Could humanity colonise Mars?

19 May 2015

Question

Given our current technological level, is it possible for us to colonise Mars? If so, how? If not, what are the major barriers?

Answer

We put this question to Richard Hollingham, and he had this to say: Richard - Yes, is the short answer.

Kat - Yay! Let's all go.

Chris - One of the barriers must be about 237 million kilometres.

Richard - Yeah, 225 million kilometres away average.

Chris - Yes, it's even closer sometimes.

Richard - Yeah, it is closer sometimes. So, there are lots of things you have to do and the technology is there to do the things to get there at least. We would probably want to assemble a spacecraft in orbit. There's no spacecraft currently capable of getting there. They need to fly to Mars. That's going to take at least 6 months, if you time everything right. You will need a spacecraft you can move around in and you can exercise in because it would be quite funny in a way if they land on Mars, they get out and they all fall over because they can't walk anymore, because their bones are not strong enough. So, you get there and you land. That's all doable. That's been done with the robots.

Kat - That's just an engineering problem.

Richard - That's an engineering problem. We can do that. It's been a bit hit and miss, but the last few missions have all been successful - we have got to Mars. Survival is an interesting one. Now, you could survive in the same way that astronauts survive on the International Space Station. Kat - So just like in a pod and just kind of staying in there?

Richard - Yeah, you could be in a fairly large-ish area. You could maybe have an inflatable base or something like that, and rely on constant supplies from Earth. So, every few months, send another rocket off, it lands, they've got supplies for another few months. They could try growing things, so hydroponics or maybe even use Martian soil to grow things. In theory, that works. It's a bit hit and miss. Things have been grown but in the Earth's atmosphere very successfully in Antarctica. You can create an artificial soil. They know that works. Space station experiments have been a bit hit and miss. The Mars Society have a base in Utah and they've been doing a lot of this stuff. You ask them about whether the food was edible, they said they "grew a lot of interesting things but none of them were edible". So, that's an issue. So, you can get there, you can probably survive I would say, and actually, in a few more years, we'll probably be there. The big issue is coming back, because NASA have not yet managed to even get a canister-sized, a coffee cup-sized, capsule of Martian material back to Earth successfully.

Kat - I'm getting the feeling this would be a one-way trip.

Richard - Well, that's what Mars One are proposing, the Dutch organisation. Their funding is a little up in the air at the moment, but they're serious people and that's what they propose - a one way trip to Mars. So, you go to Mars, live out the rest of your life and you die.

Chris - The radiation's a big issue though, isn't it? Because we saw on the Curiosity Mission they actually used the radiation sensor on the Curiosity rover during its 9-month trip to Mars. It logged a radiation dose of about 2/3 of what NASA considered to be safe lifetime working dose of radiation just on that one journey. And then there was another paper out just recently, Charles Limoli from the States published his paper, where they exposed mice to the sorts of high energy cosmic particles that you would encounter in space once you escape from the Earth's protective envelope of our magnetic field. These mice all got changes in their brains. It looked like someone had come along and sort of pruned the hedge because all of the nerve cells had fewer connections.

Kat - As a geneticist, I find this interesting because if the idea is, you'd send people to Mars and they would get busy and make new people on Mars. If they've actually been exposed to a lot of radiation, that could make some fundamental changes in the DNA of their eggs and sperm, and then maybe sort of super evolution. Very interesting things to think about!

Richard - Well, I mean there are other issues there. In terms of population size, you need thousands of people to prevent genetic defects, prevent cousins breeding with cousins...

Chris - Yeah, because otherwise you're recreating the Egyptian dynasty, aren't you, sort of when brothers and sisters married each other.

Richard - Exactly, you've got problems to start with. Once you're on Mars, a lot of the concept bases are actually underground. So, they eliminate the problems of radiation on Mars. I think the problem of getting to Mars, that's probably surmountable. They're looking at new shielding techniques, probably using water, something like that within the spacecraft. So, that's probably okay. I mean, my fundamental problem with this, why would you want to go to Mars?! Mars is bleak, cold, barren. You can't even.

Kat - I mean, you could just go to Newmarket.

Richard - It's a horrible, horrible place. I wouldn't recommend it. Of places to go, I don't think it's a very interesting place. I think what will be more interesting is some sort of colony in space.

Chris - But to be fair, when the first settlers arrived in Australia and landed in what is now Sydney, they said, "This is a horrible place. We don't want to be here." Now, it's one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Richard - Yes, because there's air to breathe.

Chris - Just think about what Mars could be.

Richard - Even Chris, even in Australia there is air to breathe! There is not air to breathe on Mars.

Kat - Leaving that there with us, I'm sure there's so much we could talk about.

Chris - There's a missed joke opportunity there because of course, they were going to make a nightclub on the moon but then someone said no atmosphere!

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