Mars seems to be on the news everyday now. Two weeks ago, US President Obama announced that America will go to Mars sometime in the 2030s; Elon Musk unveiled new designs of a big rocket-craft that could take 100 people on each trip to the red planet, while his company, SpaceX, was successfully testing reusable rockets, which could cut launch costs by a factor of 100.
Last week, however, the European Schiaparelli vehicle crashed while trying to land on Mars, reminding us that while it’s relatively easy now to put a satellite in orbit around Mars, it is so much harder to land. In two weeks, National Geographic will broadcast a high-budget six-part docudrama titled ‘Mars: our future on the Red Planet’. And of course, let no one forget that the UAE will be sending a probe (Hope) to Mars in 2020...
But it’s the idea of people going to Mars that has taken off lately. People loved The Martian so much that Nasa received some 20,000 applications from people volunteering to go to Mars. Elon Musk said that he himself dreams of dying on Mars (though hopefully not in a crash) and told potential volunteers to accept the possibility of dying on the ‘Red Planet’, either on arrival or shortly thereafter.
And of course, the MarsOne mission, which was announced three years ago, was designed as a series of one-way trips, with people spending the rest of their lives on the Red Planet, trying to survive. Still, it attracted thousands of applications.
Zero gravity side-effects
A recent study (on rats, I must stress) of the radiation effects of a six-month trip to Mars showed significant impacts on brains, which led to calls for caution. Indeed, long space trips have important physiological and neurological effects on astronauts.
We know from long stays on the space station, that zero gravity weakens the bones and muscles of people, which makes it difficult for them to breathe and walk after several months, not to mention psychological effects of being sequestered in a bus-size spacecraft for months or years (6-7 months to get to Mars, 16 months there waiting for Earth and Mars to come close again, 6-7 months to return). If we add serious radiation effects that can lead to cancer development or at the very least to brain deterioration, we really need to plan very carefully for any such mission!
There are additional complications to a manned mission to Mars. For one thing, remember that air and water need to be recycled continuously (the total weight of the spacecraft must be kept at a minimal to reduce the launch power needed), but filters and equipment that can do that very efficiently for two-and-a-half years and without any glitches do not yet exist. Similarly challenging is the medical equipment and expertise needed to take care of astronauts en route and on Mars. And last but not least, no space agency currently has the know-how of landing a bus on Mars. The largest vehicle to be successfully landed on Mars is Curiosity, which weighs 1 ton. We will need to develop the capability of landing 20-ton buses and with little risk of failure — something that last week’s Schiaparelli crash showed to be a very challenging task.
And so with all this, Nasa estimates the cost of such a mission to Mars to be upwards of $100 billion (Dh367.3 billion), possibly closer to $200 billion. (Nasa’s yearly budget is less than $20 billion, most of which is already assigned to various projects for the next several years)...
Future risks to life
So if a manned mission to Mars is such a herculean and costly task, why are we even considering it? Why is someone like Musk spending billions of dollars of his own fortune and hoping to be able to go himself?
First, there is the question of future risks to life on Earth, either from external threats (the low but non-zero probability of a big asteroid wiping out human life as one did to dinosaurs 65 million years ago) or from human mistakes, which can range from the gradual destruction of the environment and resources to the sudden release of a deadly virus that could quickly kill all humanity. Some scientists have even waved red flags about the quick development of artificial intelligence which might soon enslave us or even remove us altogether.
But I believe that even without those risks and fears, we humans are bound to explore other planets and moons in our solar system and, in the farther future, other stars and their planets, for we are an inquisitive, exploring species. Why go to Mars? As Sir George Mallory would have said, because it’s there... and because it’s fascinating.
To me the question is not why but how to go to Mars safely and soundly.
I would hope that an international collaboration (the United States and China, and perhaps India, and why not the UAE?) and the public and private sectors (Nasa and SpaceX and others) can pool together the financial, human, and technical resources and minimise efforts and times. I just hope to be alive when we walk a few “small steps” on Mars.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.