What would life be like on Mars?

Would you go to Mars? And if you did, what would it be like to live there?
28 November 2016

Interview with 

Stephen Petranek, science writer & Marek Kukula, Royal Observatory, Greenwich


The Mars show home


Would you live on Mars? Graihagh Jackson donned her space suit to see the first Mars show home ever Mars show home. She asked Stephen Petranek, author of 'How we'll live on Mars', whether anyone will be taking the trip anytime soon...

Stephen - I honestly think that there's a better than 90 percent chance that there'll be people on Mars by 2030. But the real kicker is how many people will be on Mars by 2050? Because by 2050, if Elon Musk is correct, he'll have 1,000 rockets leaving at one time, each with 80 people in them. That's 80,000 people going to Mars in one trip, so it's highly conceivable that by 2050 there's 100,000 people on Mars.

Graihagh - I mean, we've had problem after problem. I'm thinking with the Falcon rockets, the last one exploded back in September, right? And then we've just had the ESA Mars rover crash land on to Mars, not to mention Beagle...

Stephen - Don't get me started on ESA and Beagle.

Graihagh - ; If we can't get rovers to Mars, how are we going to get people?

Stephen - This is a matter of money, and it's a matter of playing the odds in the space game. Rockets are binary - they work or they don't work. About 20 percent of the time they don't work. We had two shuttles that went down with eight people in each one of them. This is a dangerous business. It's not like getting in an aeroplane but that is not going to stop anyone from going.

Graihagh - Well, why wouldn't it though? Why would we even want to go?

Stephen - Well we really need a backup for civilisation on Earth. I mean we are long overdue for being hit by a major asteroid and that's just one of many, many, many extinction events for humans on Earth. We've spent 95 percent of our existence as humans moving beyond the horizon into the next wilderness because it's a matter of survival.

Graihagh - But Mars is not somewhere particularly good for survival as Dr Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich explains...

Marek - Well you wouldn't want to go there in your swimsuit. The temperatures can can go as low as -70 degrees centigrade. Perhaps on a warm summer's day at the equator they might just nudge zero, maybe a little bit higher than that. The air pressure is one percent that on Earth and the air is mostly carbon dioxide so completely unbreathable for humans. And as if that wasn't enough, there's also a very high radiation environment on Mars.

Graihagh - What happens if there's not enough pressure?

Marek - Well we don't really think about air pressure do we and we walk around with 100 kilometres of air weighing down on us. And, to some extent, we've evolved to cope with those conditions and that pressure actually helps us to keep our insides inside.

Graihagh - I'm imagining some sort of gelatinous mess on the floor that's very... sunburnt?

Marek - Yes. I think the race if you were exposed on the Martian surface would be whether your body fluids would evaporate first or whether they would freeze first because, of course, it's very cold. So you'd probably end up being freeze dried.

Graihagh - Not a pretty sight then! There are lots of problems we need to solve when it comes to moving to the red planet. And one of the biggest ones for me is will we actually be able to get people back home to planet Earth?

Fundamentally though, when we're there, we need four things: food, water, shelter and oxygen. As it happens, National Geographic have built the first ever Mars show home to celebrate their new mini-series called "Mars." It looks like a red igloo. It's about 4 metres across - photos are up on our Facebook page by the way if you want to have a look. Just search for Naked Scientists.

Anyway, Marik advised on the build itself and he gave me a tour around it...

Marek - So we're standing outside the Mars home and it looks like an igloo made of red martian bricks basically. But we're going to go inside now... so welcome to the Mars home.

Graihagh - Thank goodness. It's absolutely freezing on Mars. There's no airlock?

Marek - Well there is now. This is the airlock.

Graihagh - But there's no cruckuchoo..

Marek - Do you want to do the sound effects?

Graihagh - I mean that was pretty good, right?

Marek - That's pretty cool, okay. It's quite a compact environment but also designed to feel as spacious as possible. We've got a little kitchen area down here with a microwave...

Graihagh - I see a pie!

Marek - There is a pie that would probably be freeze dried for the journey. There's also a coffee maker and I think it would be quite hipster to maybe grow your coffee in martian soil. So it would be absolutely hipster authentic coffee. But you're going to have to take everything you need with you.

But to keep costs and transport down, probably what they're going to have is a lot of 3D printing. So, over here in the corner we have a 3D printer just by the desk and that will be able to print out all sorts of different tools. So very, very useful technology that, I think, will make things a lot easier.

But, also, they're going to be working hard out on the surface and if you come over here you can see we have a selection of....

Graihagh - Oh rocks!

Marek - ... geologists tools and rocks so geology is going to be a big thing. We're going to want to understand the geological history of Mars, and also to look for things like fossils of past life and even evidence of current life.

Graihagh - Okay. And the final thing I want to talk about is the spacesuit. Because we think about space suits as these clumpy great big michelin man style things and what you've got over there is nothing like that.

Marek - The ones on Mars are going to use mechanical support to keep you held in against the lack of external pressure. So they're going to be a lot more like wetsuits perhaps with external support structures. And then, of course, you'll have a helmet which will need to be pressurised and I think there are still issues to be worked through on how you marry the pressurised helmet bit with the more skintight wetsuit part of the suit.

And also, of course, we've got a little bit of greenery in here. So this is great because it's a way of growing food. It also provides a little bit of oxygen and also I think it just give you a sense of being back home.

Graihagh - Home!

Marek - Absolutely. The psychology of the astronauts will be hugely important. So it's not just about their physical health, it is about their mental health. They're going to be working in very close quarters for several years.

Graihagh - Now it's all very sleek and slimline and it's very compactly designed. But do you think this is realistic? An interpretation of what living on Mars might be like?

Marek - Who knows over the next couple of decades how people will decide to design the interior of these places but I think this is a pretty good guess. It's a bit like sort of Martian Ikea if you like. It's all very sleek, kind of Scandi, quite stylish.

Graihagh - Orange and white...

Marek - Orange and white. Quite bright kind of cheery colours. I would certainly be quite happy to have this as my office and I think, actually, it's nicer than a lot of London flats. So I think they're going to be pretty happy here, you've got all mod cons. And you're also going to be part of one of the greatest adventures that humanity has ever undertaken.

Graihagh - Your name will go down in history books.

Marek - Absolutely!

Graihagh - That said, would you go?

Marek - I would be really happy to go and visit Mars. I would even go for a couple of years but only if I could come back. The Earth is, I think, the most beautiful and amazing planet that we've discovered so far in the whole universe. Certainly it's the most beautiful planet in the solar system. I have not finished exploring it.


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