All aboard the Mars Express

With millions of dollars going into Mars exploration, what would our possible future Martian lives look like?

When we get tired of the daily grind, we tend to dream about packing everything up and moving to another country. Some of us dream of somewhere tropical, with white beaches and blue skies. Others wish to be closer to nature, while some simply wish to be far away from society and from all responsibilities. With space technology becoming more and more sophisticated, your version of paradise may not be limited to places on Earth alone. Space agencies are more determined than ever to set foot on Mars, so could the J1 soon be replaced by short stints to the red planet? A return ticket to the US could set you back a grand, but what about a trip to Mars? With an increasing amount of private investors taking an interest in space exploration, and talks of colonisation of Mars, is this going to become a mainstream option for travel and making a new life for ourselves?

Mars has long been considered the natural alternative to living on Earth due to the proximity of its orbit to our own, but it suffices to say that a return trip to the neighbouring planet will cost a lot more than your standard bus ticket. The cost of communications satellites, hardware, astronaut training, ground stations, and follow-up missions to Mars has been estimated to be around $6 billion US dollars. After covering the initial costs, $4 billion US dollars are expected to be spent on the next four explorers to venture to the planet. If you want a return trip, it is going to cost even more. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has his sights set on lowering the cost of one way trips to Mars to around $200,000. Musk says that he is confident that in the future, the cost of moving to Mars will be “low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home and move to Mars if they want.”

“Musk says that he is confident that in the future, the cost of moving to Mars will be low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home and move to Mars if they want.”

Presuming that you have the pocket change to cover these costs, you’ve finally made it to Mars. What now? Well, it may not be the tropical paradise you dream of. The temperature on Mars ranges from minus 125 degrees Celsius at night, to 20 degrees Celsius during the day. Our other neighbour, Venus, is a far less comfortable 400 degrees Celsius, accompanied by occasional bouts of acid rain. Mars’ position means there is enough sunlight to use solar panels as a means of generating energy. The planet also has its own polar ice caps, seasonal changes, and weather patterns, making it the most “Earth-like” of the planets.

Aside from that, visitors to the planet must also account for gravity changes. The gravity on Mars is just 38% that on Earth. This might sound fun, but over time, it results in changes in bone density, circulation, and muscle strength. On Earth, our bodies are fighting the effects of gravity, so when this is reduced on Mars, our muscles will begin to deteriorate. If you want to stop yourself from turning into a piece of play dough, you need to commit to regular exercise, similar to what the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) do when fighting the effects of zero gravity on board.

Aside from changes in our muscular system function, the immune system also experiences changes in microgravity. Fighting off even the most minor illnesses such as a cough or a cold could prove life-threatening when living on Mars. Our neurovestibular system – which allows us to sense balance, as well as the sense of where our body is – is affected during weightlessness, and may have effects on our ability to sense where our arms and legs are.

Energetic radiation puts inhabitants on Mars at risk of cancer, as investigated by NASA’s Curiosity rover. One of the key differences between our own planet and Mars is that Mars does not have a protective magnetosphere – a region around the planet dominated by its magnetic field. This magnetosphere acts as a barrier, protecting Earth from harmful radiation, energetic particles which tear through DNA molecules, causing cancer and other diseases. The lack of magnetosphere on Mars means that habitants would be exposed to a much higher level of radiation than on Earth. The NASA Curiosity Rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) suggested that a mission consisting of 180 days to Mars, a 500-day stay and a 180-day return would result in a dose of 1.01 sieverts. For context, a dose of 1 sievert leads to an increase of 5.5% in the risk of fatal cancers.

“Our other neighbour, Venus, is a far less comfortable 400 degrees Celsius, accompanied by occasional bouts of acid rain.”

Often a topic of science fiction, the Martian dust storms can last for months, and at times can cover the entire planet. According to Michael Smith, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, “every year, there are some moderately big dust storms that pop up on Mars and they cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks at a time.” He says that on average, once every three Mars years, about five and a half Earth years, normal storms grow into planet-encircling dust storms, a phenomenon known as “global dust storms”. Many times, the Opportunity Rover has found itself engulfed in a storm of dust blocking its view. However, the aforementioned lack of an atmosphere in Mars can be a good thing in this case as it means that these storms don’t have the impact they would were they to occur on Earth. Having said that though, this poses a problem for energy generation. Mars’ position means it is possible to use solar panels, but dust storms covering the solar panels will render them useless.

One must also consider the psychological effects of being isolated from society on Earth, both during the journey and whilst living on Mars. A one-way journey to the red planet lasts between six and eight months, which means that travellers will be isolated from society for a large amount of time. The great distance between us and Mars also means that phone calls are not feasible, as communication signals take between three and 22 minutes to reach the other end.

Indeed, there are a multitude of factors to consider and prepare for when it comes to relocating to Mars. But it’s looking like it’s not far off. NASA will fly astronauts around the moon in order to prepare for a crewed mission to Mars in 2033. Russian and Chinese space agencies intend to send humans to Mars in 2040. Elon Musk is aiming for SpaceX to send a crew of astronauts to Mars by the year 2024, with the long term goal of building “a self-sustaining civilisation on Mars”.

While Irish weather has its faults, Mars is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be prepared for cold weather, dust storms, and harmful radiation. You’ll be giving up social media, and exercising will no longer be an endorphin-boosting pastime but a necessity to hold onto your muscle mass.

The dream of 9am lectures on Mars will have to remain a fantasy for now, and perhaps it should, until the day when man can boldly go and push the frontier of humanity forward, fully knowing the gravity of our decision to colonise other worlds. As in the words of Elon Musk, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

Grace Breen

Grace Breen is the current SciTech News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Physics and Astrophysics student.