Landscaping Mars: Are plans to put people on the Red Planet sci-fi or real?
Published Monday, December 30, 2013 8:26PM EST
An artist's rendition of the Mars One settlement is shown in a handout photo. (Bryan Versteeg / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Mars One, the commercial space project that aims to put people on Mars by 2025, announced its shortlist of astronaut candidates Monday, narrowing the field from 200,000 candidates to 1,000 finalists. The trip isn’t possible now, but that hasn’t stopped private ventures like Mars One and even NASA from making plans.
Marina Miral, 30, from Sooke, B.C., was one of the lucky ones shortlisted for a one-way ticket to Mars. “It’s pretty much all I ever wanted to do since I was about 10 years old and I first discovered Star Trek,” Miral told CTV News. “So it’s been a lifelong dream for me.”
The next step for the candidates?
“Rigorous simulations, many in-team settings, with focus on testing the physical and emotional capabilities of our remaining candidates,” wrote Norbert Kraft, Chief Medical Officer of Mars One, in a news release.
Private ventures make plans for six-month voyage
Mars One, founded by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp, isn’t the only organization planning on sending humans to Mars. Richard Branson, English business mogul and founder of the Virgin Group, intends to start a community of humans on the Red Planet.
Canadian-American engineer Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, also plans to move to Mars. Last year, he unveiled an ambitious Mars settlement program, with a goal of establishing a Martian colony of more than 80,000 people who would be ferried over to the Red Planet for about $500,000 each.
NASA scientists are also preparing for the possibility of manned missions to Mars to further explore the planet.
The prospect of finding life on Mars got a little more enticing this year. NASA’s Curiosity Rover -- launched in 2011 --- found evidence of fresh water at the planet’s Yellowknife Bay site, which would have been favourable to microbial life.
And some scientists are saying if there’s no evidence of life on the Red Planet, why not send some?
NASA scientist Chris McKay is a leading researcher on finding organics on Mars. He’s also a main advocate for terraforming the planet -- which literally translates to “Earth shaping” -- to make Mars habitable.
The fundamental way to terraform Mars is to warm it up by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- something humans knowhow to do “remarkably efficiently,” McKay told CTVNews.ca.
Humans have been inadvertently releasing greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere for centuries, contributing to warmer global temperatures. “So what’s bad for Earth would be good for Mars,” McKay said.
Temperatures at the equator in the summer can reach a high of 20 degrees Celsius, but the average temperature on Mars is about -62C.
‘We need a new home’
While McKay supports terraforming for the simple reason that some life is better than no life, Nicole Willett, education director for the space advocacy group The Mars Society, takes the idea even further.
With the Earth’s population increasing by about 1 billion every 10 years in recent decades, Willett fears humans have overextended Earth’s resources. “We need a new home for that reason,” she told CTVNews.ca.
The Mars Society will send six volunteers to the organization’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in the Canadian arctic, as part of a 2014 yearlong mock mission to Mars.
Just like astronauts, the volunteers, who will be conducting research in spacesuits, will spend time studying carbon release from permafrost, as well as human performance in extreme conditions.
Willett said the mineral content of Martian soil has everything terrestrial life requires to survive: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. And humans could easily adapt to Mars’ 24-hour-and-39-minute days.
“If we go to Mars and find that there is no life, or if we find that the life is the same as Earth, then we can just move in and send more Earth life there,” McKay said.
There’s not enough oxygen on the planet, however, and the atmosphere pressure is thin, so humans would need to live in an enclosed pressurized habitat with a source of oxygen.
Willett said greenhouses would be needed to generate oxygen since Mars’ atmosphere is only 0.13 per cent oxygen, while the Earth’s atmosphere is 21 per cent oxygen.
“If we terraform Mars, we would start by setting up habitats, with plants and greenhouses, and eventually, you could be able to plant algae,” Willett said.
“Over time, 900 to 1,000 years or so, there might be enough pressure in the atmosphere to walk outside without a spacesuit on. The water in the ground would melt, and rivers would flow and it would rain eventually. It would be very Earth-like.”