Moving to Mars

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover snapped this view of a hill in Mars’ Jezero Crater called Santa Cruz, on April 29, 2021, the 68th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover snapped this view of a hill in Mars’ Jezero Crater called Santa Cruz, on April 29, 2021, the 68th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

Anjani Ganase considers space exploration and what it would take to colonise Mars.

We have been fascinated by the exploration of space, but our ability to explore is only made possible by the comforts that planet Earth has afforded us.

Most astronauts who go out to space become even more appreciative of the world that has evolved to one rich in life in the vast and barren endlessness of space. While conversations on colonising another planet may seem glamorous and visionary, the reality of harsh foreign environments not made for Earthlings and zero resources implies a life dedicated to survival and still completely dependent on Earth’s resources.

What do we need to survive on any planet?

Here are the main ingredients for life – essential elements: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur, and of course water as the major solvent and medium for transport.

Everything, from us to trees to corals, is built on carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

We use carbon extracted from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by plants to build complex organic matter (carbohydrates, fats, proteins). Nitrogen is another inert gas extracted from the air by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and is an essential building block in our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Phosphorus forms DNA and the compound called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the currency for energy that is provided to your cells. Sulphur supports most enzyme reactions, which speed up chemical reactions in our body, which, industrially, would require a lot of heat and pressure to occur.

The most important component, however, is water. This is the medium for moving around and mixing all these important elements and compounds together. The properties of the water molecule are unique, and supported the evolution of life on Earth. Water has a relatively high melting and boiling point, making it liquid at a large range of temperatures and environments. Water is the densest at 4 C, and when it solidifies, the lattice structure of ice makes it float unlike other solids. This is why lakes do not freeze from top to bottom, but can still house aquatic life during the winter. Water is critical to life as we know it.

Even if these occur on a planet, there is no guarantee of life. Natural disturbances, such as an asteroid event or volcanic activity, must spark the formation of certain molecules that serve as the precursor to life (genetic material) that eventually evolve into micro-organisms. After 4.5 billion years of evolution, planet Earth has become environmentally stable and rich in biodiversity.

This is the only understanding of life and evolution humans have ever known – our own.

Who wants to go to Mars?

Our neighbour Mars has been the subject of many science-fiction movies, inspired the fictional planets of Star Wars and the subject of (funny and not so funny) conversation as the alternative to planet Earth.

However, Mars, despite being the most like Earth in contrast to the other planets in the solar system, is still vastly different in every way that matters to support life from Earth. It is thought that Mars was on a similar path to Earth, with evidence of water – rivers and glaciers – formerly existing on the planet, which now runs dry. This may be related to the weaker magnetic fields around Mars which could not sustain the water within the Martian atmosphere, and therefore it lost the opportunity to support life. The magnetic field around Earth forms a protective shield against cosmic radiation.

As a result, Mars is half the size of Earth, with an atmosphere that is 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s. While Earth’s atmosphere is 79 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide and other gases (ozone, helium, methane, hydrogen etc), Mars is 96 per cent carbon dioxide, two per cent argon and two per cent nitrogen, with only traces of water vapour and oxygen. If we were to grow food, there is plenty of carbon dioxide for plants, and on the plus side, Martian soil is rich in essential nutrients.

Technicians in the clean room are carefully lowering the MOXIE instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Image courtesy NASA.

However, Mars is also very cold, with an average temperature of -61 C and -140 C at the poles. This means that growing plants would have to be entirely climate-controlled.

Scientists have developed an instrument to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment) that can potentially support a team on Mars during a visit. The team would also need oxygen to burn fuel to return home. MOXIE produces about six grammes of oxygen per hour, equivalent to a “modest” tree. MOXIE has been tested in many conditions as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover over that roams Mars, but a larger unit running continuously would have to be designed and transported.

While NASA has sent several robots to Mars to collect data on the environment, the technology to send humans (researchers and astronauts) to study Mars is still being developed. The trip alone is eight months long and requires the establishment of a habitat that is climate-controlled and regulated for the period that the scientists intend to stay on Mars.

There is currently research and development focused on creating a temporary habitat on Mars to do in-situ research. However, there are challenges every step of the way, from packing everything essential using lightweight, durable and compact equipment, sustaining all resources for the eight-month journey, landing and setting up without problems, maintaining livable conditions while on Mars, and finally, having enough power and resources to return home.

Saving home, Earth first

Mission Artemis by NASA is the first ambitious step on the road to Mars, and aims to have scientists inhabiting the moon as a base camp by 2030. The camp will permit long-term research and discovery that will act as a stepping stone for more space exploration and research on Mars. Nonetheless all resources for our survival in space, on the moon and Mars will be sourced from Earth.

Recognising that much of the research and development generated through the space exploration programmes have had significant benefits to us over the years, I wonder about the devotion and drive – and tremendous expense – for the exploration beyond our native planet by a select few.

Contrast that with simply keeping our planet functioning or thriving. The annual budget of NASA is US$27 billion. Protecting the entire planet and sustainably conserving the planet and its resources – the food, water that we benefit from – falls within an estimated $340 billion annually; the sum needed to protect and adapt ecosystems from climate change.

I do not wish for funding for space exploration to stop, merely to see the same eagerness and investment into our own planet and its survival.

"I realised up there that our planet is not infinite. It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space,” said Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space.


"Moving to Mars"

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