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Mars: The Next Frontier

Josh McSwain for Mission2Mars.Academy

Ever since the ancient Greeks looked up into the sky and named the moving bodies planets (the Greek word for wanderer, where we get the English word planets), humans have had a fascination with seeing what was beyond the Earth. While we started with launching craft into orbit, then we landed on the moon; but certain scientists have been looking at the red planet for a long time. Werhner Von Braun in 1952 had his sights getting humanity there. It is clear that Mars is the next destination for humanity and here is why:

Distance to Earth

The nearest celestial body to the Earth is the moon, but since the moon has no atmosphere it would not be a suitable long term residence for humans. Mars is at a minimum 54.6 million km (roughly 34 million miles) from Earth and at most 401 million km (almost 250 million miles) away from Earth. While it is not the closest planet to Earth, that would be Venus, Mars certainly gets the nod over Earth's sister planet mainly for the next reason; which is an imperative.

Composition that is (most) suitable for human life

Convenience is one thing that makes Mars possible, but our solar system doesn't offer many suitable alternatives. We can rule out Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune right off the bat because they are all primarily gas with no surface to live on. That leaves us with Mercury, Venus and Mars. Mercury is out because the temperatures during the day reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit and -200 degrees Fahrenheit due to the planet having an atmosphere that is incredibly thin. To build a structure that could withstand temperature shifts like that would be nearly impossible.

Meanwhile, Venus definitely does not suffer from having thin atmosphere. Its problem is that the atmosphere is so thick that the greenhouse effect traps all the gasses in and heats the planet up to more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit and pretty much gets no cooler than that. Not to mention the composition of the atmosphere would be poisonous to humans as it is mostly carbon dioxide, even if we could survive the scorching heat.

So leaving out the cold rock that is no longer a planet that is Pluto, the only planet left is Mars. It may not be the most suitable body for human life in the solar system (that distinction likely goes to Titan, Saturn's moon; but one step at a time). However, if the long range plan was to reach Titan, Mars could be a good launch point because we would be much closer to Titan and the lesser gravity on Mars (38% of Earth) would mean that we would not have to use as much fuel to launch a shuttle if it were launching from Mars. With the natural composition of Titan, we could have a very good sized human settlement there; up to 300 million people. But back to Mars, there will be some huge challenges that humans will have to overcome to live there.

First, the atmosphere of the planet is mostly carbon dioxide. So that means that we would have to set up a habitat for humans, but we could have prototypes up and running very soon. These would have to be self-sustaining environments, which present another set of challenges.

However, the recent discovery of fresh water underneath Mars’ frozen ice cap means that could be a source of water for a manned mission. Scientists from the European Space Agency discovered the lake beneath the southern ice cap of Mars. While drilling through the cap would be essential, the possibility of potable water already being on the surface of Mars would alleviate a huge burden for space missions.

The lake was estimated to be around 12 miles (20 km) across, with the depth being unknown. Estimates put it as over a meter, though Prof Roberto Orosei from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, who led the project; said he could not tell for sure. While it is a frozen body of water, it should not be directly compared to the frozen bodies of water on Earth. It could be an extremely cold, concentrated brine, according to Dr. Claire Cousins of the University of St. Andrews (UK). This does present an opportunity to drill in a similar way we have drilled for sub-glacial lakes on Earth, says Dr. Matt Balme of Open University (UK).

Scientists and entrepreneurs already have their sights on it

Billionaire Elon Musk has a grandiose vision of getting humanity beyond Earth. He is the CEO of SpaceX and in September 2017 unveiled a new rocket he called the BFR, which is a single booster and single ship craft. He wants to get the first cargo mission to Mars in 2022 and take inventory of potential hazards and set up preliminary infrastructure for human colonization. Others that have their sights on the red planet include Mars One, a Dutch company that seeks to send manned missions to Mars. While they had originally sought to send those missions up in 2026 they have announced a five year delay to 2031 in late 2016. However, that mission still has many questions associated with it, such as the use of funds that are expected to exceed one trillion dollars. Still, that does not detract from any attention that we are giving to the Mars expedition.

There are others that have their sights on Mars, some of them in very high places. Namely, the Oval Office. Both Presidents Obama and Trump have said they want to reinvigorate the space exploration of the United States and go to Mars in the 2030's. Well, at least that's what Obama said. Trump wants to get there sooner, and signed into effect a bill giving NASA $20 billion. According to a conversation between Trump himself and the International Space Station, Trump said they would be on Mars by his second term.

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos both have their eyes on the heavenly bodies as well. Branson wants to populate Mars and he certainly has resources to help drive the project. Bezos is slightly more modest right now as he wants to build a delivery system to the moon. Branson didn't have a definitive time table but Bezos wants his deliveries by there by the next decade. Should he be able to accomplish this, it could be a crucial step in space exploration. Sending unmanned crafts to the surface of the moon or, in time Mars, would mean that manned crafts would not have to carry as much weight or burn as much fuel. It could also be a huge assistance for NASA if he can deliver drilling equipment to the surface of Mars to drill beneath the ice cap.

How feasible is this mission?

While there are some challenges that have already been presented, there are numerous more. Namely, if we need to create a self-sustaining habitat on Mars, how will food be grown? Well, there are already some researchers that are trying to design fauna that can grow on the red planet. But it will not be as easy as simply taking the toxins out of soil.

Tim Noel, an assistant professor at Eindhoven University in The Netherlands, has been working on making artificial leaves out of silicone rubber. These leaves would be able to withstand more harmful UV rays that would not be blocked out by the atmosphere of Mars. Moreover, methylene blue can accelerate growth and it could help making the process of growing food in the lunar environment much faster. Most likely, that would mean greenhouses on Mars, because terraforming the planet would be nearly impossible. Even if it could be done, we are not close to being able to do that.

Mars is the next frontier for humanity and could be key to unlocking further space exploration. With new discoveries being made every day, reaching the Red Planet and knowing how to explore and operate on the planet gets closer every day. With the brightest minds working together, we will bridge the gap between us and the rest of our solar system.

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