Life on Mars: The Current State of Mars Colonization

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There’s no better time to think about the future than at the beginning of a new year. But while some only see the future in terms of how many bad habits they can kick and how unfilled dreams they can take another stab at, this also the perfect opportunity to think even bigger than that. How big? How about ‘living on other planets’ big.

2014 saw a lot of exciting new research on Mars, including important data on how hospitable our space neighbor is, was, and may one day be. This isn’t to say we’ll all be partying on the Red Planet by the time the next New Year’s Eve rolls around, but the strides we are making towards eventually getting there are more substantial than you may think.

So here’s an overview of the current state of Mars colonization, starting with the blastoff.

Getting There

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Reaching others planets in general, and Mars specifically, is something humanity has wanted to do for a long time. Decades before space travel was even remotely feasible, the idea of it was a huge part of popular imagination and culture. After all, one of the most defining early works of science-fiction literature was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories starring John Carter of, you guessed it, Mars.

But as space travel did start to become a reality, landing a person on Mars became one of the most exciting possibilities. In 1948, Werner von Braun, the father of rocket science, proposed various plans for fleets of spaceships to ferry astronauts to Mars in his book The Mars Project. Beyond presenting the core ideas and theories we still use today regarding hypothetical Mars missions, the book also influenced the early space race optimism of Walt Disney, who in turned influenced pretty much all of culture with his vision.

The problem is that getting to Mars is really, really hard. Even with all the optimism and advanced technology in the world, it’s no sail around the sea. Although we’ve already cleared hurdles as humongous as landing on the Moon, landing probes on comets, sending satellites to the edge of the Solar System, and landing rovers like Curiosity on Mars, the process of actually getting people there is still riddled with technical and conceptual challenges only brilliant scientists can properly explain.

What makes some of the advancements we’ve made in 2014 so promising then is that they present clear roadmaps for overcoming some of these oncoming challenges. For example, last month NASA successfully tested its Orion spacecraft. The unmanned vessel will play a crucial role in the 2020 Asteroid Redirect missions to capture asteroids and place them in new orbits. If that works, NASA hopes to use this technique to deliver supplies in advance for manned Mars missions around 2040.

Meanwhile, NASA continues developing new technologies like inflatable heat shields to make landings safer while also training astronauts to physically and mentally withstand the 450-day round trip. And if continued defunding harms NASA’s ability to pull off these pricey missions, at least private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are proving they’re also no slouches when it comes to space travel.

Living There

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Image courtesy of Mars One.

Getting to Mars is hard enough, but there’s a concerted effort towards making that happen. However, when it comes to colonizing Mars, and securing humanity’s future from whatever looming disasters may befall Earth manmade or otherwise, that’s where the science starts to get a little murkier. On one hand, Mars has many similarities to Earth that make it a better candidate for colonization over, say, Venus. Its days last roughly as long, it has about as much dry land, and it even has seasons thanks to a similar axial tilt.

But there are also significant harmful differences like lower gravity, lower temperatures, and most importantly the lack of a crucial atmosphere to shield inhabitants from deadly radiation. So any initial colonies would require colonists to wear spacesuits when on the surface before returning to a home base, perhaps a 3D-printed one.

Water recovered from Martian glacier ice and supplies from Earth might sustain such a colony for a little while, but in the long run Mars would have to be heavily altered, terraformed, for self-sustaining colonies to expand and for anything but the most resilient organisms to live there without constant protection.

That’s pretty uncharted territory, and there are those who believe the logistics make ambitious projects like the Netherlands nonprofit Mars One colony virtually impossible. The basic premise behind Mars One is to send crews of four people on one-way trips to Mars every four years starting in 2024 in hopes of establishing a permanent human settlement there. The ambitious organization seems to be aware of the inherent difficulties and risks in sending people to Mars or space travel of any kind, but that hasn’t seemed slow down their optimism in the slightest.

But for anyone curious about the research that does exist on this topic, from terraforming strategies to the social considerations of a permanent Martian settlement, the online community Red Colony is a good place to start. As stated on their website, “Colonizing Mars will no doubt be the most difficult thing that humanity has ever pursued. Like building a bridge or a skyscraper, it will represent the pinnacle of human achievement up to that time. We can begin colonization now with technology that exists now; this is not science fiction anymore.”

What Else is There?

And of course there’s also the tantalizing possibility that the more we explore Mars, the more likely we are to find something else living there. Ever since landing on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has been gathering increasing amounts data suggesting a possible history of life on the planet, like hidden ancient ground water. While some of the evidence, like mysterious lights, sounds a little more conspiratorial, other clues, like carbon-filled meteorites, have scientists saying biological origins are the most compelling answers, far from remote possibilities.

Meanwhile, recent discoveries of methane gas pockets demonstrate a promising amount of ongoing, active organic planetary chemistry. And to ring in the New Year, just a few days ago Curiosity took photos what some believe to be fossils of ancient Martian life based on their similarity to fossil-containing sediment on Earth. These creatures appear to just be microbes, not towering tripod invaders, but that doesn’t make these findings any less thrilling.

Breakthroughs like that are vital, and what makes them even better is that they seem to excite the culture at large along with the scientists, both professional and aspiring. Between big-budget movies like Interstellar trying to stay scientifically accurate while portraying the wonderful pioneering adventure that is space travel and popular TV shows like Cosmos managing to make complex astrophysics accessible and even exciting for millions of watchers, it feels like mainstream culture is finally ready to be excited about space again. And whether we like it or not, that public approval plays in role in whether or not we can actually make it happen. It takes more than just functioning rockets.

So while there are still years—if not decades—of work still left to be done before landing human beings on Mars, as well as countless more before making it a new home for our descendants, the best way for us to one day do it is to continue wanting to do it. The surge in interest and excitement in space travel and colonization hit a peak in 2014 that we haven’t seen for quite some time now. So let’s keep it up—and maybe humans on Mars will be more than just a science fiction trope in our lifetimes.

If you’re still asking yourself, “Why colonize Mars? Why do it at all?”, perhaps the best place to leave us with this from Red Colony: “Before he began his fateful expedition to Mount Everest, George Mallory was asked why man kept trying to reach the summit of that mountain. ‘Because it is there,’ he said.” Just remember that the next time you look into the sky and see that tiny red speck in the sky.

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