Since mankind began exploring space, one the main thoughts that stem from space exploration is our ability to colonize other worlds. To expand mankind’s reach to planets, not of our own, with the hopes of calling space our home. One planet that shows tremendous promise is the planet Mars. Comparatively, Mars is 15% smaller than Earth but with a landmass 10% greater than Earth. It has polar ice caps, same as Earth, that could possess life. However, it is important to understand why Mars is a serious contender for manned exploration and why we may see that in the coming decades.
The encompassing NASA strategy that seeks to put on humans on Mars is known as, “Seeks Signs of Life”, which contains all past, and future, missions to the red planet. The next mission in this strategy is the Mars 2020 Rover Mission set to launch in, surprisingly, 2020. Before this point, the main strategy for Mars was understanding whether the planet once held water on its surface. Known as “Follow the Water”, NASA conducted probe and rover missions, such as 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Phoenix Lander, were the key steps to better understanding Mars.
Now with the current focus of the 2020 Mission, which seeks to understand whether there is life on the planet surface. This focus will be geared towards operations such as soil extraction, with the potential to retrieve it in future missions, generating oxygen from the Mars Atmosphere, and improving landing techniques. This focus will be concentrated into four goals:
- Determine whether life ever arose on Mars
- Characterize the Climate of Mars
- Characterize the Geology of Mars
- Prepare for Human Exploration
The opportune time to travel to Mars will be in 2020, when the two planets are closest to allow equipment to transfer from Earth to Mars.
While NASA is busy preparing for the 2020 mission, other space agencies, and private companies, are looking to the possibilities that Red Planet can offer. One company, Mars One seeks to transplant humans to Mars to be among the first colonists to live out their lives on the Red Planet. Mars One will seek out aspiring space travelers to apply for their astronaut program and train to be among the first colonists to Mars. Selected astronauts will train here on Earth, in simulated environments, to prepare for the challenges of Mars. The timeline has the first team set to leave Earth in 2031, so long as all other parts of the mission are successful. After that, another crew will leave Earth to join the first crew to expand the Mars Colony.
While Mars One seeks to settle colonists on Mars in a permanent manner, SpaceX is looking to send people to Mars and bring them back. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, gave a great presentation on the benefits associated with humans becoming an interplanetary species.
To accomplish this feat, SpaceX will build a novel rocket to launch prospective astronauts to Mars. The ship is known as the BFR, a one booster rocket capable of launching a ship into space. With the capability to refuel from other ships, the BFR would be the delivery system to transport colonists to Mars. The limiting factor with building the BFR has been the costs. With the current rockets like Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy, SpaceX can generate funds that would allow the BFR to be created. With these designs in place, Elon has set a very ambitious goal for Mars Exploration: two cargo ships will be landing on Mars in 2022! These cargo ships will confirm water on Mars, and place the mining, and flight infrastructure for future flights. In 2024, two crew ships, and two cargo ships, will be landing on Mars. These astronauts will build a propellant depot for future launches. The goal is bold, but to get to Mars we will need bold ideas to make this vision a reality.
However, NASA and private companies are not the only players with their sights set on Mars. Russia has been planning for a Mars mission for some time now. Compared to liquid fuel, Russia has been experimenting with using nuclear power to generate the necessary energy to travel between the two planets. With the first prototype system set for 2025, the Russian Space Agency could once again be competing with the United States for setting new goals in the Space Race. Coupled with the fact that the Russian Space Agency has set its unmanned mission to Mars in 2019, which could beat the 2020 Rover in discovering new facts about the Red Planet.
What’s clear is that Mars is now the goal for making history with space exploration. Now that new technology, and new actors are on the stage, we could be seeing astronauts on the Red Planet in the coming decades. The future is looking very optimistic for space exploration and I hope you will join me in the excitement around this goal.
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