How close are we to colonizing Mars?

Animesh Sarkar, Lode Writer

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After a 205-day journey through space, NASA’s InSight lander is safely on the surface of Mars as of Nov. 26. We also became the first humans to see a picture of the Martian sunset. While the internet rejoiced this extraordinary feat of science, it also makes us wonder about how close we are to becoming one of the interplanetary species and not just robotic sailors voyaging into the cosmos. A few months back a group of 60 prominent scientists and engineers met behind closed doors at the University of Colorado Boulder. Their agenda: Mars colonization. Organized by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and attended by members of NASA’s Mars exploration program. Their goal: to become an inter-planetary species within the next century.

Now that the Insight mission is up and running, it’s time for it to get to work. Over the course of one Martian year (or at least two Earth years), it will do something a bit different from most other Mars missions, which have focused on exploring the planet’s flashy rift valleys and mammoth volcanoes, or looking for signs of ancient running water on the surface. Instead, this mission aims to get at the heart of Mars, to measure the size of the planet’s core and other interior layers. To do this, it will rely on marsquakes—or tremors that are often produced by the same tectonic activity that crafts those beautiful mountains and valleys. But why are scientists interested in the mars-quakes of the red planet?

Well, it turns out that the only way to establish the possibility of humanity’s ability to survive on Mars long-term is to terraform the planet to Earth-like conditions. This would most easily be done by turning the heat-trapping greenhouse gases locked in the planet’s ice into an atmosphere in order to raise the planet’s temperature and pressure. Musk has suggested that we could drop thermonuclear bombs on the ice at its poles in order to heat it up to release the carbon dioxide. With accurate knowledge about the core of the planet, we can figure out if the magnetic field of Mars is strong enough to maintain the atmosphere after terraforming the planet.

But according to a new study, published in Nature Astronomy, Mars has lost so much of its potential greenhouse gases to space over billions of years that there is now no possibility of transforming the remaining atmosphere into a breathable one with available technology. The study was based on measurements of the recent escape rate of gases to space measured over the last 15 years by Mars Express (NASA 2001 mission) and the last four years by MAVEN (NASA 2013 Mars rover). This can tell us how much effective greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and water are available on Mars. The measurements, combined with knowledge of the inventories of carbon dioxide and water on Mars from recent space missions, show that greenhouses gases locked in the ice caps are not enough to provide the necessary heating.

The NASA Mars 2020 mission is looking to receive samples collected by Insight for eventual return to earthbound laboratories by around 2030. The results of all this may tell us if there was, is or could be life elsewhere. In our solar system, the best targets are Mars, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, and Jupiter’s moon Europa. And these just hint of the potential for life on the many planets beyond our own solar system. The red planet is never far from our thoughts, as a potential cradle for life beyond Earth. We live in exciting times when it comes to space exploration. So let’s not spoil one of the largest and most fundamental experiments for humankind by letting dreams of colonization go too far–at least until we know whether there is life.

*Note: This article ran 12/6/2018