How to Get to Mars … And Maybe Even Live There
There’s something about the Red Planet—so close yet so far, inhospitable yet perhaps not totally uninhabitable—that keeps us dreaming about getting there one day. Here’s what that trajectory might look like, from the fictional world of best seller The Martian (now a film starring Matt Damon that hits theaters this Friday) to the technology we still need to crack.
Q&A With Andy Weir, Author of The Martian
It opens on a nightmare: An astronaut is left behind on Mars and must survive on the hostile planet. The Martian author Andy Weir, a former software engineer, includes so many technical details in his book—orbital trajectories, the molecular gymnastics required for turning air into water—that you might think a manned mission to Mars would be a cinch. Not so fast, Weir says. For one thing, we shouldn’t get so hung up on humans actually reaching the surface. —David Ferry
WIRED: In the book, Mars missions have become almost routine. Do you think we’ll send astronauts to Mars anytime soon?
Weir: I suspect the first manned exploration will actually be sophisticated robots on the surface and humans in orbit.
One of the challenges of unmanned exploration is the robots have to land themselves—Mars is kind of a graveyard for probes. But imagine that they send seven probes into a parking orbit above the planet. Then they send humans. Now we have humans in orbit and in instant communication with the probes. The humans make sure the probes land correctly.
Then is it even worth it to send astronauts to the surface?
Oh yeah. Why did Sir Edmund Hillary climb Everest? [Laughs.] But it’s hard to justify the additional costs and risk. Still, I would like to have humanity able to survive if there’s a catastrophe on Earth. It’s not within our technological reach to colonize Mars right now, despite what some groups say, but we can do it eventually.
Do you think sci-fi can influence (or inspire) policy?
Things capture public attention, and if that’s a side effect of my book, I’m happy. There’s nothing NASA is going to learn from me—I’m just a space enthusiast. All I have to do is make shit up convincingly enough that you think it’s true.
Projects for Getting There
Just because all signs point to Mars being a barren wasteland doesn’t mean that folks don’t have plenty of ideas of how to get there. Here’s an overview.— Shara Tonn
Pros and Cons of Life on Mars
Life on Mars will pose some serious challenges. All you need is an open mind—and the knowledge that you’re not in Kansas anymore and will never see Kansas ever again.— Rhett Allain
Mars is 140 million miles from Earth.
Surface gravity on Mars is one-third that on Earth.
Mars’ atmosphere is 1 percent as thick as Earth’s—and is mostly CO2.
How We’ll Colonize the Red Planet
Earthlings have held much of the technology to become Martians for more than 30 years, according to Stephen Petranek, author of How We’ll Live on Mars. It’s the willpower and drive that were missing. Now that private efforts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX as well as other projects like Mars Direct, Mars One, and Inspiration Mars are providing some of that determination, here are a few of the technological challenges they’ll face. —Danielle Venton
1. Unlock the Water
There is plenty of frozen water on Mars in the form of glaciers and polar caps. Plus, the soil is up to 60 percent H20. But we’ll have to unlock it somehow. If that fails, University of Washington researchers have a plan B: a device called the Water Vapor Adsorption Reactor—an industrial-level dehumidifier—that could extract water from the atmosphere.
2. Make Some Air
That water is going to be important, because we’ll need it to make oxygen. (You probably remember this from school but just in case: Stick two electrodes in a tank of water and turn on the power. Oxygen collects on the positive side and hydrogen on the negative.) When NASA launches the heir to Curiosity in 2020, the agency will test a device that uses a similar process to split oxygen atoms off the CO2 molecules in the Martian atmosphere.
3. Turn Up the Heat
Terraforming! First, raise the temperature, perhaps with vast sunlight-reflecting mirrors. Frozen gases will release, forming a denser atmosphere and causing a greenhouse effect. Water will flow. Plants will grow, releasing oxygen. If life once existed on Mars, maybe it can again.
What It Would Be Like
Martha Lenio, mission commander of the HI-SEAS III Mars simulation program, tells us what we’re really up against.
For a three-year mission with a spaceship, you have to figure out what spare parts you need, how to fix things when you’re far away from Earth, and how to deal with waste. I have no hesitation about having enough solar-powered batteries and hydrogen. I can see us recycling water and composting waste. I’m confident we can do missions where we come back to Earth or are resupplied, but I can’t see a way for us to live sustainably on Mars. We haven’t figured out how to live sustainably on Earth yet—and Mars is very harsh. —As told to Shara Tonn
Mars Missions Timeline
Here’s a brief history of US missions to the Red Planet.
X = Failed missions
Caption: X 1964: Mariner 3 Fails to eject its protective shield; the added weight throws it off trajectory. NASA
Caption: 1965: Mariner 4 Completes a successful flyby, returning images and readings of the planet’s atmosphere. NASA
Caption: 1969: Mariners 6 & 7 Complete flybys studying the surface and atmosphere to de-termine if Mars might host life. NASA
Caption: X 1971: Mariner 8 Flyby mission fails on launch when the engine and spacecraft separate. 1971: Mariner 9 Reaches Mars orbit successfully and is the first craft to orbit another planet. NASA
Caption: X 1993: Mars Observer Contact is lost with the orbiter three days before it reaches the planet. NASA
Caption: 1996: Pathfinder Brings the six-wheeled rover Sojourner to Mars. NASA
Caption: 1998: Mars Global Surveyor Successfully orbits the planet to study its topography and surface composition. NASA
Caption: X 1999: Mars Polar Lander Loses communication upon atmospheric entry and hasn’t been heard from since. NASA
Caption: X 1999: Deep Space 2 Two probes attempt to penetrate the surface and sample Martian soil; contact is lost. NASA
Caption: X 1999: Mars Climate Orbiter Disappears into the upper Martian atmosphere when it misses its target-altitude orbit. NASA
Caption: 2001: Mars Odyssey Orbiter reaches Mars safely and acts as a communications relay for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. NASA
Caption: 2003: Spirit Mission: Study the atmosphere; characterize rocks and soil as well as look for signs of water. NASA
Caption: 2003: Opportunity Mission: same as Spirit’s. NASA
Caption: 2005: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Studies the Martian climate and surveys sites where future missions could land. NASA
Caption: 2007: Phoenix Lander Goes to study water history and habitability at the northern latitudes of Mars. NASA
Caption: 2011: Curiosity The largest rover yet sent to the Red Planet successfully launches. It’s still going! NASA
Caption: 2013: Maven Orbiter Goes to study the atmosphere. NASA
Caption: 2020: NASA The agency plans to send a successor to Curiosity. NASA/JPL/Caltech
Caption: 2021: Inspiration Mars Private venture plans to slingshot around Mars and Venus to demonstrate its technology. Inspiration Mars
Caption: 2026: SpaceX A crewed mission will launch and begin establishing a Martian base. Supposedly. SpaceX
Caption: 2030: NASA Has vague plans to send humans to Mars. NASA
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