Mars Colonisation: Why Explore The Red Planet And Can We Live There?

US space agency NASA is hoping to land the first humans on Mars by the 2030s and SpaceX chief Elon Musk recently said that humans could be living in a city on the Red Planet in the next 30 years.

May 18, 2024 - 21:45
Mars Colonisation: Why Explore The Red Planet And Can We Live There?

Sending humans to Mars seems to be the new milestone in space exploration. Since the 1960s, humans have set out to discover what the Red Planet can teach us about how planets grow and evolve, and whether it has ever hosted alien life. So far, only uncrewed spacecraft have made the trip to Mars, but that could soon change. US space agency NASA is hoping to land the first humans on Mars by the 2030s and SpaceX chief Elon Musk recently said that humans could be living in a city on the Red Planet in the next 30 years. Several new missions are also launching before these given timelines to push exploration forward. So, here's a look at space agencies' plans to colonise Mars and what scientists have learned about the Red Planet through decades of exploration.

Understanding the surface of Mars and its evolution 

Over the years, everything we've learnt about the Red Planet suggests that its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth and that the planet was once quite capable of hosting ecosystems. 

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun, just after Earth. It is just a smidge more than half of Earth's size. According to NASA, it takes longer than Earth to complete a full orbit around the Sun, but it rotates around its axis at roughly the same speed. This is why one year on Mars lasts for 687 Earth days, while a day on the Red Planet is just 40 minutes longer than on Earth. 

Mars is also similar to Earth in many other ways. According to encyclopedia Britannica, like Earth, the Red Planet has clouds, winds, seasonal weather patterns, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons, and other familiar features. Moreover, there are clues that billions of years ago Mars was even more like Earth, with a denser, warmer atmosphere, rivers, lakes, flood channels, and perhaps oceans.

However, despite having so many similarities, the planet is now wrapped in a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere and cannot support earthy life forms. Methane gas also periodically appears in the atmosphere of the planet, and the soil contains compounds that would be toxic to life as we know it. Although water does exist on Mars, it's locked into the planet's icy polar caps and buried, perhaps in abundance, beneath the Martian surface.

Scientists believe somewhere during Martian evolution, the planet went through a dramatic transformation, and a world that was once rather Earth-like became the dusty, dry husk we see today. The question now is, why go to Mars? 

Why explore Mars 

Experts say exploring the Red Planet could help them learn about momentous shifts in climate that can fundamentally alter planets. NASA also believes that exploration of Mars could uncover evidence of life and answer one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth? 

The more we learn about Mars, the better equipped we'll be to try to make a living there, someday in the future. 

Past missions and major discoveries 

Mars missions have been launching from Earth with regularity since the 1960s. Early missions were flybys, with spacecraft snapping pictures as they zoomed past the Red Planet. More recently, landers and rovers have touched down on the Martian surface. So far, several space agencies, including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), have put spacecraft in Martian orbit.

Early highlights of Mars missions include NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft, which swung by Mars in 1965 and captured the first close-up images of the Red Planet. In 1971, the Soviet space program sent the first spacecraft into Martian orbit. Called Mars 3, it returned roughly eight months of observations about the planet's topography, atmosphere, weather, and geology. The mission also sent a lander to the surface, but it returned data for only about 20 seconds before going quiet.

Over the subsequent years, orbiters returned far more detailed data on the planet's atmosphere and surface. These missions revealed several features of the Red Planet like it boasts the largest volcanoes in the solar system and dust storms regularly sweep over its plains. 

Overall, these missions have shown scientists that Mars is an active planet that is rich in the ingredients needed for life, like water, organic carbon and an energy source. 

Future of Mars exploration and the colonisation of the Red Planet

Robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years. All these robotic activities are laying the groundwork for sending humans to the Red Planet. Engineers and scientists around the world are also working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity.

Notably, NASA aims to launch astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s. Private spaceflight companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX are also getting into the Mars game. Mr Musk has repeatedly said that he wants to make humanity a "multi-planetary species" by establishing a colony on the Red Planet. Recently, he even said that humans could be living in a city on Mars in the next 30 years.

Sustaining life on Mars

NASA is already considering what kind of habitation we'll need to survive on the surface of Mars. Several companies are also designing possible habitat prototypes. All these habitats will likely have a few things in common - they have to be self-sustaining, sealed against the thin atmosphere, and capable of supporting life for extended periods without support from Earth. 

Previously, the US space agency announced that it is working on recycling water from all possible sources, including urine, hand-washing and oral hygiene. Breathable air can be produced through an Oxygen Generation System, currently used on the ISS, which splits water molecules to create oxygen. They are also looking at ways to grow food on Mars and manufacture space suits that can withstand radiation to make life sustainable on the planet.

So, it remains to be seen whether there's a future for our species on another planet. 

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