Mars: To boldly go where no man has gone before

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For as long as human history, people have looked up to the heavens and wondered. Among the many celestial fascinations that the night sky offers us, few have caught the human imagination so much as Mars. National space agencies have been formulating various Mars mission plans for decades but with interplanetary projects costing significant capital, such as Curiosity rover’s eye watering $2.5 billion bill, the idea of human exploration of Mars might seem far too costly an indulgence. So why bother?

As with much cutting-edge science, the immediate benefits of such a project might seem sparse against any investment. However, Dr Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, is a firm believer that it is steps into the dark such as this which our future society will remember us for. He said, “It’s where the science is, it’s where the challenge is, it’s where the future is.”

Life on Mars. It’s a phrase we’ve heard countless times from inspired works across the decades. With films such as ‘The War of the Worlds’, we like to imagine that alien life is an idea confined to the world of sci-fi but answers to humanity’s oldest questions still elude us today.

Is all life as it is on earth? Are we alone in the universe? Can humans survive on another planet?

Around 4.2 billion years ago, Mars’ protective magnetic field was mysteriously, and significantly, reduced. Without this shielding, the Martian atmosphere was almost completely stripped by the Sun’s interplanetary, high velocity plasma known as solar winds. Today these violent solar storms have left a frozen, radiation bathed surface. It all sounds pretty bleak for life on our celestial neighbour, yet, thanks to one thing, astrobiologists believe extra-terrestrials on Mars is not as farfetched an idea as you might think – the possibility of liquid water.

NASA is the only space agency to successfully land a rover on Mars and has been probing the planet’s surface since 1975 with the successful landing of Viking 1. Since then, its focus has been on determining the red planets habitability for life – notably, if the environment contains liquid water. Evidence is now building that the surface may indeed be habitable for microorganisms and so raises the question, do any remain?

The prospect makes a manned mission to mars even more compelling and NASA knows it. It has a three stage approach in place to do just that. The organisation has classified now until the mid-2020s as the ‘Earth Reliant’ phase in which ISS research, the commercialisation of low earth orbit activity and development of deep space systems such as prolonged mission life support are the focus. From then on until the 2030s, NASA plans to verify its human habitability and radiation shielding technology by performing crew missions in space around our moon – the Proving Ground phase. And finally, after substantial testing of entry and landing technology, the space agency envisions a manned mission to Mars by the mid 2030s with the aim of establishing a permanent colony and so beckoning in the Earth Independent phase.

It isn’t just national agencies getting in on the game. For SpaceX’s Elon Musk, going to Mars isn’t just a scientific endeavour but a matter of survival against what he describes as “an inevitable extinction event” here on earth. With a rapid schedule of as little as 6 years, Mr Musk sees his greatest challenge to putting men on Mars as a matter of economics rather than research. Despite the myriad of other technological hurdles involved, he has listed four key components to the success of SpaceX’s mission architecture.

First and most importantly is full system reusability. If planes could only fly once then a short-haul flight could cost upwards of £500,000 a ticket. Instead, aircraft are designed to be used again and again – allowing affordable ticket prices for most. It is this mass affordability that is Elon’s ultimate aim and what he sees as the key for successful colonisation.

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Progress in making a craft capable of returning to earth is already underway at SpaceX with the impressive orbital re-entry and landing of the first stage of its Falcon 9. Travelling to Mars requires significant energy and so SpaceX’s next three goals are aimed at maximising efficiency of fuel handling. Firstly, to utilise reusable boosters to refuel the spacecraft once in Earth’s orbit. This way, the ship is able to maximise its potential work. Secondly, the fuel should be really able to be produced on the Martian surface – removing the requirement for return trip fuel to be stored on the outbound trip. Finally, the propellant should be cost effective and minimise technical storage challenges.

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With SpaceX’s advancements in large scale, low temperature carbon fibre permeability, the methane based fuel deep-cryo methalox fits the bill. For the first time in history putting humans onto the red planet, one that has fascinated our ancestors for millennia, is within our reach. With technological advancements and the right economic incentives there is only one final question; would you go to Mars?


Oliver Pollard


(Images courtesy of NASA and SpaceX)

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