The Journey to Mars
When scientists found out that there were traces of life on Mars, it was akin to finding a virgin goldmine. Having an alternative planet that human beings can inhabit is such a relief given the many threats that earth faces. But should we celebrate as yet?
The red planet, as Mars is sometimes called, is the fourth planet from the sun. It comes after Mercury, Venus, and Earth, and it is 228 Million kilometers away from the sun. Therefore, it is colder than the earth, and the air is much thinner than what we breathe here.
Mars has been a curious planet for scientists, big organizations, and states, each working day and night to outsmart the other on who will land human beings on the planet first. The current advancements in the planet’s study create a lot of excitement as one of the organizations is claiming to be in the final stages of making spaceships that will transport people and cargo to and from Mars.
Before we delve into the politics around whether there is life on Mars, let us look into the various missions sent to explore Mars.
Different Space Exploration Made to Mars
The first exploration on Mars was done by the Soviet Space Program in 1960, although the first successful flyby was by the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1965. Another breakthrough happened in 1971 when NASA’s Mariner 9 successfully launched into Mar’s orbit to become the first spacecraft to orbit another planet.
The Mariner 9 sent back detailed images of the planet, including Olympus Mons (the solar system’s largest known volcano), the Grand Canyon, and the Martian Moons. More was to come with the advancement in technology.
The Soviets won the race of the first spacecraft to land on Mars towards the end of 1971 when Soviets’ Mars 2 and Mars 3 made it to the Red Planet’s surface. Through this mission, scientists got even better reports about the planet’s topography, weather, and atmosphere. At this point, scientists analyzed the Red Planet’s topography and concluded that the Martian canals were a result of activities from an alien civilization, an assumption that was later proved to be faulty.
Viking 1 and Viking 2 by NASA were the second successful missions to land on Mars, and they explored the planet until 1982 (Viking 1 for four years and Viking 2 for six years). Astronauts also used these missions to conduct soil tests to evaluate whether the planet could support life. However, scientists found the data to be inconclusive and recommended further research.
The Soviet Space Program later sent two spacecraft to analyze the planet’s moons, specifically Phobos 1. Although the spacecraft could take photographs of the moons, the mission crashed before sending back the information.
At this time, the Red Planet’s missions were mostly stationary landers that could not move after landing. Also, the landers could not come back to earth after they had exhausted their usefulness on Mars. Recent research has enabled scientists to add mobility to the landers.
On December 4, 1996, NASA launched the Mars Pathfinder Mission and successfully landed their first robotic rover on Mars. A rover is different from stationary landers if we consider its efficiency and flexibility. The mission was a demonstration of how to deliver an instrumented lander into space cheaply. The lander and the rovers were fitted with instruments to measure the climate, geology, and atmosphere, among other Mars elements. Let us take a deeper look at how rovers work.
Mars Rovers and How They Are Used
Rovers are robotic vehicles that scientists send to Mars to collect and send data back to earth. Rovers roam over the planet’s surface, and their main mission is to evaluate whether the Red Planet has traces of past or present life ecosystems. Among the parameters that scientists instruct rovers to test is the presence of water, microbial activities, and soils that support life.
Before we delve into the different rovers that have graced Mars, let us see how rovers compare to stationary landers.
Rovers vs. Static Landers
Before NASA came up with rovers, missions that relied on landers collected very limited data after a very long period. Here is how landers compare to rovers:
Some Landers Are Static, but Rovers are Mobile
After stationary landers (like Viking 1 and 2) got to the surface of Mars, they would stay stagnant in one place, collecting data of occurrences limited to their surroundings. On the other hand, rovers can move on the planet’s surface. Their unique design and possession of wheels and a complex engineering system make rovers able to move around the planet.
Rovers, therefore, can cover more ground than the traditional stationary landers.
- Rovers are Easier to Control Compared to Stationary Landers
The advanced communication technology fitted on rovers makes it easier for scientists to control them even when they are many millions of miles away. Rovers are also fitted with scientific instruments that enable them to accept commands to carry out experiments independently.
Scientists can, for example, place them in strategic areas to send data that proves a hypothesis that they may have. On the other hand, static landers leave limited space for control. Another aspect of control that rovers give scientists is monitoring and controlling their movement and tracking their locations.
Different Mars Rovers
There have been four rovers that have successfully operated on the Red Planet’s surface. They include:
We shall look into the mentioned rovers to clarify how similar or different each of the rover’s mission is from the others.
Sojourner was named after Sojourner Truth, the American Civil Rights activist who broke free from slavery and later became a crusader against the vice. This rover was the first wheeled rover to grace another planet and was part of the Mars Pathfinder mission. Mars Pathfinder’s main task was to showcase cheaper technology to get exploration instruments into space.
Sojourner successfully landed on Mars on July 4, 1997, using an airbag landing system. The rover was fitted with two front cameras and one rear camera that took color images. This rover also had tools that enabled it to carry out scientific experiments independently.
In addition to the cameras, Sojourner was fitted with an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (to evaluate the composition of Martian Soil and rocks) and Meteorology Package (to measure the atmosphere).
The rover also had solar panels and a non-rechargeable battery that powered it and helped the base station evaluate its health. The solar panels were designed to survive the cold temperatures on the Red Planet. Sojourner communicated with the base station on earth using a 9600-band radio modem and had four memory stores for data safekeeping.
Sojourner helped scientists decipher the following, among other information:
- Mars has a central metallic core radius greater than 800 miles
- The airborne dust at the red planet is magnetic, and it contains iron oxide
- There were rounded pebbles on Mars, which suggested that there had been the presence of water on the planet
- There were early morning ice clouds on the lower atmosphere of the Red Planet
Sojourner outlived the scientists’ expectations and survived 83 Mars sols compared to the 7 Mars Sols projected. Sol is a day on Mars. One of the major disadvantages of Sojourner is that it was fitted with a non-rechargeable battery. Once the battery ran out, the rover could not work at night, and it had to wait for daylight since it depended solely on solar panels for energy.
- Spirit and Opportunity Rovers
Spirit and Opportunity were twin rovers that were sent to Mars by NASA in 2003. The mission of the two rovers was to evaluate the past presence of water on the planet. The rovers assessed water’s presence by studying the chemical composition of elements on the surface of the Red Planet and report whether water had existed on Mars and any other signs of life that they could find.
Spirit arrived on Mars on January 3, 2004, while Opportunity arrived on January 24 of the same year. The two rovers were six-wheeled and had the following scientific instruments: Panoramic camera, Rock Abrasion Tool, Microscopic Imager, Navigation Cameras, Mossbauer Spectrometer, Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer and Magnet arrays.
Unlike Sojourner that was powered by non-rechargeable batteries, Spirit and Opportunity were powered using rechargeable batteries and solar panels. They were also able to store data and transmit it later.
In 2009, Spirit got stuck on soft sand, and after failed trials of rescuing the rover, NASA ended its mission on May 25, 2011. Opportunity continued to transmit information until NASA lost contact with it in 2018 after a heavy dust storm. Both rovers outlived their initial target of 90 Mars Sols by many years.
Curiosity is the strongest rover ever to grace the Mars surface. Curiosity is over 6-foot-tall with an arm longer than 7 feet. The rover has an improved speed, and it can move between 5–20 kilometers away from its landing site. Scientists target that Curiosity will have crushed and analyzed about 70 rock and soil samples before it completes its mission.
The rover arrived on Mars on August 5, 2012, almost nine months after it was launched. Curiosity’s major mission is to find out if Mars ever had microbes, which would lead to the conclusion of the debate of whether Mars can support life.
Curiosity has self-contained tools to evaluate the composition of rocks and soils. It is also able to drill on rocks and test the powder for traces of microbial activity. Finally, it can detect past interactions of rocks with water.
Curiosity has already achieved a lot that includes the following:
- Curiosity has found an ancient oasis.
- The rover has found the presence of underground lakes on Mars.
- Curiosity has reported changes in methane levels on the Red Planet
- Has drilled and sampled over 20 soil and rock samples.
- The rover has found the largest amount of clay ever reported on Mars.
- Curiosity has successfully determined a mountain’s gravity.
Improved scientific instruments fitted to Curiosity enable it to carry out its functions.
Why Do Scientists Explore Mars?
Apart from the obvious reason of finding an alternative habitable planet, scientists explore Mars for the following reasons:
- Mars is relatively close to our planet
- Scientists believe that they can find clues that will help them to understand our world better
- To know how the Red Planet was previously able to sustain life and events that led to the end of life on the planet.
- To understand the dangers to human life present on the planet before sending people to the planet
- How to overcome the challenges to human life presented by the planet
- Evaluate the resources that future explorers can use
While there are hazards that threaten human life on Mars, scientists have evidence to show that Mars can support human life. Let us dig into the reasons why scientists believe that there is life on Mars.
Why is Mars Considered a Habitable Planet?
The evidence that Mars can host life is a huge debate among scientists. However, all the evidence collected leads many scientists to believe in the possibility of life on Mars. Here are a few pointers provided by scientists that support the idea of life on Mars.
- Rocks from Mars Have Similar Composition as Those on Earth
In 1996 scientists found the ALH84001 Meteorite that they believed dropped to earth from the Mar’s orbit. After analyzing it, they found that the rock contained an uncharacteristic chemical composition that could only be possible on a planet with microbes. Microbes are organisms like Bacteria and fungi and can only survive on a planet that can support life.
Apart from the chemical composition, the rock’s internal structure resembled the rocks found on our planet. Another reason that scientists gave was the presence of Magnetite, which some bacteria produce.
Although the rock was dated to be more than 4.5 billion years old, scientists had reason to believe that Mars can support life, or at least used to sustain life. However, some scientists received this assertion with skepticism, urging the scientists to provide more evidence. Such scientists included a university of California lecturer and scientist, J. William Schopf.
Whether the rock’s composition is proof of life on Mars is a debate that scientists, even today, can’t agree on.
- The Origin of Life on Earth Vs. Mars Current Situation
Scientists have found evidence to suggest that life on earth only started many million years after the formation of the planet. Some of the reasons scientists give for this delay are that earth had to contend with high temperatures that evaporated water from its surface and boil waters in the oceans so that life could not survive. Scientists like J. William Schopf feel that our planet had to cool down first before supporting life.
Could Mars also be on the same stage that earth was 3.8 billion years ago? Scientists believe that if this is the case, then Mars (and even other planets) could end up supporting life. This optimism is drawn from the comparatively young age that Mars is compared to earth.
- There is Evidence of Past Water Bodies on Mars
Recent rovers sent to Mars have sent evidence of deep canals that resemble water channels and dry lake beds that suggest that water must have flowed on the Red Planet. Scientists have also detected ice (which is, of course, frozen water) on the north polar ice cap, which evaporates into the atmosphere during hot seasons. The Martian South Pole has also provided signs of ice.
But the biggest sign of water is the recent discovery of underground lakes on the red planet. According to data from Mars Express, a spacecraft by the European Space Agency, there are three underground salty lakes on Mars, which spread a massive 75,000 square kilometers. This discovery could set the stage for further exploration of the possibility of other water bodies on the planet.
- Presence of Methane Emissions
NASA’s Rover, Curiosity reported an increase in methane which scientists believe was from underground locations. Methane can, of course, be a product of geochemical processes but could as well be produced by biological processes. Scientists are still figuring out the source of these emissions, and if proven to be a result of biological processes, this will be a major milestone in telling whether there is life on Mars.
The debates around life on Mars are numerous and can only be settled by conclusive research. If the technological advancements that scientists are making towards understanding the planet are anything to go by, then we should expect surprises that prove the current knowledge or challenges what we already know.
If we agree that Mars can support life for a moment, what kind of life should we expect from Mars?
Life Conditions on Mars
Unfortunately, according to the knowledge available, the conditions in mass cannot support human inhabitation. Think about the lack of water, absence of oxygen, the thin air prevailing on the planet, lack of food for humans, among other essentials for human survival. If human beings were to travel to the Red Planet, here is what we assume their lives would be like:
- Human beings will be required to wear oxygen masks throughout their stay on Mars.
- People will be required to wear special suits whenever outside their spacecraft to protect themselves from the planet’s high radiation.
- Visitors to Mars will have to carry their food supplies (or find a way to grow them).
- People must live in extremely heated environments to counter the cold temperatures on the planet.
- Human reproduction and population growth will have to be extremely controlled given the limited resources and hardship of growing them.
Despite the challenges brought about by the Red Planet’s nature, scientists are planning an expedition to Mars. How are they planning to do it?
SpaceX’s Planned Mission to Mars
SpaceX is planning a transportation system to and from Mars. The company is constructing a vehicle named Starship that is targeted to start operations in 2024. The transport system’s role will be to take cargo and (eventually) humans to and from the Red Planet. If SpaceX’s dream is achieved, people can book a spacecraft to Mars just as they would a plane to another state or country.
Starship is a 100 passenger vehicle that will be transported using a reusable rocket called Super Heavy. After successfully launching Starship into the earth’s orbit, Super Heavy will travel back to earth, leaving the spaceship to independently travel (on the set trajectory) to Mars or any other destination. Starship is designed with the ability to land and take off from any destination in space.
Another interesting bit about SpaceX’s mission is that the spaceship will be fueled off-earth. This will enable the ship to get enough fuel to come back to earth after delivering or picking people or cargo from the Red Planet.
How Does SpaceX Plan to Establish Human Settlement on Mars?
SpaceX’s ultimate plan is to have 1000 spaceships transporting people and cargo to Mars every 26 months. The numbers will grow until a million people live on Mars and eventually establish a city. Although SpaceX does not have the blueprint of how the city will look or how it will be made, the company believes that once people congregate on Mars, necessity will drive the city’s creation.
This transport system is considered a huge milestone for human beings to colonize Mars finally. SpaceX projects to make the first test of an un-crewed Starship will be in 2024. After a successful landing and return of the spaceship, a crewed ship will follow shortly.
Would You Take the Trip?
The journey to Mars sounds so near, yet so far. The milestones achieved by scientists are exciting, although there is still a lot to be done before humans can eventually settle on the Red Planet.
Given the risks involved and the hostile atmosphere on Mars, would you take the trip to Mars? Feel free to share with us what you think in the comments section. Also, if you benefit from this article, share it and help someone to benefit too.