This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture.
H.G Wells wrote a groundbreaking novel in 1898 featuring visitors from Mars called War of the Worlds. Both the former Soviet Union and the United States have landed probes on its red, rocky surface.
Our search for life outside Earth draws us to Mars and despite the lack of evidence of life so far, humans are determined to set foot on the planet itself.
A number of international space agencies have announced that they intend to send humans to Mars in the next 30 years. As well as developing the technology needed to get humans to Mars, the environment that the humans will be arriving to is an equally important consideration.
Mars has a very thin atmosphere, approximately 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Carbon dioxide comprises 95% of the atmosphere, a situation that isn’t compatible to human life. On Earth, our atmosphere contains just 0.04% carbon dioxide.
Simply moving about on Mars could be a challenge for humans. Mars’ gravitational pull is much less compared to Earth’s. A human that weighs 200 pounds on Earth will only weigh about 76 pounds on Mars.
The average surface temperature on Mars is minus 80ºF, much colder than any place on Earth. Mars’ thin atmosphere doesn’t retain heat like Earth’s, and it is also further away from the sun than our planet.
Water is present in the polar regions of Mars. However, due to its thin atmosphere any liquid water will most likely disappear quickly. Although Mars measures half of Earth’s diameter, it has the same amount of dry land.
Exploration of Mars began just 10 years after the launch of the first satellite into Earth’s orbit. From the first flyby, space technology evolved rapidly, and currently 14 spacecraft can be found on the surface of Mars itself.
Mariner 4, launched in 1964 by the United States, was the first spacecraft to perform a flyby over Mars. It sent back 21 images in 1965. The photos showed a deserted Mars, without any signs of life that many on Earth had been imagining.
NASA’s Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971. It orbited the planet for nearly a year and discovered huge canyons, massive dormant volcanoes, and the presence of dust storms, taking over 7,000 photos.
Viking 1 was the first successful, long–term functional lander (the Soviet Union was the first to land on Mars, however its lander only functioned for a few seconds). These landers worked for years, sending back lots of information for scientists.
NASA’s Phoenix landed on the surface of Mars in 2008. Equipped with a specialized robotic arm to fulfill its water–finding mission, it landed further north than previous expeditions and found evidence of water ice under the surface of Mars.
Opportunity has traveled 28 miles so far and was operational from 2004 until June 2018. Scientists are still trying to re-establish contact with the spacecraft after a massive, planetwide dust storm caused the rover to fall silent.
The trip to Mars
Currently 3 agencies have set dates for landing humans on the surface of Mars: SpaceX, a private company based in the United States; the US space agency NASA; and the Russian government space agency Roscosmos.
Any agency planning on putting humans on Mars faces large obstacles in order to get them there, and all are building on knowledge and lessons learned from previous expeditions.
Mars is really far away from Earth: at least 30–60 million miles, depending on where the 2 planets are in their orbits. Spacecraft would have to be designed to keep a crew alive for at least 300 days before even reaching Mars’ orbit.
Radiation could be a big problem for humans as they travel through space as well as when they land on the surface of Mars. Journeying to Mars will expose astronauts to high levels of dangerous, cell–changing solar radiation.
Getting astronauts to Mars is an ambitious project in itself, and getting them home may be even more difficult. Fuel, food, protection, and medical supplies for at least a 600–day mission won’t be an easy task.
Humans who travel to Mars, and possibly back, will need to be mentally prepared. They need to be able to keep themselves happy for at least 300 days of travel in a small space, then be prepared for extremely harsh conditions on the surface.
Even though humans have yet to set foot on the surface of the Red Planet, architects and scientists around the world are designing self–contained habitats that humans could potentially use once they arrive.
With the harsh conditions present in Mars’ atmosphere, it may be necessary to build some of these accommodations underground.
Any habitat will need an artificial atmosphere in order to supply oxygen to visitors as Mars’ atmosphere contains very little oxygen. It will also need to protect the travelers from harmful solar radiation and dust storms.
When not inside the artificial habitat, humans will need to wear space suits. These will need to be redesigned, however, as current space suits weigh over 400 pounds, and are used only occasionally, especially by International Space Station astronauts.
Astronauts would need to grow their own food. Specialized greenhouse habitats would have to be built to support crops, and soil may need to be brought from Earth as the soil on Mars may not be fit for growth.
Every Martian summer, massive dust storms occur. Some of these storms are so large they engulf the entire planet and last for months. An advantage of dust storms is that they can reduce the planet’s extreme temperature swings.
Rocket and fuel
At the moment, the heaviest item to land safely weighed under 1 ton. A rocket with all of its cargo and crew would weigh at least 10 times heavier. Ideally, astronauts will return to Earth, so rockets will need enough fuel to get home also.
Once the challenges of getting humans to Mars and building a basic settlement are overcome, the real work begins. Living on Mars for an extended period of time presents a whole new set of technical problems and challenges that will need to be met.
People living on Mars will need to be entirely self–sufficient. Any supplies or equipment that may be needed from Earth will take almost a year to reach the Red Planet, and that’s a long time to wait for a delivery.
Generating electricity is a must for an ongoing Mars settlement. Solar panels will work well until a dust storm descends, and these storms can last for months at a time. Nuclear power is a possibility if it can be transported from Earth safely.
If a stable supply of water isn’t found on the Mars surface, settlers will need to bring water with them. This will take up a huge amount of rocket space, and settlers will need to be very careful not to waste their water supply.
The first settlers on Mars will need to be highly skilled in a range of fields. Not just space travel, they will need medical training, agricultural skills, and building knowledge. Settlers will also need to know how to maintain the life support systems.
Dust doesn’t sound like a big issue, but on Mars it will be an integral part of life. Very fine Martian dust can cover everything, getting into machinery and filters and on solar panels. Settlers will constantly be clearing dust from essential support systems.
Things can go wrong very quickly. Settlers will need to manage situations like a loss of atmospheric pressure, temperature controls or oxygen tanks failing, and massive dust storms. Since the nearest help is almost a year away, people will need to be prepared.
Race to Mars
Governments of many countries have plans to get humans on the surface of Mars. Private companies have also indicated that they are going to land humans on Mars, either in partnership with government agencies or on their own.
NASA, the government space agency of the United States, currently has working rovers on the surface of Mars. It has the most experience placing satellites in Mars’ orbit and landing spacecraft on the surface. It plans to land humans on Mars by 2030.
Boeing is the main contractor working with NASA to build a custom designed super heavy rocket that is planned to get humans to Mars. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has stated publicly that the first person on Mars will arrive there in a Boeing rocket.
SpaceX is a privately owned company based in the United States. It has developed a large, reusable rocket called the Falcon Heavy. CEO Elon Musk has stated that the company plans to land humans on Mars by 2023, an incredibly ambitious target.
China National Space Administration
Despite having one of the youngest space agencies, China has proved it is a worthy contender of sending humans to Mars. The first to land a probe on the far side of the Moon, it plans to send a rover to Mars in 2020.
Roscosmos is Russia’s space agency. It has teamed up with the European Space Agency to land a rover on Mars in 2020. Russia’s president has also mentioned trying to send a crewed mission to Mars even before SpaceX.