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Exploration Of Mars


Humanity has been fascinated by Mars since long before we stepped foot on the Moon. Our planetary neighbor has been the subject of innumerable works of sci-fi and inspired countless dreams of adventure and exploration. Now, after decades of determination, research, and scientific breakthroughs, we’re finally ready to do it: - humans are going to go to Mars.

Conceptual work for missions that would involve human explorers has been ongoing since the 1950s, with planned missions typically taking place anywhere between 15 and 30 years from the time they were drafted.

The number of crewed Mars plans illustrates the variety of proposals that have been put forth by different space agencies. Plans have varied from scientific expeditions, in which a small group (between two and eight astronauts) would visit Mars for a period of a few weeks or a year, to the permanent colonization of Mars.

The Red Planet has garnered a lot of attention as scientists obsess about the possibility of discovering evidence of past or current life on Mars. Added to this, both NASA and SpaceX plan to have humans visit the planet within the next decade or so (in the author's opinion - the late 2030s). But one of the biggest questions still remains unanswered - the long-term sustain ability of humans living on Mars.   Top

Physical Challenges

Mars Landscape

What About Water

Water On Mars

Liquid water is thought to have flowed across the surface of Mars billions of years ago, when its atmosphere was thicker and warmer, cutting gullies and channels that are still visible. But today, low atmospheric pressures mean that any Mars "liquid" surface water would boil around 5℃ (verses 100℃ on earth) and does not last very long until it vaporizes or freezes.

As mentioned above, today Mars is very cold (average of -55 °C ). Therefore any surviving surface water is in ice form except for a small amount during the warm season. Pictured to the left is a mountain scene with blue and white surface ice. The dark brown and black tracks at the lower left are believed to be formed by the warm seasonal flow of contemporary water on the surface of present-day Mars.

However, none of the water is drinkable as is. It is chock full of salts called perchlorates that are toxic to humans. Most perchlorates are colorless solids that are soluble in water. Here on Earth, ocean water containing perchlorates goes through a desalination process to remove the salts. It is the way we turn seawater into fresh water. To use the native water found on Mars for human drinking, some form of desalination will be necessary.

NASA is working to learn how to make rocket fuel from water found on Mars. The ingredients are simple - you need "fuel and an oxidizer". Liquid methane would be used as the fuel, produced from water and carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere which is 95% carbon dioxide. Water can also be used to extract the oxygen from H2O, which would then be the oxidizer. When the two ingredients are mixed, they burn and produce gas shooting out in one direction, which fires the rocket in the other.

North Pole

Pictured at the left is a photo of the North Pole of Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in the summer of 2006. Note all the white ice at the Pole and the surrounding area. It shows the water-ice cap sitting on top of light, tan colored, sediments. In the long, very cold winter months the white ice areas expand considerably.

NASA researchers have created a map of the Martian surface showing where other sources of water ice are located just below its surface, In some places, the ice is just a few inches below the surface, making it easily accessible. It would not be necessary to use a backhole to recover this water, a simple shovel could do the job.

Seasonal ice formations found on Mars are composed not of ordinary snow, but of frozen CO2 (dry ice). These deposits condense directly from the atmosphere when the surface temperature drops below about 150 K. These seasonal formations develop during the cold martian winters and extend down to about 50° latitude by the start of spring.

Far beneath the deeply frozen ice cap at Mars’s south pole lies a lake of "liquid" water - the first to be found on the Red Planet. Detected from orbit using "ice-penetrating radar", the lake is probably very cold and full of salts - an unlikely habitat for life. But the discovery is sure to intensify the hunt for other buried layers of water that might be more hospitable.  Top

Plant Growth

Growing Food

The first goal of a Mars colonization is learning how to survive on the planet. A major challenge for any Mars colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical. Also, plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions.

Managing plant growth will be high on the list if people are staying on Mars for more than a few days. Having sufficient food stocked on Mars is a good idea only for a while. However, the planet’s thin atmosphere and reduced sunlight will make it a "challenge" for anything to grow naturally outdoors. This means that plants raised for food will need to be grown in conditions that simulate those we have here on Earth.

Astronauts eventually might be able to use Mars’s natural resources to grow food. Mars’s atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide, an essential gas for plant survival. Scientists have conducted plant experiments simulating Martian conditions using volcanic soil from Hawaii, which is known for its similarity to Martian soil. These experiments found that plants can actually grow in these soils. However, it might take some time to develop plants that can acclimate themselves to the overall Martian conditions.

However, because the availability of various nutrients may depend on exactly where astronauts land, at least initially the soil will probably need to be fertilized and detoxified. Plants will also need to be grown inside environments with tolerable temperatures. Water from the ice-caps will also need to be detoxified in order to support intensive in-door farming. An artist's scheme of a plant growing sub-system on Mars might look like the illustration above.  Top

Martian Radiation

Mars Atmosphere

In the actual photo to the left, the deep red layer above Mars’ surface is its atmosphere (below the black sky at the top and above the dusty light tan surface). As mentioned above, the volume of the atmosphere of Mars is only about 1% that of the Earth’s. This will force humans to always be in a space suit while outside and be well protected while inside. Any radiation exposure carries risk so there is a focus on keeping exposure as low as possible.

On Earth humans are exposed to about 0.6 rads per year, and aboard the International Space Station about 8 rads per year. (A rad is a unit of absorbed radiation, defined as 1 rad = 0.01 gray (Gy), which is one Joule of energy absorbed per kilogram of matter.) Humans can tolerate up to about 200 rads of radiation without incurring any permanent damage. It is probable that the eventual government upper limit of total rads absorbed will determine how long individuals can stay on Mars.

On the surface of Mars there are two main types of radiation - a steady dose from a variety of sources external to our solar system and solar events that can cause a dramatic increase in the amount of radiation for a fairly short time. Solar events that are of concern to explorers on Mars are solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Solar flares (from enormous sunspots) are powerful bursts of energy from the Sun. In 1972 solar eruptions were a near miss for astronauts on the moon. Had they been in orbit or on the Moon’s surface, they would have experienced high levels of radiation sparked by the eruptions. Today, the Apollo-era flares serve as a reminder of the threat of radiation exposure to astronauts anywhere in space. Understanding and predicting solar eruptions is crucial for safe space exploration.

In addition to flares, coronal mass ejections, huge clouds of a billion tons of solar material occasionally blast from the solar surface. Scientists think coronal mass ejections play a dominant role in driving the Sun’s most powerful radiation - solar energetic particles (SEPs). SEPs are almost all protons, flung at such high speeds that some reach Earth, 93 million miles away, in less than an hour.

On Earth, humans are normally safe from this harm. Earth’s protective magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere, deflects most solar particles. But beyond Earth’s magnetic reach, human explorers face the harsh radiation of space. The danger of radiation is always present, whether one is in orbit, in transit, or on a planetary surface.

Galactic cosmic rays — particles from long-gone, exploded stars elsewhere in the Milky Way — constantly bombard the solar system at near-light speeds. Cosmic rays tend to be more powerful than even the most energetic solar particles. A spacecraft that would shield a crew from solar energetic particles would not be able to keep cosmic rays at bay, so cosmic rays are a serious concern whether in flight or exploring the surface of Mars. Going to the Moon will help NASA collect crucial data to develop the necessary tools and strategies to one day safely send human explorers to Mars.  Top

Space Suits

Mars Suit

A space suit is a garment worn to keep humans alive in the harsh environment of outer space with radiation, vacuums and temperature extremes. Compared to a suit designed for space walking in the vacuum of low Earth orbit, Mars suits will have a greater focus on actual walking ease and a need for ground contact wear resistance. Pictured to the left is a NASA Z-2 prototype Mars space suit.

Mars' surface gravity is 38% of Earth's and approximately 2.3 times that of the Moon, so weight is a significant concern, but there are fewer thermal demands compared to open space. At the surface the suits would contend with the atmosphere of Mars, which has a pressure of about 0.087 to 0.145 psi. When on the external Mars surface, radiation exposure is a major concern, especially solar flare events, which can dramatically increase the amount of one's exposure over a short period of time.

Some of the issues a Mars suit for surface operations would face include having enough oxygen for the person as the air is mostly carbon dioxide. In addition the air is also at a much lower pressure than Earth's atmosphere at sea level. Other issues include Martian dust, low temperatures, and of course radiation. If a person took off their helmet while outside their Mars quarters, they would die very, very quickly.

The design for a Mars suit, the NASA Z-2 suit to the left, would have electro-luminescent patches to help crew members identify one another. Three types of tests planned for the Z-2 include tests in a vacuum chamber, tests in NASA's large pool for mimicking zero-gravity, and tests in a rocky desert area. Some ideas for Mars suits are a head-up display projected in the visor, built-in communications equipment, life support, and a voice-recognition assistant.

A head-up display is a transparent display that presents data without requiring users to look away from their usual view. The origin of the name stems from an aircraft carrier pilot being able to view landing information with his head positioned "up" and looking forward, instead of having to look down at lower instruments.

NASA tested possible Mars space suit materials by exposing them to Mars-equivalent ultraviolet radiation for 2500 hours, and then studied how the materials were affected. One of the concerns for the Mars suits is how materials respond to chemically reactive Mars dust and exposure to ultraviolet, especially over the length of time and amount of use the suits are expected to function

The Mars 2020 rover has a materials test that is hoped will aid Mars suit development, the SHERLOC experiment which includes a test target with several space suit materials. The test will measure how suit materials are affected by the Martian environment. Six materials have been chosen for testing. The test will help select the best materials for future Mars space suits.  Top

Martian Habitat

Mars Habitat

NASA has picked out several designs of 3D-printed houses that could one day support astronauts living on Mars. The space agency handed out prize money to five different design teams as part of a multi-year contest to figure out how to support human life on the red planet. The winning designs were all picked by a panel of subject matter experts from NASA, academia and industry.

The designs had to incorporate four astronauts living on Mars for up to a year Each of the winning teams created digital representations of their Martian houses, which would have to be 3D printed on the dusty alien planet ready to support the crew. Team Zopherus of Rogers had the first-place winning design which is shown at the left.

Each design had to incorporate at least a thousand square feet of space and also include all the equipment the astronauts would need to spend a year living on the Martian surface. As well as professional design firms, the space agency also accepted submissions from universities, colleges, business and high schools in the US. "We encouraged a wide range of people to come up with innovative designs for how they envision a habitat on Mars," said Lex Akers, dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University, NASA’s partner in this challenge.  Top

A Team To Mars

Mars Team


A group of 13 astronauts have joined NASA under the mission that will bring the first female to the moon and some may be the first humans to step on Mars.

The group includes six women and seven men, two of them were Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronauts. All were chosen from a record setting pool of more than 18,000 applicants. During the graduation ceremony, each of the bright-eyed graduates were given a silver pin that symbolizes the Mercury 7 – NASA's first astronaut group that was selected in 1959. They will then be awarded a gold pin once they completed their first spaceflights.

NASA is set to send the first woman and next man to the surface on the Moon by 2024 in the Artemis mission. Plans are for additional lunar missions once a year thereafter and a human exploration of Mars. For two years, the candidates trained in  spacewalking, robotics, International Space Station systems, T-38 jet proficiency and the Russian language.

The Artemis mission, which is set for 2024, will see the first woman and the next man stand on the surface of our nearest stellar neighbor. Although NASA has yet to set an exact year for the mission to Mars, the new crew will be candidates to be the first to step on the Red Planet. NASA has indicated that this feat will happen in the 2030s and as early as 2035. Officials hope the moon mission will help humans learn how to live and work in another world, prove new capabilities and technology, that allows them to be prepared for the Red Planet. 

It will be interesting to see how things move forward over the next few years, especially with Mars having been a source of great fascination and inspiration for the human imagination over our recent history.