Everything humans know about Mars (Part 1)

Read as ‘a few things some people know about Mars’

I haven’t posted here in a while and I want to apologise for it but let’s be honest, who really cares. This is part 1 of a 2 part series on planet Mars.

Part 1(You are here)

Part 2

This first part will feel like it is about Elon Musk. I promise it is not.

This is Elon Musk. Elon Musk believes that humans should colonize Mars. How much does he believe in it? In 2002, he started a company to do just that. Elon made about 180 million dollars from the sale of PayPal and took 100 million of that money and started SpaceX. Starting a rocket company isn’t a particularly popular venture. To put it delicately, people can call it stupid. The only organisations I know that run rocket companies are funded by Federal governments (and Virgin Galactic… I think… that’s a thing, right?) The mission of SpaceX was to revolutionize the cost of space travel to facilitate humans becoming a multi-planetary species by colonizing Mars with 1 million people over the next century. There’s this word from the 60s for big, incredulous ideas that humans have, like going to the moon. The word is “moonshot”. What Elon has in mind is moonshot on steroids. The man started an equally crazy idea two years later (Tesla), but let’s stay on topic. The thing about Elon is that he isn’t alone. Humans generally want to do crazy shit. There’s a bunch of people that are also on board with the idea of getting humans to Mars and…

actually…

leaving them there.

In fact, there are estimations that suggest this will happen between 2025 and 2028. Technically, it will start in 2024 because space travel from Earth to Mars takes about 300 days. Enough time for everyone on the spaceship to regret deciding to abandon their families to become the only humans on a different planet. Fun.

Why are we trying to run away from Earth?

The same reason we run away from everything, to escape our problems. Essentially, that’s it. So the word on the street is that humans are destroying the planet (because we love it so much). In 1992, some scientists got together and saw that the destruction was getting way too much, so they wrote an open letter to all of humanity begging us to take it down a notch with the toxic behaviour. In the letter, they warned us to stop destroying the ozone layer, polluting the air, heedlessly exploiting water sources, polluting the oceans, carelessly using the soil, ruthlessly cutting down trees, killing other animals, and giving birth to so many babies. We are doing a lot of these things, and that isn’t really good for the planet. They basically did that thing Noah (of the bible people) did where he went around the town telling people to change their ways or the world would end, which it did. Moral lesson of the Noah story is that humans don’t listen. Don’t believe me? Twenty-five years after the first letter was written, scientists noticed that humans hadn’t really changed their habits and were still accelerating towards the apocalypse, so they wrote another one. So while the first letter like, “yo, guys, we are kind of destroying the planet and we should probably stop”, the second letter is like, “for real, guys, like this is super bad. You should stop and be better.” The third letter that we should be seeing a couple of years will either be like

or

In case you don’t get it, that’s the scientist running away to another planet.

So there is this new movement by scientists where a lot of people are on board with this whole colonizing a new planet idea, and suddenly Elon Musk doesn’t seem like such a crazy guy. Another reason people started taking Elon seriously is — after a lot of his rockets had blown up in liftoff, they suddenly started to… work. That made the guys at NASA look at the young man a second time like, ‘this dude might be up to something.” SpaceX has now completed many successful liftoffs and even more impressively, have very successfully landed their rockets. Humans were pretty quick to figure out leaving Earth when they put their mind to it but they didn’t think very much about the returning journey. It’s like when you climb up a wall without thinking about how you will get down the other side like, “we will figure it out when we get there.” Over the span of our space exploration, we got really good at crashing safely. It looked like this

Then SpaceX came around and got so good at landing that they basically started showing off.

Perfecting landing is going to play a very important part in our ability to live on more than one planet. With landing, it suddenly means that we can use rockets for multiple journeys. Right now, it’s kind of like having to build a new car every time we need to travel. That’s ridiculously expensive, and it also means if we flew to another planet, we would most probably be stuck there. Suddenly that’s not a thing anymore, which is pretty great.

Humans are of the habit of asking questions, and that’s sort of what has progressed our development. Imagine the first guy that travelled away from his village. That conversation probably went something like this

Prehistoric Elon: I wonder if there are other villages

Smart Man: Why?

PE: Just because.

SM: Because of what?

PE: I think I am going to find out.

SM: Why?

PE: It will be fun. I will walk.

SM: You aren’t answering the important questions.

PE: I might never come back

SM: I call dibs on your farm.

Christopher Columbus probably had a similar conversation with the other Europeans when he decided to take the wrong route to India.

Smart guy: I thought you were going to India

CC: Yes i am.

SG: But you are going the wrong way

CC: No, I am going a different way

SG: WTF

And now we have America. So, why not? Why not go to Mars and live there? Nothing bad ever came from humans deciding to colonize a foreign land…

How are we getting to Mars?

On a spaceship, obviously. But yeah, let’s talk about that. How are we going to get people to Mars? Getting to Mars isn’t difficult when you don’t really have plans to come back (I am terribly oversimplifying. There have been six attempts to get rovers onto the surface of Mars for research purposes, and four of those were successful: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Curiosity is the only active rover left after the untimely death of Opportunity in a global sandstorm (yup, that’s a thing that happens on the red planet. We will get into that). Before dying, Opportunity broke the record for longevity after being active for 5352 sols (5498 earth days), which is about 15 Earth years or 8 Martian years. For perspective, the mission was expected to last only 90 days (some guys went from having a job for 90 days to having a job for 15 years).

There’s a fair record of getting things to Mars. Generally, humans have a good record of doing things they really want to do. It’s essentially a case of where there is a will, there is a way.

Elon has a Will.

Here’s his Way.

The first problem is that it seems like Elon is the only one that wants to do this. The first time a human stepped on a heavenly body other than our own was in 1969, and the last time we did was in 1972. No one has been on the moon since 1972, more than 40 years ago. Mind you, we did all of these moon landings without the computing power that we currently have. Why did we stop trying to push the limit?

The answer is space travel is expensive. Very expensive. An average NASA SLS system cost $600 million dollars to launch.

Problem One: Rockets cost a 💩ton

People are significantly less interested in doing things that are expensive. For instance: I don’t live in Ikoyi. I don’t even consider living in Ikoyi. But it’s not because I don’t want to. It is because I ain’t got ₦600m for a house in Banana Island. If the cost suddenly plummeted by reducing a couple of zeroes, I’d start to seriously consider it. Which is sort of what Elon is trying to do. If space travel became significantly cheaper, more people would start to consider the possibilities because suddenly, it would be more accessible. A SpaceX Falcon 9 costs about $60 million to launch. The problem of cost of space rockets sort of fixed.

Problem Two: Going to Mars on a rocket costs an even bigger 💩ton

1984, Bush (the older one) considered, very briefly, the thought of sending people to Mars. NASA sent him an invoice of $450 billion dollars and he realized he had more important things to do. In 2004, younger Bush decided to revisit his father’s dream and asked for the updated invoice which put the cost of 4–6 people at $50 billion dollars, to which he replied he had wars to fight and that was that. For a proper manned Mars mission to be possible, Elon, the expert, is putting the cost at $500,000 per person. One way to do that is to take more than just a 4 or 5 people. So 9 or 10 you say? No. Think more like 100 people, which is a fairly large ship. SpaceX has so far built three rockets, two of them commercial. The Falcon 1, the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon 1 was sort of to just prove that they could successfully get something into space, and once they did that, the rocket was retired. Enter Falcon 9, the serious deal. This rocket is 70 meters tall. That’s about the height of a 20 story building. The Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy were made for transporting payload. The Falcon Heavy is basically a Falcon 9 but on steroids.

This is a Falcon 9. It has 9 of these special engines made by SpaceX called the Merlin. It’s what gets the rocket out of the Earth’s gravitational pull. It’s sort of a big deal.

This is Falcon Heavy. It has 27 Merlins aka, it is on steroids. It is perhaps the most efficient rocket built. It can take twice the payload of the second most powerful rocket and it costs half as much. It saves a shit ton of money basically. The rocket that will carry 100 people to Mars is, however, going to be significantly bigger. It will dwarf this. #Costsaved. The final cost-saving strategy is reusability (which I already geeked about in this post). For the first time in the history of space travel, someone is making rockets that can go on more than one journey. Which is really useful when rockets cost as much as they do. This ties in with us needing to land when we get to Mars.

Landing On Mars

So humans have gotten fairly good at two types of landing.

With Parachutes

and

By landing like a plane

Both of these methods aren’t really possible on Mars because

  1. There is not much of an atmosphere and parachutes kind of depend on the presence of an atmosphere.
  2. There are no runways on Mars… obviously.

To land on Mars, we need to land with a method known as propulsion. Good chance that you probably know the word propulsion to mean something else. Like to push away. Not to land. But it’s sort of the same idea, right? The same physics that enables propulsion engines to go up can enable them to go down. We basically just have to do the reverse. Sort of. I will be honest, I am oversimplifying. Landing by propulsion is really difficult. SpaceX likens the challenge of controlling the descent through the atmosphere to “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.”

It’s hard, guys.

But some smart people figured how to do it and here’s a test.

You already saw the video of SpaceX landing falcons like the experts that they have become. Landing on Mars will be trickier because the planet has a much lighter atmosphere, which means less resistance, which means different calculations. To get the value to use in our calculations, we need to know a fair bit about Mars, and we have rovers that help us learn those things.

Finally, we have gotten to the actual point of this article.

But you are going to have to read the second part here.

Thank you for reading all the way to end!!!

Plug (Cool stuff on the internet)

My favourite thing on the internet this week is this video by Nike

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