Mark your calendars! February 19 will be a day to remember, as NASA’s most advanced rover ever built, Perseverance, heads for the surface of Mars.

In just a few short weeks, people all over the world will be tuning in to watch this exciting yet nerve-wracking event, and here at Stardome we can’t wait to see what Perseverance discovers.

Perseverance follows in the steps (or tracks!) of the Mars rovers that came before it: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. These missions all greatly contributed to our understanding of Mars, with each rover building on the success of its predecessor. Now, the Perseverance mission will pave the way for the next milestone in our exploration of the red planet: human missions to Mars.

Ever since the success of sending humans to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s, Mars has been the logical next frontier for human spaceflight. Some thought that we would be walking on the red planet in the 1980s and 90s, predicting multiple bases or even colonies on our planetary neighbour. However, early missions like the Viking probes showed us just how inhospitable to human life Mars really is. The planet is devoid of life as we know it; in striking contrast to our planet, the Martian air is unbreathable, the radiation is high and temperatures are frigid cold. However, this hasn’t deterred scientists.

Mars became a primary goal of exploration in the 2000s when it was hypothesised that water once flowed on the planet’s surface. This was later proven true, and we now know that Mars was once very Earth-like. It had flowing water and oceans, a substantial atmosphere and magnetic field, and conditions were much milder than they are today.

This renewed interest in the red planet – and although the United States remains the only nation to successfully land a rover to the surface of Mars, many more nations have now sent their own missions to Mars from Europe, India, China and the United Arab Emirates. Mars is now the most explored planet in the Solar System, and we know more about the planet today than we do about the bottom of Earth’s deepest oceans. In the not too distant future, it is now increasingly likely that humans will after all follow their robotic pioneers and step foot on the red planet.

 This illustration shows how NASA will land Perseverance on Mars, also known as the ‘7 minutes of terror’. (NASA)

Why is Perseverance different?

Perseverance was built by NASA with future missions in mind. It carries tools that no previous mission has taken to Mars. The first is an experiment called Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, or MOXIE for short. MOXIE is a technology demonstration that will produce a small amount of oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time. Eventually, this technology could be scaled up for human missions to produce breathable air for astronauts.

Another crucial tool of this mission is an incredibly complex sampling and caching system that is designed to drill, collect and store core samples for collection by a follow-up mission. A joint effort between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA plans to send another mission in 2026 that will collect these samples helpfully prepared by Perseverance. These samples will be returned to Earth for scientists to study – vital clues in how Mars formed, and why it lost much of its water.


 Perseverance will collect Martian soil samples for future Earth-return. (NASA)

What happens next?

Beyond the 2026 mission to retrieve core samples, neither NASA or any major space agency has any immediate plans for sending another rover to Mars. It’s likely that the following mission to the red planet will be have humans aboard – the first of its kind.

While it’s an exciting prospect, there is still much to be learnt about Mars before humans arrive there. NASA’s Artemis program is their current effort to send humans back to the Moon in 2024. The aim is to send humans to the Moon for increased periods of time, testing sustainable methods for a long-term stay. The Apollo missions were short in comparison, lasting just a week. But Artemis plans to send humans to our Moon and to a Lunar space station for months at a time to ensure that technologies for human exploration of Mars are suitable.

In short, we must send humans back to the Moon for longer and test deep space survival technologies before we can send humans to Mars. A trip to the Moon takes just a few days and help is (relatively) nearby if something goes wrong. Mars on the other hand takes 6-9 months to reach, and that’s just one way. A return trip to Mars would take years and the prospect of help if something were to go wrong is next to zero. The first explorers to Mars will be on their own. We must learn how to grow our own food, produce oxygen and water, and deal with problems that we encounter without help from Earth. Radio signals from Mars take 20 minutes to arrive, so mission control won’t be immediately on hand to help solve problems.

Studies of the long-term effects of space travel have already been conducted by astronauts on the ISS, some who stayed on the station for over a year. Other missions have isolated people in remote deserts here on Earth to study the effects of isolation on human behaviour.

Is a Mars colony realistic?

NASA may not be the first to send humans to Mars. The privatization of the space industry in the last decade has led to the rapid development of new technologies by companies like SpaceX.

SpaceX has been rapidly developing a new ‘megarocket’ called Starship which is designed to take humans back to our Moon and on to Mars. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has claimed that the ultimate aim of the company is to make humans a ‘multi-planetary species’. The highly ambitious goal is to have working colonies on Mars by 2050 with thousands of people living and working there permanently. The inaugural launch of an interplanetary Starship is planned for as early as 2022 as a cargo mission, with a human mission just 2 years after that. The dates are somewhat optimistic and are likely to slip; but the company has revolutionized the space industry in just a decade and the Starship rocket was even chosen by NASA for their Artemis programme to the moon – so their drive to be the first to send humans to Mars may not be totally far-fetched.

 

SpaceX has a goal of colonizing Mars to make humans a multi-planetary species. (SpaceX)

Sending humans to Mars will not be easy and the dangers we will face will be will unforgiving. But, just like the names we give to our robotic explorers, we persevere with the ultimate goal of knowledge and understanding of our place within the universe.