Did you know that if you are at least 18 years old, in good mental and physical condition, and have no plans to return to Earth, you can apply to be one of the first colonizers of Mars? Mars One is a Dutch nonprofit run by Bas Lansdorp that plans to establish the first permanent settlement on Mars by 2023. Graphs.net recently launched a new infographic that shows the timeline and application process for this out-of-this-world expedition .
Mars is the second-closest planet to Earth and, in many ways, the most similar. As long as people have been thinking about space exploration, they’ve been dreaming of visiting Mars. And it now seems possible that a human mission there might actually happen sometime in the next few decades, though a lot hinges on levels of funding to NASA.
Since 1897’s War of the Worlds, sci-fi writers have fantasized that Mars was home to intelligent life, partly because of the planet’s striking color, proximity, and visible polar ice caps. Our initial probes, sent in the 1970s, showed it to be a dry, sterile place, but more recently we’ve found water locked in its ice caps and soils, as well as elements — such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon — that are essential to life as we know it. We’ve also found evidence of ancient lakes and flowing water on Mars’s surface — suggesting the planet may have once been home to extraterrestrial life.
It’s unlikely that any life survives on the surface of Mars today: the planet is relatively frigid and has no atmosphere or magnetic field to protect life from the radiation of space. But compared with other options nearby, like Venus and the moon, it remains the most intriguing target for space exploration.
All this is why NASA has been fixated on Mars for decades, putting seven probes in orbit around it and landing another seven on its surface. The technical and medical barriers to sending people to Mars are considerable, and many experts argue that it’d be easier and more fruitful simply to continue sending robotic probes. But NASA hopes to launch a human mission to Mars within the next few decades — and if the agency succeeds, it’d serve as a singular moment in the history of the human species.
Really, really hard. Think of it this way: the farthest place we’ve ever sent astronauts, the moon, is about 240,000 miles away. Earth is about 34 million miles from Mars at its closest point. A journey there would take at least six months, one way.
Other big challenges: we don’t yet have powerful enough rockets to send a craft heavy enough to carry all the supplies astronauts would need, nor do we have the technology to safely land a heavy craft on the planet once it arrives.
All this is possible to engineer, but it’d cost a lot of money: estimates run as high as $500 billion. NASA has a rocket in development that could theoretically send people to Mars, but right now it isn’t getting nearly enough money to afford actual missions using it.
There are also some issues that can’t readily be solved with money. Traveling to Mars and back would expose astronauts to dangerous radiation from deep space, increasing their lifetime risk of developing cancer. It’s also believed that an extended period of weightlessness could cause a number of health problems, including degraded muscle, bone, and eyesight. Some experts believe the psychological difficulties of spending years cooped up with just a few other people would be the most daunting health problem.
Still, the allure of Mars is such that when the organization Mars One announced plans to send four people on a one-way trip there in 2024 — funded, in theory, by a reality TV show about the journey — they got more than 2,000 applications. If we can develop the technology, it seems, some people will sign up despite the risks.
NASA has expressed skepticism about Mars One and other private-sector Mars projects, but has announced its own plans to send more rovers to Mars over the next few decades, with the ultimate goal of sending a manned mission in the 2030s, perhaps in partnership with other countries’ space agencies. If NASA can secure enough funding and develop the technology, it’s a possibility.
Very, very difficult. Imagine the harsh, self-sufficient life of a settler on the Oregon trail — except there’s no bison to hunt, no water to drink, no oxygen to breathe, and no other humans living within tens of millions of miles.
For a relatively short-term, round-trip mission — like NASA is theoretically planning for the 2030s — astronauts would probably bring all their food and water with them. After the eight-month journey to Mars, they’d likely spend at least 80 percent of their time indoors, in small modules that provide the space of about two bedrooms per person. Some of this time would need to be spent on treadmills or stationary bikes to repair muscles and bones that are eroding in Mars’s reduced gravity.
Sure, there’d be some exploration and outdoor experiments, but Curiosity and other probes scheduled to visit Mars in the intervening years make better explorers than humans, and limiting astronauts’ exposure to the dangerous radiation that bathes the planet’s surface would be a priority.
For a longer-term colonization mission, though, things would be very different, because the astronauts would have a lot of work to do.
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