Space-x CEO- Elon Musk’s optimistic plans about Mars colonization have been all over the internet lately. Musk claims that the first un-crewed Mars mission will be initiated by 2024: that’s literally 3 years (more or less) from now. At the Axel Springer Award 2020, Elon Musk said that he is highly confident that the first crewed flights to Mars will happen in 2026. Although these claims might seem highly convincing, there a ton of problems that we will have to overcome in order to survive on Mars- provided that we are even able to successfully reach the red planet.
Musk, however, is a man of his words; apart from his theoretical plans, Musk has shown that space travel is possible, and that too, at affordable prices. In 2006, Space-X became one of the first private space exploration companies to be funded by NASA. Today, Space-X transports Cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS)- on behalf of NASA. So, basically, NASA pays money to Space-X and , in return, Space-X uses its rockets to transport payloads according to NASA’s requirements to the ISS. The main point to note here is that there are a bunch of other private companies like Space-X in competition, which offer to provide the same service, but Space-X snatches the deal every single time. The reason being that Space-X does the same work in the best price. Recently, a bunch of private space exploration companies were asked to provide design and plan for NASA’s moon exploration mission called ‘Lunar Lander’. This was no exception. Space-X provided incredible designs and much more cost efficient ones.
This brings us back to the point- Musk has successfully reduced the cost of launching a rocket and carrying payloads, which is essentially the requirement to make space travel possible for the general public. NASA’s trust in Space-X is so strong that they are willing to use the public’s tax money to fund Space-X. A rather controversial topic, but it still manages to further establishes the point that Musk’s plans to colonize Mars are much more than just paperwork.
Starship : Humanity’s Ride To Mars
Starship is by far, the biggest and most advanced rocket built by Space-X or any other organization for that matter. Experts suggest that in the next few years, Starship would be able to carry payloads of up to 150 Metric Tonnes to the Earth’s orbit. As technology advances, the Starship would eventually become our ‘ride’ to Mars. As of now, the starship is able to carry humans to the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), and planetary destinations, not to mention the ability to carry about 50 metric tonnes of cargo in the second stage of separation.
Recently, Space-X launched the Starship SN15, the latest version of the Starship into the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO); the mission was successful and the Starship beautifully made its way back onto the launch site, all of which was autonomously controlled by the software uploaded into the SN15- a fundamental feature in all Space-X rockets.
Challenges To Overcome In The First Few Years
The first challenge that comes to mind is the unavailability of water and oxygen. Unlike Earth, Mars has a very thin atmosphere; with about 96 percent carbon dioxide concentration, atmospheric Oxygen sits at an extremely low 0.3 percent. This makes up for a major challenge: there is no oxygen to breathe. A human being standing on Mars without a space suit would die within seconds due to lack of oxygen.
There have been some theories floating around on how these problems can be resolved. Elon Musk wants to nuke Mars in order to vaporise the ice caps, and in turn releasing water vapours and Co2 into the atmosphere of Mars. This would, in turn, help in bringing the temperature of Mars somewhere close to that of Earth, and also increase the oxygen concentration in atmosphere of Mars. While Elon still supports this idea, many other scientists have rejected its viability due to the high possibility of a resulting nuclear winter. After the explosion, the dust and debris released would form a layer in the atmosphere, not allowing any Co2 to escape at all. We, therefore, may end up making the planet even more hot than it was before. Even if this does not happen, it would not be practical to use valuable nuclear arms just to shoot an arrow in the space, quite literally. What I mean by that, is that the chances of success of this plan would be really negligible, and hence this would not be practical.
NASA’s plan to overcome this problem is much more viable: Using digging machines to autonomously search for water and any other useful elements up to the upper layer of the core of the planet.
BUT what about food ?
Food carried to Mars from Earth would only be a temporary solution- I mean we are trying to start a colony here. On a serious note, anyways, scientists claim that this problem can be overcome using a method familiar to science fiction movies.
In case you have watched the classic space movie “Martian”, you must know exactly what I am talking about. A human being, stranded on Mars, tries to survive waiting for rescue teams to arrive; as he was about to run out of food, he managed to grow plants in a sheltered environment on the surface of Mars, which later became his key to survival.
Science fiction movies usually present a pretty good estimation of how things are in reality; although not fully practical, they do provide us a reference point of how things would be in space, and in areas unknown to mankind. The same is applicable for the human survival on Mars. For starters, the infrastructure would mainly comprise of artificially controlled rooms built multiple stories underground. The architectural design on Mars would be unique to the one we are familiar with on Earth. The gravitational force is also lesser on Mars, as it is a smaller planet, which changes the way we look at mechanics, and in turn basic architectural designs would have to be reconsidered. Material chemistry would also play an extremely important role as we will have to use a material that can withstand the thinner atmosphere of Mars, simultaneously providing defence against sandstorms.
The Ozone Layer
The next big challenge for survival on mars would be the absence of an ozone layer. Earth’s inner atmosphere is protected by a layer called the Ozone layer; When UV rays strike the atmosphere of Earth, the atmospheric oxygen decays to form individual ozone molecules. Atmospheric oxygen is an extremely strong compound in nature, and does not easily get decayed; however, when UV rays of the sun strike it, they undergo a rare chemical reaction, giving rise to unstable ozone molecules. These ozone molecules combine once again to form oxygen. This is a never ending cycle, which forms what we call the ozone layer; this is also the reason behind radioactive cooling of Earth’s atmosphere.
This layer is absent on Mars, which means that there is no protection from the harmful rays of the sun: not only that, but this also means that Mars’ atmosphere does not have the property of radioactive cooling. What this means, essentially, is that the weather is highly unpredictable; no constant temperature will be maintained on Mars: sandstorms are no exception to this pattern.