Touchdown: How we will go from the blue planet to red planet
As excitement grows ahead of the latest lander touching down on the surface of Mars tomorrow, we explore just how close humanity is to setting foot on a near neighbour
THE person who will be the first human to set foot on Mars is alive and well and walking among us. Perhaps they will be watching tomorrow when InSight touches down on that distant world. Perhaps they will realise the lander’s mission is another vital rung in the ladder that will take us from this blue planet to that red planet.
Nasa’s Insight lander is basically a robot geologist that will unlock the secrets of Mars. It left Earth in May and is set to make touchdown around noon on Monday. The excitement in the space community is tangible, because InSight underscores that what was once thought impossible is now probable: humankind will visit our closest planetary neighbour, and most likely colonise it too.
However, while that journey looks very likely, perhaps as early as the mid- 2030s, the struggle to make it happen is Herculean. But when that manned mission happens, it will change humankind forever.
Not only will we have become a space-faring species, but humanity will have created a collective and unifying goal that will change how we co-operate across nations and see ourselves and neighbours.
On top of that, we could also discover whether there was ever, or perhaps even still is, life on Mars, and answer the most profound of all questions: “Are we alone?”
Some ask whether t he pay-off is worth the risk. Most scientists tend to think like Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded Apollo 13 on its near- fatal mission to the Moon in 1970.
“Is it worth it?” Lovell asks himself in his mid-west drawl. “Uh-huh, it’s worth it.”
RIGHT now, in labs and research centres around the world, the groundwork is being laid. Biologists and chemists are working out how astronauts will take enough water and food to stay alive on a journey lasting about seven months. Psychologists are trying to establish how a handful of people will endure such a voyage and then live together in the harshest environment humanity has ever experienced. Physicists and engineers are designing the rockets and life support systems that will get us there – and hopefully back.
Liz Seward, senior strategist at Airbus Defence and Space – which is building the new Mars rover for the European Space Agency at Stevenage in England – says the next decade will be spent learning how humans can live in space. “There’s water ice there so humans would be able to live there and mine it,” she says.
WHILE evangelists such as Elon Musk – one of the richest people in the world – and his company SpaceX are supercharging the new space race, humanity is still a long way from reaching Mars.
“All we can do right now,” says Jim Green, Nasa’s planetary science division director, “is land a one-tonne rover. To get humans there we need a 40-tonne spaceship.”
The rocket technology that took us to the Moon – and which is still used in today’s missiles – will need a complete rethink. The problem of slowing a spacecraft in little or no atmosphere will need to be solved.
Without these – and myriad other – basic questions answered, a successful, as safe, landing on the surface of the planet will remain in the realms of fantasy.
SO what do we do once we get there? Most probably the first humans will live in their ship, but eventually we’d have to build something more permanent.
The outpost won’t be the domes seen in so many sci-fi stories – we are more likely to set up home in empty lava tubes of extinct volcanoes, where there might be a chance to find frozen water and where we would be protected from solar rays.
A Martian colony would comprise a number of key buildings: there would be “habs” for living in; a communications and satellite post; a medical centre; a cargo centre; an oxygen creation centre called a “Moxie”; a water creation centre called a “Wavar”; a solar panel field; a 3D printer post; a nuclear reactor; and a mining centre. It would be austere but efficient.
The human factor
WHILE tests about the physical effects of microgravity – carried out on the International Space Station – give us a
clue to how we would manage the trip from Earth, how we would cope with life when we get there is more difficult to fathom.
Then there are the effects on the mind. Two main projects have tested our psychological resilience: the Hi Seas Mission at Mauna Loa on Hawaii and the Mars 500 Mission in Russia. In both, small crews were kept isolated in a simulated spacecraft for months on end.
From the Mars 500 experiment, only two crew remained psychologically healthy out of six. Four experienced problems with mood, impulsivity and insomnia. We still don’t know why there were affected, or how to prevent such effects recurring – but, again, if we don’t answer these questions, future missions are doomed before they begin.
The sweet spot
SO once we make the journey where would we land?
Until the ExoMars satellite swung by in 2016 we had mapped only about three per cent of Mars, but our knowledge is now growing fast and once we have a 3D map we will be able to pick the safest, flattest site.
Nasa historian Roger Launius thinks our initial forays to Mars will be a little like our journeys to Antartica. Initially we will explore, then we will build a research station at a sweet spot, and slowly we will build up a presence.
JUST because we get there doesn’t mean we will survive – just watch the docudrama Mars, on the National Geographic channel, to see a terrifying portrait of life for early settlers, informed by leading scientists.
Perhaps the greatest risk will be the weather. Nasa’s Jim Green says one particular issue is giant dust storms that can last up to a month: “We’ve been studying them for some time and there’s a particular season where some storms can go global. They’re enormous – up to 30km high – and in the case of these really large storms lightning can strike.”
Sounds a real challenge to survival.
Where there’s a will ...
PRESIDENT Richard Nixon pulled back from the drive to go to Mars following public concern over the Apollo 13 mission, and Nasa focused instead on Space Shuttle missions.
Reaction to loss of life – which many see as inevitable – could derail our Martian dream.
Roger Launius, from the Smithsonian, says: “If you send astronauts to Mars and they die there, public opinion will prohibit you f rom ever doing it again.”
The thing is, though, humanity has already dreamed of going to Mars, and if you’ve dreamed something, you’ll most likely one day do it.
Peter Diamandis, co- founder of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, says: “There’s a romanticism about going to Mars and colonising it. We humans love a target. We love to have something to shoot for, to aim for … things are impossible until we make them real.”
Matt Damon, opposite page, and these images from the 2015 film The Martian show how life might be sustained if humans make it to Mars, but tests on plants, left, would need to be made beforehand