In 2024, the privately-run Mars One project plans to launch the first four-member crew to the” Red” Planet to establish a permanent human colony. Dubbed “the next giant leap for mankind”, selection is underway for the 24 candidates that will permanently relocate. Whilst this could have - until recently - been thought of as an idea from a sci-fi novel, it is now a very real possibility.
First things first: how do we get there?
It takes a very long time to get to Mars; and the coffee is terrible when you get there. That, however, should be the last thing on the minds of the four Mars One candidates, who will be blasted off on their intrepid mission to start a new corner of human civilization on the desolate red planet. Historically, around 47% of probe and rover missions make it to their destination, so the success of the mission perhaps rests on the flip of a coin. Why is this? A series of very real dangers are faced when taking a human to Mars.
Firstly, it takes a phenomenal amount of energy to launch a massive object on an interplanetary trajectory - meaning an extraordinarily large and powerful rocket will be required. The proposed commercial option for this is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy which, at the time of its first launch later this year, will be the most powerful commercial rocket available by a factor of two. This leaves our plucky astronauts perched precariously atop a gigantic bomb on the launchpad. However, engineers and scientists are no strangers to this situation; astronauts being blasted into low Earth orbit has become so commonplace it is somewhat procedural. Let’s assume the astronauts successfully make it into space: unfortunately this is where the real danger starts.
The seven-month voyage to coincide with the orbit of Mars is hardly a luxury cruise; the capsule will be subjected to deadly radiation from the Sun once it is outside the protective embrace of the atmosphere and magnetic field of mother Earth. Apollo astronauts reported seeing flashes of light, even with their eyes closed, whilst they were orbiting the Moon. This was due to the tissue in their eyes being struck by radioactive particles ejected by the Sun. Solar radiation poses a serious health risk to the crew, especially as sufficient electromagnetic shielding would make the craft too heavy to launch. However, not all hope is lost. In order to research the effects of long-term spaceflight, Veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Komienko will be spending a year-long expedition on board the ISS, launching later this month. Perhaps this will shed some light on how to protect the Mars One crew?
Surviving launch and the voyage is the simple part, the final stage of the journey is the landing. Nothing as heavy as the capsule that will contain the human payload has ever been landed on the
surface of Mars before. The largest successful payload landed on Mars is the Curiosity rover, with a mass of 900kg and an innovative “SkyCrane” to lower the rover to the surface during the famous “Seven minutes of terror”. The thin atmosphere poses significant challenges to designers who will need an active mechanism for slowing the lander down to a safe landing velocity. Typical parachutes won’t be able to provide enough drag so an innovative combination of rockets, parachutes and inflatables may be required. The current technology surrounding this problem is worryingly sparse. Slowing the lander down might be feasible, slowing the craft down in a way that doesn’t send our heroes’ brains through their backsides might not!
So, what happens when the astronauts are on Mars?
There is plenty of work that needs to be done by the first human colonists. Construction of the colony itself is vital work for a new home on a new planet. This will include installing and regularly checking over all of the equipment needed for human life to survive, and preparation of crops and food is also critical. Food taken from Earth will be insufficient to survive on other than in emergencies, therefore the colonists will need to produce and eat fresh food produced on the planet as much as possible. As the colony develops, it is proposed that Mars One will discover ways to use Martian materials to produce things needed for expansion. Finally, there will also be a strong focus on research, where we may be able to answer questions like: is there life on Mars now? and what is the history of Mars?
It’s not all about work though, and there will be plenty of time for the astronauts to relax. Reading, writing, working out and painting are just some of the activities available to them, and Mars life isn’t as isolated as it may first seem. Believe it or not, the colonists will also have access to the TV, and Internet too - Facebook will become interplanetary! Seemingly, it is only the time delay that will limit communication and media. The distance between the planets means any films, broadcasts or TV programmes will need to be requested in advance and some websites may take up to 45 minutes to appear on the screen, meaning real-time dialogue with those on Earth is impossible.
But who are these brave, if not a little crazy, people volunteering to go through all this?
Five British people have been shortlisted in the final 100 candidates for Mars One. One of these candidates is Ryan MacDonald, a student in Derby currently studying Physics at Oxford University. When talking about the trip and its implications, he believes that “the most important thing to do in life is to leave a legacy… to try and find out if there's life on Mars, to inspire a new generation, to lead to the beginnings of the first civilisation on another planet… that’s my legacy.”