Elon Musk’s Mars ambition could be the riskiest human quest ever
More than half a century after Neil Armstrong made mankind’s giant leap to the moon, another space race is heating up. This time, the promising new frontier for Earthlings is Mars, the neighboring planet.
A series of robotic missions to the Red Planet, including NASA’s Perseverance rover this year and China’s Zhurong this month, have led to the inevitable question: when can humans keep up? Unmanned missions over the decades have transmitted a wealth of information, including the presence of water ice on Mars, fueling expectations that a human landing is possible. But in how long? And, are we ready?
NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars, perhaps at some point in the 2030s. The United Arab Emirates – which now has a spacecraft orbiting the planet – is promoting a 100-year plan to create a colony there. While China has said sending humans to Mars is its long-term goal, those keen to have a taste of Martian life can visit a simulation site in the Gobi Desert for now.
The most ambitious of all is billionaire Elon Musk. The founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. wants to send humans this decade, claiming in an interview last year that he was convinced that a crewed mission could take place in 2026. Many scientists, however, warn of too many unanswered questions about travel to the world. deep space. . Musk also acknowledged the risks, saying “it’s hard to sled there.”
Becoming multiplanetary is one of the biggest filters. It is only now, 4.5 billion years after the formation of the Earth, that this is possible.
How long this window to reach Mars remains open is uncertain. Maybe a long time, maybe not.
In case this is the last, we must act now.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 22, 2021
“Honestly, a bunch of people will probably die early on,” the tycoon said in an interview with X Founder of the Peter Diamandis Prize Foundation.
Here are some of the biggest challenges, from surviving cosmic radiation and dust storms to producing oxygen and water:
Apollo astronauts could fly to the moon in just a few days, but a trip to Mars would take between six and nine months. With the distance between Mars and Earth varying between 35 million miles and 249 million miles due to their elliptical orbits, there is only a small window available when the two are ideally aligned for space travel. This makes the logistics much more difficult.
With lunar exploration, “there is always the prospect of a rescue, resupply or resupply from Earth or from an intermediate space station,” said Alice Gorman, associate professor at Flinders University. Adelaide and member of the Advisory Board of the Space Industry Association of Australia. “This will not be the case for Mars.”
A long flight would expose humans to one of the greatest terrors of space travel: solar flares. The most powerful type of explosion in the solar system, a torch is equivalent to 100 million hydrogen bombs. Earth’s magnetic field can protect astronauts in orbit, but a deep space traveler hit by such radiation could not survive for more than a few days.
“It’s a very horrible way to die,” said Lewis Dartnell, professor and specialist in astrobiology in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Westminster in London. He does research related to life on Mars.
The Apollo program did not address this problem, choosing instead to take the risk that the few days of a lunar mission did not coincide with a solar event. It would be another story for multi-one month trips to Mars.
The water tanks on board the spacecraft could act as shields if properly positioned, Dartnell said, so that in the event of a flare, travelers could retreat into the spaceship’s version of a room. panic surrounded by water tanks. The problem is to detect activity on the Sun, especially on the side not facing the Earth. “How do we make our space weather forecasts good enough that we can warn the crew?” he said. “We don’t have the established ability to observe the Sun from different angles to track solar storms.”
Radiation isn’t just a problem along the way. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth and lacks a global magnetic shield, so humans on the planet’s surface would be at risk of exposure to solar and cosmic radiation. Plus, the surface itself is largely made up of dust, and massive storms can create dust clouds that block the sun, said Nilton Renno, a professor at the University of Michigan whose research interests include astrobiology.
During such a storm, “it’s almost midnight on the surface of Mars for two months,” Renno said. “If you’re there with solar panels for power, you probably won’t survive. You don’t have enough energy to keep things hot enough. ”
One solution would be for humans to use this dust for protection, lining shelters with sandbags filled with Martian soil that could block radiation, said Joseph Michalski, an associate professor who explores the habitability of Mars at the University of Hong Kong. Humans could also return to their cave roots by finding temporary shelter in some of the planet’s many lava tubes, large caverns dating back to ancient times when Mars had volcanic activity.
Food, water and oxygen
In “The Martian” – the Hollywood blockbuster of 2015 – Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut grew potatoes by fertilizing the earth’s soil with his own droppings. Elisabeth Hausrath, associate professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, has more modest agricultural ambitions. For the past year and a half, NASA has supported its research into the growth of snow algae, a type common in the Nevada desert and other high altitude, low nutrient environments on Earth, under conditions mimicking those Of March.
“They are growing up well,” she said. The idea is that algae could grow in greenhouses made of a flexible material similar to that of a spacesuit. Growing algae under such conditions could not only create a food source, but also produce oxygen. Research is still in its early stages.
Scientists also have yet to determine how humans could get enough water to survive on Mars. The planet has underground ice that could be sources of water and a future mission to Mars will need to use radar to map its distribution, said Victoria Hamilton, a planetary geologist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Once you know where the ice is, these are places you could send humans,” she says.
Unless everyone signs up for a one-way ticket, humans heading to Mars will have to bring a rocket back to Earth. The biggest technological hurdle that Mars explorers face is the biggest technological hurdle that Mars explorers face, Michalski said.
“It was not the case that we would bring the rocket fuel with us,” he said. “It’s just too heavy.”
One solution could be to use the planet’s resources to make fuel by first electrically separating water from underground ice and hydrated rocks, then combining hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. , said Michalski.
Sooner or later, optimists believe, scientists will solve these problems.
“Today is definitely a place we can’t live,” said Adnan AlRais, Mars 2117 program manager for the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in the United Arab Emirates. “But as we develop science and technology, the answer might be different in 50 to 100 years.”
© 2021 Bloomberg