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 Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS - By Neil Mackay Writer at Large

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.”

First steps

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.

Get­ting there

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.

The colony

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.

Sur­vival

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

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