The Race to Colonize the Red Planet
The dream to become a multi-planetary species is becoming the most sought-out goal in Space exploration
I must have watched the movie Martian at least 5 times and it has fascinated me every single time, not just because of brilliant acting & visual effects but its depiction of how we can not only travel far beyond the Moon and call another planet our home. And the best choice we have in our solar system is Mars, our planetary neighbor.
Famously known as the “Red Planet” — the reddish tinge is the defining characteristic of the planet given to it by the high concentrations of Iron Oxide in the Martian soil. There are eerie similarities between the Earth & Mars yet they are very different from each other at the same time.
Similarities & Differences
Mars is almost one-half the diameter of the Earth, but both planets have the same amount of land mainly due to lack of water on the former. While the geological processes resemble on both planets & landforms are similar yet they are really different when it comes to temperature, size, and atmosphere.
Just to put things into perspective, the tallest mountain on Mars — Olympus Mons is two and a half times taller than Mount Everest, while Valles Marineris — a Martian canyon system is the length of the entire continental United States and three times deeper than the Grand Canyon. However, volcanoes, canyons, and impact basins on Mars are very similar to the ones we see here on Earth. Talking about temperatures — it varies greatly between summer & winter and whether you are at the poles(-60˚C to -125˚C) or the equator (-73˚C to 20˚C).
Mapping the Geology
NASA received the first up-close images from its Mariner 4 spacecraft on July 14, 1965. With the subsequent missions, orbital satellites and surface exploration with robots helped along with improving technology led astronomers to map out the surface of Mars.
The detailed map above brings together centuries of observations and hard work to map out the geology of the Red planet on a grand scale. The map contains everything from polar ice caps to clouds dotted in yellow and white & dark spots denoting to various altitudes. While the Northern hemisphere is heavily cratered & resembles the highlands of our Moon, the southern hemisphere has much fewer craters but houses most of the volcanoes.
Missions to Mars
NASA is not the only space agency that has sent missions to Mars over the years. The former Soviet Union space program, the European Space Agency, and more recently the Indian Space Research Organization have all made it to the Red planet. All these missions have brought important data about the planet back to Earth and helped us understand Mars better. The infographic below details all the successful & failed missions to the Red Planet since 1960.
Although none of these missions have been able to find liquid water, they have found the next best thing — planet’s poles have vast amounts of millennia-old ice deposits that can be extracted to turn into liquid water.
Working on tight budgets & declining interest in the space program over the years, NASA has now found an ally in the form of SpaceX — a private corporation by Elon Musk, who has a multi-planetary dream to get the first humans to Mars as early as 2024. SpaceX intends to launch the first mission to the Red Planet in 2022 before following up with a crewed mission two years later.
Most people believe this is too aggressive of a deadline and the 2030s decade looks more likely when humans will be able to land on Mars. Other notable private companies that have entered the space race include Amazon’s Blue Origin & British Virgin Galactic.
There is a problem that we need to overcome first before sending humans for extended space travel. A recent study on rodents found that they suffered from cognitive problems after extended exposure to space-like radiation, levels humans would be exposed to on a future Mars mission. There is no way of knowing what affects will this cosmic radiation has on the astronauts embarking on this mission.
SpaceX is, however, working on finalizing the mode of transportation for the mission to Mars — Starship is expected to make its first flight by 2020. We are delving into the unknown and for most of the first settlers on Mars, it would probably be a one-way trip considering the high risks involved.
But these brave souls will be the pioneers in breaking that threshold of the final frontier — Space. For those of you, who are really interested in the possibilities & the challenges ahead, I would highly recommend watching the two seasons of National Geographic’s mini-series ‘MARS.’ set in 2033.