An Old Friend and a New Home
Mars is an inhabitant of the heavens that needs no introduction. The red twinkle that appears from time to time in the night sky has long been observed by civilizations across the ages and, unlike more exotic astronomical bodies like quasars, pulsars and black holes, is a familiar sight. The planet was first drawn in detail by the dutch astronomer Christian Huygens in 1659, but it was discovered long before then. It was named after the Roman god of war because of its blood red color. Mars has been the subject of countless science fiction, like the famous 1912 book Under the Moons of Mars, later renamed The Princess of Mars. In 2012, this book was adapted into the live action movie John Carter of Mars. Another movie about Mars which has been received with more critical acclaim is The Martian, which was also originally a book. Once the space age began, the dream of seeing the surface of the red planet would no longer be purely the realm of science fiction. With it began the long road to Mars.
The first orbit of Mars was achieved by a Soviet Union probe called Mars 5. This probe took 60 pictures of the red planet in its short 9 day life span. But the landing on the surface was a feat first achieved by the US landers, Viking 1 and 2, in 1975. These probes took 16,000 pictures and extensive data on soil and atmosphere readings, and were the first source of scientific data from the surface of the planet. Perhaps the most well known mechanical explorers are Spirit and Opportunity, two successful rovers that patrolled the rusted wastelands. The advantage of using a rover over a lander is the mobility of the unit. If the rover is in an area where it cannot collect very much data, it can move to a better location. A rover can investigate, relocate, maneuver and explore more effectively than a lander or satellite. However, because a rover needs to move it needs to have wheels, an engine or motor, an onboard computer dedicated to navigation, a power source, etc. These items take up space, which is valuable in a space mission. Also a rover needs to land on the surface safely which essentially means it also has the detriments of a lander. Those detriments being space for balloons and parachutes and increased risk of failure. As of 2017, the rovers are the greatest form of interaction that we have with the red planet. But should we have the opportunity, getting to Mars can have a plethora of benefits for humanity.
In order to understand how we can eventually inhabit Mars, it’s important to first understand why we cannot live there right now. The first reason is due to the thin atmosphere. The Martian atmosphere is comprised of 95% Carbon Dioxide, 2.7% Nitrogen and 0.13% Oxygen. This is as opposed to the Earth’s atmosphere, which is comprised of 78% Nitrogen and 21% Oxygen. But the composition of the atmospheres is not the only difference. The Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than that of the Earth. The average temperature on Mars is -55 degrees Celsius, and it varies widely and rapidly due to lack of atmospheric insulation. But Mars has a lower gravity than Earth does, and that also has adverse health effects. Our sense of balance, rooted in the movement of fluid in our inner ear, would be thrown off by the different gravity. It would require far more exercise to maintain muscle mass and decrease red blood cell count, causing anemia. So then what is the plan to solve these problems and get to Mars? Well a few of the problems can be knocked out with one solution. If the temperature on the planet were to rise, the dry ice caps would sublimate into carbon dioxide. This would alleviate the pressure problem of the atmosphere being 100 times thinner than that of the Earth. The way to raise these temperatures is to trigger a greenhouse effect, the kind that pollution is enhancing here on Earth. By triggering a global warming phenomenon through the greenhouse effect on Mars, the planet would be warmed up and pressurized. As for the composition of the atmosphere, that would take a very long time to fix, since the atmosphere so widely differs from that of the Earth and is so high in carbon dioxide. So for awhile, human colonists will have to use suits to walk on the surface and live in domes.
Elon Musk is a name that has popped up more than a few times in the news, and for good reason. The wide ranging portfolio of this entrepreneur contains ventures like SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Solar City, PayPal and more. The first three he has stated as being in line with his goal to preserve humanity against extinction and make us an interplanetary species. He is most certainly a visionary, and has recently published his plan on getting humans to Mars. And in this plan he addresses almost all aspects of Mars colonization. A few of the points he brings up are the fact that as of right now, it is far too expensive to go to Mars. The cost would be around 10 billion dollars per person, which doesn’t allow anybody who would want to go to Mars to go. According to Musk, the cost needs to decrease to around the median cost of a house in the United States in order to make colonization possible. He proposes ways to decrease the cost of space travel in to this level, including reusable fuel, fuel production on Mars, refueling in orbit, etc. He also discusses the rocket technology required to reach Mars, stating that its thrust to mass ratio must be far greater than even the most powerful rocket we have today, the Saturn V. Should we establish a successful colony on Mars, Musk believes this could open up the rest of the Solar System for exploration.
But why would we need to go to Mars? While there are many problems on Earth that we should turn our collective attention to, such as global warming, water shortages and war, going to Mars is not only important, it is necessary. There are Mars specific reasons, for example Mars is relatively rich in resources like ore and solar power. However, more generally, it is imperative that humanity expands beyond the Earth. First of all, there are issues of overpopulation and overconsumption of natural resources. The strain that a larger and larger human population would put on the Earth will quickly cause shortages and problems. These problems could be alleviated by placing part of this population elsewhere and therefore mitigating the resource damage to the Earth. Secondly, while we remain solely on the Earth, we are vulnerable to planet wide catastrophes that could wipe out the entire human race. Extinction events like meteorite collisions could conceivably destroy all of humanity if all of humanity was on the Earth. Other catastrophic events like total nuclear war, global warming, diseases that are resistant to conventional treatment, these could all also destroy humanity should we remain on the Earth. This type of total extinction could be avoided if there were also a substantial population elsewhere, safe from the problems that could plague the Earth. Mars could be this safe haven for humanity, and it could be the beginning of a kind of immortality for mankind. Protection from the premature death of our species.