Mars: The ultimate frontier


The Red Planet has been wetting mankind’s thirst for knowledge and exploration for several long decades now. The shiny red star in the night heavens has been the subject of countless movies, books, and other media throughout time.

Technical limitations have hitherto prevented man from travelling to Mars, but lately there has been somewhat of a rennaissance of the pioneering trip to Mars idea.

NASA is said to be researching possible landing sites ahead of a planned launch in the late 2030s. Scientists will meet in Houston next October to give serious discussion and thought to the issue of “exploration zones”. These are areas on the planet’s surface, about 62 miles-wide, which are deemed to offer enough resources (such as subssurface water ice) to support prospecting astronauts. Over the next few years, the space agency will utilise the Mars Odyssey and the Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter crafts to probe these selected areas to ascertain their suitability for landing and support human life.

Every two years or thereabouts, Mars and Earth’s orbit create optimal conditions for a launch. When the two planets are aligned, about 55 millions km separate mankind from its ultimate frontier. Though that may sound like a lot, in terms of cosmic distances, it’s a mere stone throw away.

Still, using currently available propulsion and space exploration technology, it would take a manned spaceship about nine long months to reach Mars’ surface, assuming all went according to plan. And that’s just a one way trip. The first crew to reach Mars will likely be forced to stay there, there’d be no coming back.

Space travel is inherently dangerous, of that there is little doubt. Disasters like the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia are a sad testament to mankind’s space faring endeavors.

And going to Mars would pose a completely new set of challenges. Putting aside the huge financial cost of a mission to Mars, there is the issue of the sheer distance between us and the Red Planet. Nine months, give or take, is a very long time to be locked inside a spaceship hurtling through space with a bunch of fellow men and women. A lot of psychological issues may arise.

Another danger would be the amount of radiation that the crew would be exposed to on their way over. Cosmic rays would constantly bombard the spacecraft, and the effects may cause deadly cancers in the long run. The crew may be dead, or dying, by the time they got to Mars. And that’s just cancer. Solar storms also pose a huge risk to the human heart and central nervous system. Subatomic particles from solar radiation can kill a person in a matter of hours.

So how to avoid dying in the name of science and exploration? Appropriate shielding of the craft would be an idea, but again, currently available technology hampers the prospect. Traditional lead shielding actually creates secondary radiation when hit by cosmic rays. A better proposition is water, but a water shield would need to be several meters thick to be effective. Again, not currently workable.

And then there’s the issue of what to do, once the ship arrived in Mars?

Mars is a hostile environment to humans. The planet has a very thin atmosphere, about one percent of the thickness of Earth’s own atmosphere. It consists of about 96% carbon dioxide and less than 0.2% oxygen, ergo not breathable. If a manned mission did make it to Mars, they would need to somehow manufacture their own oxygen to sustain life in the long term. To remedy this, NASA will carry out the Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) in its planned 2020 mission.

Also, huge dust storms sweep across Mars’ surface regularly, and these can last for a month at a time.

A lot remains to be solved, no less in the fiend of the potentially devastating psychological effects of a Mars stay.  Space missions in the past have had to be terminated early due to crew squabbles and disagreements. And who knows what the human mind may experience when faced with the sheer distance and isolation from one’s home planet.

So the challenges are huge, and so are the costs associated with all this. For now, the Red Planet remains tantalizingly just out of mankind’s reach, but the next couple of decades might see a successful mission land on the Red Planet’s surface, thus marking a historic milestone on human evolution.

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