven billion years or so, the sun will expand to a red giant, possibly vapourising Earth. But don’t let that worry you, because all life on Earth will probably be extinct a few billion years before this. The increased radiation from the expanding sun is expected to result in a drop in CO2 levels, killing all plant-life, and the heat of the sun will cause the world’s oceans to boil away. Although cynics would say our end could be a lot sooner, suggesting that climate change will end the world as we know it. If that’s not gloomy enough for you, any number of natural disasters could also occur at any time: asteroid strikes, super volcanoes – all the sorts of things that are probably best not to dwell on. However, it’s these sorts of grim realities that are driving a desire to colonise other planets.

Perhaps akin to the idea of not putting all your eggs in one basket, human expansion across different planets could ensure our survival for many years to come. Mars, the dusty red planet which has so fascinated science fiction writers, has become the most likely candidate for the first extra-terrestrial human colony. It could even happen in our lifetimes if all goes to plan.

The earliest trip would simply fly around Mars and then return to Earth. In 2018, the planets align to make the round trip a relatively quick 501 days. This is the plan of first-ever space tourist, Dennis Tito, and his Inspiration Mars Foundation.

Another key player is billionaire and supposed inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002. His company builds rockets which are currently used in conjunction with NASA for transport to the International Space Station (ISS). According to its website, SpaceX “was founded…to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Musk plans to send people to Mars in the 2030s, when the planets are once again aligned, and have a colony up and running by 2040. For the first settlers, the one-way trip would cost them about half a million dollars. Musk hopes to bring down the cost of space travel considerably by designing a reusable rocket.

Another prominent organisation aiming for the red planet is Mars One. This not-for-profit Dutch company aims to send people to the red planet by 2024. Selected from 200,000 applicants, there are currently 100 candidates on the shortlist to become the first settlers on Mars, five of whom are from the UK.

So what difficulties will there be for potential colonists? Well, even getting off the ground is likely to be nerve-wracking, as any little fault could spell tragedy. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, due to a faulty O-ring seal, caused the deaths of all seven crew members 73 seconds into its mission. Then there’s the long slog through the radiation-soaked vacuum of space, which will take seven or eight months in a very confined space with three other people. Hopefully they’ll get along, as once on Mars they will be the only company in the entire world. Radiation could be a serious problem for the astronauts, as damaging cosmic rays are difficult to block. They will also be subject to it on the surface, increasing their cancer risk. Landing will be difficult. The terrain is tricky and Mars’ thin atmosphere means that there’s little friction for braking, and the heavy weight of all the humans and their supplies would make slowing down difficult. NASA’s much lighter Curiosity rover entered the atmosphere at around 12,000 miles per hour and had only seven minutes to slow down to avoid being destroyed on the Martian surface.

Once on Mars, if anything goes wrong it must all be dealt with by the astronauts; there’ll be no calling for an ambulance. On the surface, they would face freezing temperatures – as low as minus 125 degrees – a lack of oxygen and low air pressure causing moisture in the body to boil even at cold temperatures, and dust storms which can rage all over the planet. They would need to grow their own food. Under Mars One’s plan, food and drink will be prepared in advance by a rover launched in 2020. The plan is to extract water from ice in the soil and use part of this water to produce oxygen.

So is any of this actually going to happen? Mars One and its founder, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, think so. They claim that, “human settlement on Mars is possible today with existing technologies.”

However, there is some scepticism. Gerard ’t Hooft, a Nobel laureate and senior lecturer of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, is an ambassador for the project. However, he told The Guardian that the plans were unrealistic, saying: “It will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive [than expected].” A recent report from a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found flaws with the plan and suggested that settlers could suffocate within 68 days as oxygen levels could not be effectively balanced.

Space offers more challenges than the technology, though, from cultural issues to international relations. If you’re a Muslim, for example, how do you pray towards Mecca? This question was posed by Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, and a conference was convened of 150 Islamic scholars to resolve this and other issues for Muslims in space. Last year, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE) in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwa against Muslims participating in a one-way trip to Mars. They considered the trip so hazardous that being a part of it was tantamount to suicide, which is not permitted in Islam.

A further issue with colonising another planet is which nation will get there first. Mars One, despite being based in the Netherlands, claims to be free of such political motives: “Each team selected for settlement on Mars will be comprised of four people, each from a different nation on Earth.” However, other missions aim to promote national interests. Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars describes itself as “a mission for America”.

In the far future how would Mars be governed? Maintaining a government on the bleak planet could be difficult, with potential for civil war. Might Martians one day – in the very distant future – declare independence?

Although the future of Mars colonisation is not clear, what is true is that the research and development that goes into space travel can trickle down into everyday life. Many modern day items were developed by NASA for the Apollo missions, from computer microchips to home insulation.

Hopefully, this drive to go further than we’ve ever gone before will move technology forward, with benefits for everyone, even if most of us are unlikely to be going to Mars any time soon.


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