Out of the Silent Planet

From the Blue Marble to the Red Planet

From the Blue Marble to the Red Planet

Is there life on Mars? That fascinating question has puzzled mankind for ages. And it seems that we are getting closer to finding an answer. Scientists have learned in recent years that Mars has far more water (in frozen form anyway) than we first thought. Water, of course, is necessary for the development and sustenance of life as we understand it. Most scientists studying Mars agree that while the polar caps of Mars may contain ice, life would require water in its liquid form. While there may not be liquid water there now (at least that we’ve found), new evidence suggests it may have existed on the planet’s surface at one time. In addition,there is some speculation that newly discovered methane “burps” might come from microbial life.

Whether or not life currently exists or at one time existed is profoundly important, but I believe that an even more important and certainly more pragmatic question is… Can Mars currently sustain human life?

Science fiction has fueled our imagination with thoughts of traveling throughout the galaxy. That’s a big step for humans and before we run to the nearest star, we need to learn to crawl through our own solar system. And the best way to do that is to take baby steps. Granted, we’re talking about baby steps consisting of millions of miles, but you get the idea. The strategy would be to colonize our nearest moons and planets and “leapfrog” out of our solar system into deep space. Many not only think this is feasible but plans are already in the works.

Many of you may have already heard the buzz recently about a private organization called Mars One that is planning a manned mission to Mars with intent to set up a permanent human colony there. This ambitious goal is one that, if successful, will change the course of human history. Not only could it provide us with our first step to reaching out to distant stars, it could provide a refuge for human life should some catastrophic disaster occur here on Earth. Most of us have heard the different Doomsday scenarios: An asteroid or comet hits the earth. Some horrible pandemic kills off human life (and leaves a zombie apocalypse?). A supervolcano erupts. Massive solar flares could knock out our power grids and worse. The list goes on.

It would seem that private companies are not the only groups interested in setting up house the Red Planet. There appears to be support for this coming from Republicans in Congress. Of course, the cynic in me can’t resist pointing out the irony of this situation. It seems that the GOP supports the sustained colonization and habitation of Mars which would require the process known as “Terraforming”. (Terra is Latin and refers to the Earth) This process involves transforming the atmosphere and surface of the planet to create conditions that would be more suitable for sustaining a wider variety of Earth life forms, including possibly plant life. If successful, it’s possible that Mars could in time (several thousand years) develop its own ecosystems. Now where is the irony in all this? Well, Terraforming involves artificially pumping a ton (actually millions of tons) of greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere to create a “global warming” effect that would warm the planets surface enough to melt the ice on its polar caps and create liquid water for lakes and oceans. Apparently this science seems completely plausible to Republicans when we’re talking about Mars, but it’s pure fantasy here on Earth. Huh? How odd.

I think colonization of other planets is inevitable for humans (assuming we do not destroy ourselves before we can do that). It took the movie “The Matrix” to help me to visualize and understand what I had suspected about my race for a long time. We multiply and we spread. It appears to be in our nature.

So why Mars? Why not some other planet in our solar system? Why not Venus, our other neighboring planet? Well, the problem with Venus is that it’s just not capable of sustaining any kind of life on the surface. The temperature is around 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmospheric pressure is like being underwater at a depth of about a kilometer. Not to mention that the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide with pockets of sulfuric acid (Nice). Seems like Venus is out of the question, right?

In truth, there are some at NASA that think this is not only possible but a better option that setting up camp on Mars or at least, something that could happen first. They have envisioned something called HAVOC (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept). Cool stuff. The idea is not to live on the surface but about 30 miles above it. Now, this may not prove to be effective for large human populations, but it could provide us with information and technology that we could then use to adapt to other extra-terrestrial locations.

Cloud City anyone?

Cloud City anyone?

Floating cities above Venus? Boy, have  you lost your mind?

Floating cities above Venus? Boy, have you lost your mind?

Colonizing Mars presents a host of challenges. Just getting off the ground safely isn’t easy (or cheap) and there is only so much equipment and supplies that can be carried. The length of time it would take to reach Mars could pose a problem both physically and mentally for humans. There is a minimum of 34 million miles to cover (or more depending on the elliptical cycles of the planets) and according to Mars One, the travel time would be about 7 months. That’s a long time to spend in a weightless environment. Longer even that astronauts spend in the International Space Station. In addition, Mars has only about 40% of Earths gravity so long term living could pose problems. According to an article from Space.com:

Astronauts in space for weeks to months can run into trouble. Calcium in bones secretes out through urine. As the bones weaken, astronauts are more susceptible to breaking them if they slip and fall, just like people with osteoporosis. Muscles also lose mass.

Once on the planets surface, (assuming the flight had no issues and landed safely) only a small living construction could be established due to cargo restraints. The inhabitants would have to find ways to produce food as the supply would soon run out if some kind of sustainability is not established. Likewise, producing air and water will also require inventive technology. Mars One believes this is possible with current technology. From their website:

Basic elements required for a viable living system are already present on Mars. Thus we need to send more tools and equipment rather than raw elements. For example, the location for the first Mars One settlement is selected for the water ice content of the soil there. Water can be made available to the settlement for hygiene, drinking and farming. It is also the source of oxygen generated through electrolysis. Mars also has ample natural sources of nitrogen, the primary element (80%) in the air we breathe. Martian soil will cover the outpost to block cosmic radiation. The astronauts will soon be able to create habitation for themselves and new crews using local materials soon after they arrive. For a long time, the supply requests from the outpost will be for computers, clothing and complex spare parts, which cannot be readily reproduced with the limited technology on Mars.

Energy production is also a major concern. However, the Mars One group feels they have this covered as well:

The Sun is a reliable, robust and plentiful energy source. Using solar panels is the best choice for Mars One as it takes away the requirement to develop and launch a nuclear reactor, thereby saving time and money while avoiding the risks and concerns for use of a nuclear power source. Thin film solar (photovoltaic) panels will power the Mars One settlement. These are less efficient than those more commonly used in aerospace, but have the advantage of being extremely light, thus easily transported. The first settlement will install approximately 3000 square meters of power generating surface area.

Will this mission succeed? Hard to say. As far as I can tell, this project is still in its early development and is still far from being a reality. I’ll reserve judgement once I see that humans are walking around on the surface of Mars. Still, I think the important thing to consider is that there is reasonable interest from that segment of the worlds population that have the resources and leverage to make this vision a reality and that it appears we may have the technology to pull off what would ultimately be the greatest human achievement in history.

Perhaps there was once life on Mars, perhaps not. But one thing seems clear. Sooner or later, there will be life on the Red Planet.



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