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Forward to the Red Planet

The recent discovery of a subterranean lake on Mars, the “Red Planet,” has been drawing significant attention from the scientific community and beyond. It is the first time that a large body of liquid water has been discovered anywhere on Mars, and the discovery is expected to be a breakthrough in making plans for the colonization of the Red Planet. With recent advances and discoveries, colonization of the Red Planet no longer seems impossible. In this article, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) presents the history of humanity’s relationship with Mars, how people might be able to establish a Mars colony, the remaining challenges, and the implications of colonizing Mars.

Humanity’s First Glimpses of Mars

Earth and Mars: Distant Relatives
Mars is the 4th planet of the solar system and is thought to be the easiest to explore. Mercury and Venus are too hot to explore even robotically, and the other planets are gaseous in nature, which makes surface exploration impossible. For these reasons, it has historically been the most-studied planet among the planets of the solar system. Mars orbits the Sun at 1.6 times the distance compared to Earth, and the average distance between the two planets is 70 million kilometers. The distance fluctuates irregularly, but generally, Mars and Earth become close once every two years. With an orbital period of 686 days and a rotation period of 24 hours and 39 minutes, a day on Mars is very similar to that of Earth’s, but a year on Mars would take far longer than on Earth. Mars is a smaller planet compared to Earth. It has a circumference half that of Earth’s, but its lower density means that it has a mass of only 10.7% of that of Earth’s. Its surface gravity is 0.37g, which means that a person who weighs 60kg on Earth would weigh 22.2kg on Mars. In terms of atmospheric composition, Mars is very different from Earth. Mostly composed of carbon dioxide, it contains significant amounts of nitrogen and oxygen, the two main components of the atmosphere on Earth. Indeed, experiments have been designed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars 2020 rover to test the viability of creating oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.
The lack of atmosphere and the distance from the Sun means that Mars is a cold world, with temperature averaging –55 degrees Celsius. Even though it seems to be extremely cold by Earth’s standards, it does not present much of a challenge to rovers and astronauts with protective equipment. The surface of Mars looks like a desert. A layer of iron oxide dust coats most of the surface, giving it its characteristic red hue. Volcanic rocks such as basalt and other common rocks on Earth are also present on Mars. Valleys, streambeds, and other geological formations on the surface give us a hint of what Mars might have looked like in the past. Mars was not always a wasteland. It lost its atmosphere and surface ocean 4.2 billion years ago, when its internal core cooled down, which weakened its planetary magnetic field and left its surface more vulnerable to solar wind. It is hypothesized that Mars may have hosted indigenous life forms in the past. Traces of Mars’ water-rich past remain in the ice-capped poles, and are composed mostly of frozen carbon dioxide and water ice.

Timeline of Exploration Efforts
The Soviet probe Mars-1, which was the first artificial object sent to Mars orbit, loses contact with Earth halfway to Mars.

The mission to Mars of the United States (US) Mariner 4 succeeds for the first time. While orbiting Mars, it sends pictures back to Earth.

The US’ Viking 1 is the first human object to land on Mars. It sends back the pictures of Mars’ surface for the first time and conducts inconclusive experiments on the presence of microorganisms on Martian soil.

Two American rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, weighing 185kg each, land on Mars and conduct experiments on geologic and atmospheric conditions. It finds traces of water on Mars and can move on its own at a speed of 30 meters per hour.

The Curiosity rover lands on Mars, which is larger, faster, and more capable than its predecessors at 899kg. It finds its landing site to have been a lakebed and discovers the presence of organic particles, the building blocks of life.

A Photograph of Sunset on Mars Captured by Curiosity (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ)
The Curiosity rover takes a “selfie.”(Left) (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) / Spirit operated on Mars’ surface from 2004 to 2010(Right) (NASA/JPL/Cornell University)

Getting Closer to Mars
Starting in the early 2010s, there have been important developments in technology that have made the colonization of Mars a realistic prospect. Organizations such as NASA, SpaceX, and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are currently developing technology and planning for a manned mission to Mars. Critical to the success of a Mars exploration mission or colony is a self-sufficient supply of water, food, atmosphere, and living space, and recent advances and discoveries have made it easier to come up with plans for the provision of such supplies.

The Secrets of Mars

One of the Curiosity rover’s key discoveries was the fact that methane levels in the atmosphere change with the seasons as on Earth, where this process is attributed to biological processes. While the fact does not prove that Mars still harbors life, it is still substantial evidence.
It turns out that Mars may not be dry all the time. Satellite observations have revealed that dark streaks periodically appear on its surface, which is indicative of underground water flow. This observation suggested that Mars may be hiding a large amount of water beneath its surface, and this was recently confirmed. On July 25th, 2018, the Italian Space Agency announced that it had discovered a subterranean lake 1.2km below the surface of Mars. It is the first time that a large body of water has been found anywhere outside of Earth. The lake, the agency said, is below freezing but briny, which allows the lake to stay liquid. Therefore, there is a possibility that more lakes would be found. As colonists would not need to rely on Earth for water, which is critically important for drinking, farming, sanitation, and industry, this discovery lessens the supply burden for a future Mars colony. There have also been suggestions that subterranean lakes could harbor Martian life forms much like how extremophiles on Earth can survive in extremely cold and salty conditions.

A New Wave of Space Technology
Chemical rockets have been around since the 1930s, but it is only recently that the development of Super HeavyLift Launch Vehicles (SHLLV) has resumed for the first time since the 1980s. The new wave of SHLLVs is expected to cut costs by an order of magnitude due to innovations on reusability of rockets. In the past, rockets had to be discarded after launch as they would burn up and break into pieces during atmospheric re-entry following payload delivery into space. SpaceX’s Falcon line of rockets, however, can land back on Earth using remaining fuel after payload delivery, which makes the rockets reusable. SpaceX plans to apply this technology to their Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) in 2019, and this will cut SHLLV launch costs from $1.2 billion to approximately $100 million. As a large rocket that can deliver 150 tons of cargo to Mars, the BFR is a key part of SpaceX’s plans for Mars. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have also been important. The surface condition of Mars is adverse, and a manned colonization mission is considered risky. With advances in three-dimensional (3D) printing and autonomous drones, however, it is now possible to envision drones and rovers setting up a livable condition in advance to lessen the risk to human life.

Two Falcon Rockets Landing Simultaneously (flickr.com)

The Race for the First Mars Colony
Many organizations are planning exploration and even colonization missions in the near future. For example, NASA’s current plan is to launch a large exploration rover in 2020, verify key manned mission technologies by 2024, and put astronauts on Mars for the first time by 2033. Moreover, SpaceX has an aggressive plan to be the first private business to land a rover on Mars by 2022 and to land people on Mars by 2024. Its long-term plan is to use the water and methane on Mars to locally produce fuel, thus setting up a cheap mass transportation system between Earth and Mars and enabling a permanent, self-sufficient colony. Meanwhile, the CNSA has a far more cautious plan, with the first unmanned Chinese rovers set to land in the 2030s and manned missions to commence in the 2060s.

An Uncharted Frontier
A Cynical View of the Red Planet
Despite optimism and breakthroughs, there are significant difficulties that must still be overcome and many people who doubt the viability of colonizing Mars. One of the reasons why some people are pessimistic about it is because space exploration is not cheap. The Apollo Program, which was NASA’s effort to land people on the Moon, cost $25.3 billion over a decade. It is estimated that if similar efforts were to be made today, it would cost $150 billion. Mars, which is further away than the Moon, would arguably cost far more money. This financial barrier exists not only in terms of absolute funding but also political will. The Apollo Program was the result of the intense Cold War propaganda competition between the US and the Soviet Union. Today, funding of space programs is less of a priority in both the US and Russia, and there is no national rivalry of similar magnitude that could spur governments to spend such large amounts of money. Private businesses are not as able to raise as much money as governments, especially since exploration missions are extremely unprofitable in the short term. While billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk continue to fund their own space companies, their ability to keep investing in such a large and unprofitable project has been cast into doubt. Significant technological challenges remain as well. Much of the required technology for colonization remains in development. Even though SpaceX plans to send a manned mission to Mars within five years, concerns over funding and technological development have left academia and industry divided and skeptical. In fact, Mars has a harsh environment. As Mars lacks an ozone layer, ultraviolet rays are dangerously strong during the daytime. The extreme cold weather and the lack of atmosphere also necessitate high-reliability protective systems that are difficult to develop and deploy. Moreover, it is likely that people will die in accidents during colonization efforts. It takes 200 days to a year to get to Mars, compared to the three days it took for astronauts to reach the Moon. Spaceships are cramped and limited environments, and therefore, it would be difficult to keep initial colonists and explorers mentally and physically healthy.

Solutions in Development
Financial difficulties, however, could be overcome in the case of large reusable rockets proving reliable. Up to 70% of the costs of the Apollo Program came from the rocket manufacturing costs, but reusable rockets would be a fundamental solution to this problem. Concerns over risk can also be surmounted. The radiation level on Mars is above standards but not extremely high. Astronauts have already proven that they can survive for extended periods of up to two years in high-radiation environments such as the International Space Station (ISS) given adequate protection. In short, while further development of new technology and experience is necessary to launch a manned expedition to Mars, the prospect is no longer considered impossible.

The Rationale for Colonization
The rationale for colonization is clear. Our civilization faces long-term existential threats. Super-volcano explosions and meteorite collisions have regularly wiped out entire species from Earth in the past. Considering that civilization has only been around for 0.00014% of the history of life on Earth, it would be dangerous for humanity to ignore the threat of total collapse of human achievements. Colonization of Mars would be one way to ensure the continuity of human civilization considering the statistical inevitability of crisis. It would also provide new scientific data and breakthroughs. Mars is one of the most likely places to harbor life in the solar system. If life were to be found on Mars following current leads on subterranean lakes, organic particles, and methane fluctuation, humanity would be able to answer a very fundamental question of whether mankind is alone in the universe. Mars would also serve as a base for further exploration of space. As Mars has weaker gravity compared to Earth, less fuel would be required to launch rockets from its surface.

A Conceptual Drawing of a Future Mars Colony (Bryan Versteeg/Mars One)

Space has been inspiring and giving hope to humanity since time began. While challenges remain for the colonization of Mars, it is perhaps the collective destiny of humankind to reach out beyond Earth and make space a new home. The past and current efforts to explore and colonize Mars is an inspiration in itself to all of humankind, and the SKT hopes that Kingos will look to the sky when in doubt of the grandeur of the wider universe.

지영현  younghyun1@skku.edu

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