Article by Emma Bowles
Artwork by Ellie Stanyer
Ever since Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon on July 20th, 1969 many have wondered when we will take our first steps on Mars. Humans landing on Mars will be an extremely pivotal moment in the advancement of humankind as it will not only make us a multi-planetary species, but it will also ensure the preservation of our species in the event of an apocalyptic event on Earth.
One of the major questions that needs to be asked when discussing the populating of Mars is: if we could get there, would we be able to live there?
If we strip it down to the basics, humans need five things to live on Mars – water, oxygen, food, shelter and clothing. Water is essential to human survival on Mars not only for us to drink but also because we can use it to make oxygen. Mars’s atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide with only traces of oxygen, but if we can find water then we can use electrolysis to break it into its constituent parts – hydrogen, which can be released back into the atmosphere (or possibly used as a fuel source), and oxygen for us to breathe. Finding water on Mars is not difficult as there is over 5 million cubic kilometres of ice on or near the surface of Mars. However, most of this is not pure ice and lots of energy will be needed to melt the ice and then to purify it. There is also a possibility that if the astronauts drill deep enough into the regolith (Martian soil) they may find lakes of water. Extracting it will still demand energy and it is likely that in both scenarios a small nuclear reactor may be needed to provide the energy necessary for humans to live on Mars as solar energy will not be enough.
Assuming that water, and therefore oxygen,is found inenough supply tosupport human life on Mars - food, clothing and shelter would still be needed. Growing food on Mars would need to be done in inflatable greenhouses, or in underground growth pods, where the pressure, temperature and soil can be monitored and controlled. One of the few benefits of Mars’s carbon dioxide filled atmosphere is the effect this will have on plant growth as plants will grow faster and in larger quantities. But, even with the greenhouses and high levels of carbon dioxide it is unlikely that even 10% of the astronaut’s food will be grown on Mars due to the dramatic temperature shifts between night and day and the sunlight intensity. Therefore, most of their food will have to come from supply rockets from Earth.
Creating shelter and designing clothing are the simpler tasks as there are only two major problems that need to be overcome: the radiation and the lack of atmospheric pressure. By building structures out of the regolith or making settlements in caves the radiation should be avoided and the regolith will also keep the structures insulated which would regulate the temperature. These structures would have to be vaulted so the pressure inside could be controlled. While on the surface of Mars humans would have to wear pressure suits or be in pressurised buildings. There are currently multiple designs of spacesuits that could be used on Mars all of which are far more like regular clothing than the suits worn on the moonwalks as a result of technological advancements.
It is, however, pointless to discuss how humans will live on Mars if there is no way to get them there. The major difference between sending aspacecraft tothe moon and sending one to Mars is distance. Even when Mars is at its closest to Earth, roughly 33.9 million miles, it is still over 140 times further away than the moon is from Earth and this only happens during the Mars Close Approach. This happens every 26 months and therefore severely limits the number of rockets and probes that can be sent over a number of years. The huge distance means that the fuel and supplies needed for a manned journey to Mars would be much greater than that of a mission to the moon and at the moment we do not have this kind of technology.
That being said, SpaceX is in the process of building Starship, a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Mars. With the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes into Earth’s orbit it is reasonable to assume that this could be the rocket that takes us to Mars. The first unmanned launch of Starship could be as soon as 2024, according to Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, and it is even possible that the first manned flight could be in 2027.
To conclude, I believe that it is very likely that humans could take their first steps on Mars in the next 15, if not 10, years. There are still some major technological and financial bridges to cross but, with companies such as SpaceX and other large-scale private investments I believe that humans will populate Mars and we will take our next “giant leap for mankind.”