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2018 – A Good Year for Mars

BFR concept launch from Mars. © Space-X.

Whether you’re a science nerd like me, or you are someone else getting on with life, you’ll probably know Mars has been in the news a lot in 2018. The momentum has been gathering for some time, but an announcement in late 2017, by Elon Musk, caused a stir that threw a spotlight on our celestial neighbour. It ushered in a new era of interest in visiting Mars in the not-too-distant future. Musk announced that Space X would put humans on Mars by 2024. Those timelines are ambitious, under the best of circumstances, but the announcement caused a new kind of space race that has come to prominence in space news lately.

NASA concept art for 3-D printed habitat modules. © NASA.

NASA has indicated their plans for Mars, and the broad strokes are that they plan to go there in the 2030’s. While this timeline isn’t as ambitious as Musk’s, it is still a steep expectation from an organization that relies on government funding for its missions. Nevertheless, the pressure is on, and the stakes are high. Whoever gets there first, will have the honor of calling themselves the first people on Mars. The highly ambitious, and at times, improbable ideas for settling humans on Mars include habitats made from 3-D printed materials, to terraforming the landscape. There has also been research into creating an artificial magnetosphere to help protect a future settlement from cosmic particle bombardment and radiation. The science of settling the human race on Mars has started to look decidedly like science fiction in 2018.

As peculiar as it seems to everyday people to be talking in such hypothetical abstractions, it is what makes up the bulk of research into the challenges that humans will face when seeking to make a home on the Red Planet. The settlers are envisioned as elite crews of highly trained specialists, capable of multiple tasks because there will be so few of them. They will need to endure the vagaries of an extremely hostile environment and the long periods of isolation in a closely confined habitat. If anything goes wrong, it will, almost certainly, mean fatalities. The prospect of being one of the ‘lucky’ few to make the journey to Mars is a daunting one, without doubt. Only thing is, the crew will need to survive for months in transit, exposed to radiation, cosmic rays, solar flares and other dangers posed by the void of deep space.

Their craft will be a special beast, indeed, for it will serve as their research vessel, their home and their life raft for many months. The good news is, there are many scientists and engineers working all of the problems posed by a mission to Mars. Solutions will be found to make the trip a little less risky. The bad news is – even if you survive the trip to Mars, with your physical, mental and emotional state intact; survive in the new habitat on Mars and continue to be a fully-functioning member of your elite team of pioneers – you will die on Mars. It’s a one-way ticket. I can’t see people lining up around the block for the trip of a lifetime with a 100% probability of dying while you’re away. I see plenty of dreamers and eager young people now, who are lured by the romantic notion of being a Mars pioneer, but when the stakes are that high, how many of them will be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for human exploration? The ships will be ready when they are ready, but the crew pickings will be slim, in my humble opinion. Sure, they’ll have been trained to within an inch of their breaking point, but they will not be the cream of humanity. They will be a set of daredevils and sociopaths, willing to perform the ultimate stunt, for the ultimate glory. I can’t see ordinary folk being the first ones on Mars; there are simply too many things that can go wrong for there to be someone from the crowd who steps forward, unflinching, to volunteer.

NASA Curiosity Rover self portrait. © NASA.

Putting the human factor aside for a minute, the robots of Mars have made great strides in the past year. Curiosity Rover is drilling again after a glitch was repaired, the InSight stationary probe has landed, and is in the process of preparing for some in-depth scientific exploration and the Mars 2020 rover is well on its way to being launched, year after next, to head to Mars to continue the science its predecessors began in the seventies. On a more somber note, Opportunity Rover appears to have been lost to a massive, Mars-wide dust storm in June. The small rover went silent in that month, and has yet to send back any signals to her team to indicate she survived the months-long blackout from the storm. Rover engineers are still hopeful, as the Autumn winds pick up on Mars, that the solar panels on Opportunity will be cleaned enough for the rover to charge and begin to operate again. It remains to be seen if this fourteen-year-old machine will come back to life. Lastly, the orbiting HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is sending back the most stunning visuals of the surface of Mars, and providing ample clues about Mars topography and mineralogy.

NASA Opportunity Rover self portrait of solar array © NASA.

With all of this going on, Mars has been a hit in popular culture, and has served as inspiration for many a writer (myself included!), musician and film maker. The current Mars series by National Geographic, as well as the best-selling book, The Martian by Andy Weir, are only two examples of a renewed fascination with Mars. It may be a million miles away, but it has never felt so close. Perhaps, as we say goodbye to 2018 – a good year for Mars – we can look forward to 2019 with equal enthusiasm as we await the next big news from the InSight mission, the next big pop-culture hit (starring Mars), and the dawning of the Age of Mars.

NASA HiRISE image of hanging sand dunes within Coprates Chasma © NASA.