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Mission Mars: The quest to land humans on the Red Planet

Don't forget to pack your [designer] spacesuit.

Mars Sand Dunes NASA main

Source: NASA


Some day in the future, parents could nudge their kids and say, “Pack your bags. We are going to Mars.” For humans, interplanetary exploration has always been a challenge and a dream pursuit. Dreams were realized when Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon at 20:17 UTC on July 20, 1969. The Apollo 11’s landing and the first walk on the moon carried out by mission commander Neil Armstrong (referred to as first man to land on Moon) and pilot Buzz Aldrin remains historic and it allowed more people to dream about setting foot on an alien planet.

After the Moon, the space fraternity has set its sight on Mars. The distinction between Moon landing and Mars landing would be that we won’t come back. The Red Planet is widely seen as a permanent human settlement and not a temporary destination where humans land, do space walk and hitch a ride back to home. The new season of Mars, debuting at 9PM today on National Geographic, takes a look at humans colonizing Mars and how co-existence will be a challenge.

Space has always been a highly guarded arena and carrying out missions to other planets had been restricted to space agencies like NASA and ESA. However, the entry of more private players in the last decade, has led to new opportunities. If Apollo 11 is the crown jewel of NASA’s mission, sending humans to space will be the crown jewel of space missions carried out by private companies.

Watch: First Look at Mars Season 2

Humanity’s fascination with space

It is needless to say that, we humans, have always been fascinated by the word “SPACE”. The earliest glimpse of that can be seen in a remote village, where a grandmother can be seen feeding a little kid by showing the moon. The moon is not just any abstract object here but it serves as a segue for the kid to imagine about this is meant to induce a sense of curiosity in the young kid, who might grow up to be one, who sets foot on the moon.

Before we talk about space and the associated human fascination, it is understand the definition of space. Outer Space, simply called space, is the expanse that exists beyond the Earth and between the celestial bodies. It is this fascination for space that led to Apollo 8 mission, which gave us a look at Earth from outer orbit and portray Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Kalpana Chawla, Scott Kelly among others as hero.

Nasa testing the InSight Mars Lander’s Solar Arrays (Source: NASA)

Conquering and surviving on Mars

There are multiple reasons behind why we aim to colonize Mars in the near future. The most plausible reason seems to be one that has to do with Earth itself. As we all know, 70 percent of the Earth is comprised of water and there are possibilities that the land mass will decrease further due to climate change. In such a scenario, the pressure on Earth to accommodate humans will only become difficult. The second reason is that Mars has proven to be the most habitable planet in our solar system after Earth.

It has water to extract and is neither too hot nor too cold for human survival. Like Earth, the gravity on Mars is 38 percent and its atmosphere can protect us from cosmic rays and Sun’s radiation. It gets enough sunlight to use solar panels for electricity and its day/night rhythm of 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds is closer to what we have on Earth.

Source: NASA

While the reasons for turning Mars into second human colony is clear and the way to land on Mars has also been taken care of, the bigger question will be how do we survive there. The average temperature on Mars is well below zero and the weather is widely believed to be extreme. According to NASA, the difference in temperature going from Monday to Tuesday could be as adverse as 170 degrees. One of the primary requirements for survival would be to wear spacesuit at all times. Humans will be forced to prepare for adverse dust storms and the first humans landing there, will have to adjust themselves for different climate.

“The people that would go there are real pioneers,” NASA chief scientist Jim Green told USA Today. Green says first humans on Mars would need to farm and establish a food source. These first humans will also need to build homes while scientists think beans, asparagus and potatoes as viable crops for soil there. This also opens up opportunity for private corporations to create a habitat there.

“Mars won’t be just for scientists and dreamers, people would be there to turn a profit,” Andy Weir, Author of The Martian, said. “If there is money to be made on Mars then people would go there to make money,” he added.

A 2-inch-deep hole produced using a new drilling technique for NASA’s Curiosity rover (Source: NASA)

The switch from sci-fi to reality

The first humans going to Mars may not be going with a one-way ticket. Instead, they might well be few astronauts landing on Mars, understanding the physics of human survival and comeback to take more people with them. If this attempt succeeds then we could be multiple manned mission from various companies and space agencies around the world, sending humans to Mars. The first set of humans landing on Mars could well be billionaires and millionaires who want to escape Earth.

Just like air transport, for most people on Earth, the space tourism will be beyond affordable at start. However, it will reach a point where more and more people will be able to reserve a seat on a space vehicle. While this sounded like “vaporware” at start, it is becoming a real thing at a very fast pace. It will take anywhere between six to eight months for humans to land on Mars depending on orbit of entry and launch time frame. Once there, life would not only be challenging but also rewarding for generations to come. We could see first humans land on Mars as early as next year but real colonization will only begin in 2024. Yes, those scenes from 2016 movie Passengers is set to become real and one can only hope that your hibernation pod does not fail in the middle of the journey.

Elon Musk speaks about Mars colonization (Source: Getty)

Private corporations making it a reality

Today, we talk about going to Mars like going on an European tour, because of the rise of these new space entrepreneurs. The most vocal advocate for sending humans to space is Elon Musk. The Tesla and SpaceX co-founder and CEO has a vested interest in manned mission to the Red Planet.

Few years back, if someone had told you about the idea of sending a rocket to outer orbit and then recovering it using re-entry fuel burn, then you would have laughed at the idea. Today, recovering rockets has become a norm and all credits go to SpaceX and Elon Musk. Musk envisioned the idea of recovering rockets, which would reduce cost of entry into space, early in his life. His memoirs neatly sketch how Musk was fascinated by Space and imagined an era when missions would be carried out in a way that the rockets are recovered and reused for another mission.

After several failed attempts and near bankruptcy, SpaceX has made it a point to recover its rockets. In doing so, the company has successfully sent multiple missions to outer orbit with the help of a reused rocket. This very idea also paves way for sending humans to space, who will travel onboard a space capsule called BFR.

BFR is a two-stage reusable space launch vehicle (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX is designing BFR as a fully reusable vehicle and it is meant to serve various areas, including deployment of satellites, missions to space station and interplanetary transport. The BFR, which will eventually replace Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon, is composed of two stages – a booster and a ship. The ship is meant to drop humans on the surface of Mars while the booster is meant to recovered for future missions.

Elon Musk and his SpaceX tower over the private enterprise of space but there are quite a few players, who remain understated in their messaging and could be far ahead in their plans. One such name is Blue Origin, a private space startup funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos is the world’s richest person and as of November 17, 2018, Bloomberg estimates him to be worth $132 billion.

In the past few years, Bezos has been selling his equity in his e-commerce company, Amazon.com Inc., to fund Blue Origin. In its vision statement, Blue Origin envisions millions of people living and working in space. The company, like SpaceX, will be relying on reusable rockets and it has two vehicles – New Shepard and New Glenn. The New Shepard is the vehicle that will send humans to space whereas New Glenn is capable of taking humans and payloads to low earth orbits and beyond.

While SpaceX wants to send humans to Mars and help them colonize the Red Planet, Blue Origin wants to start by creating space tourism. It envisions people cutting a huge cheque to fly to low earth orbits and see earth from above, click selfies and then comeback as the start. While it has remained secretive for most part, most analysts and space watchers believe the company to be much ahead in its project for space exploration.

Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company with British Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is another big name in the private space race. It also sees Space as a tourism opportunity and is developing launch vehicles capable of sending humans to outer space and bringing them back. One unique thing about Virgin Galactic is that its suborbital spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo is air launched beneath a carrier airplane. The sheer thrill of decelerating and then getting into the upper orbit with additional rockets will be worth the money.

SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are the key names in the private space race but there are smaller outfits like XCOR Aerospace, Stratolaunch Systems, Sierra Nevada Corporation, United Launch Alliance, Arianespace to name a few. All these companies have a unified mission – transport humans to outer orbit and eventually create a human habitat on Mars.

An artist’s rendering of the Mars Ice Home concept (Source: NASA)

What the future beholds

As humans, we all enjoy the idea of travel but the future is going to be one where we do space travel. On a fine Saturday morning, the idea of solo travel needn’t necessarily originate from an airport near you. You could very well be hoping on a space flight from a launchpad. This would be revolutionary for a lot of reasons, since humans would be gathering data and building a new lifestyle out of scratch.

  • Published Date: November 17, 2018 1:37 PM IST