NASA Estimates SpaceX 2018 Mars Mission Will Cost Only $300 Million

Ever since Musk founded SpaceX is 2002, with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars, every move he has made has been the subject of attention. And for the past two years, a great deal of this attention has been focused specifically on the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon 2 capsule – the components with which Musk hopes to mount a lander mission to Mars in 2018.

Among other things, there is much speculation about how much this is going to cost. Given that one of SpaceX’s guiding principles is making space exploration cost-effective, just how much money is Musk hoping to spend on this important step towards a crewed mission? As it turns out, NASA produced some estimates at a recent meeting, which indicated that SpaceX is spending over $300 million on its proposed Mars mission.

These estimates were given during a NASA Advisory Council meeting, which took place in Cleveland on July 26th between members of the technology committee. During the course of the meeting, James L. Reuter – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate – provided an overview of NASA’s agreement with SpaceX, which was signed in December of 2014 and updated this past April.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

In accordance with this agreement, NASA will be providing support for the company’s plan to send an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule (named “Red Dragon”) to Mars by May of 2018. Intrinsic to this mission is the plan to conduct a propulsive landing on Mars, which would test the Dragon 2‘s SuperDraco Descent Landing capability. Another key feature of this mission will involve using the Falcon Heavy to deploy the capsule.

The terms of this agreement do not involve the transfer of funds, but entails active collaboration that would be to the benefit parties. As Reuters indicated in his presentation, which NASA’s Office of Communications shared with Universe Today via email (and will be available on the STMD’s NASA page soon):

“Building on an existing no-funds-exchanged collaboration with SpaceX, NASA is providing technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing (EDL) data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry. We have similar agreements with dozens of U.S. commercial, government, and non-profit partners.”

Further to this agreement is NASA’s commitment to a budget of $32 million over the next four years, the timetable of which were partially-illustrated in the presentation: “NASA will contribute existing agency resources already dedicated to [Entry, Descent, Landing] work, with an estimated value of approximately $32M over four years with approximately $6M in [Fiscal Year] 2016.”

Diagram showing SpaceX's planned "Red Dragon" mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX
Diagram showing SpaceX’s planned “Red Dragon” mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

According to Article 21 of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, this will include providing SpaceX with: “Deep space communications and telemetry; Deep space navigation and trajectory design; Entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic and aerothermal database development; General interplanetary mission advice and hardware consultation; and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

For their part, SpaceX has not yet disclosed how much their Martian mission plan will cost. But according to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, Reuter provided a basic estimate of about $300 million based on a 10 to 1 assessment of NASA’s own financial commitment: “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” said Reuter. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”

As for why NASA has chosen to help SpaceX make this mission happen, this was also spelled out in the course of the meeting. According to Reuter’s presentation: “NASA conducted a fairly high-level technical feasibility assessment and determined there is a reasonable likelihood of mission success that would be enhanced with the addition of NASA’s technical expertise.”

Such a mission would provide NASA with valuable landing data, which would prove very useful when mounting its crewed mission in the 2030s. Other items discussed included NASA-SpaceX collaborative activities for the remainder of 2016 – which involved a “[f]ocus on system design, based heavily on Dragon 2 version used for ISS crew and cargo transportation”.

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX
Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

It was also made clear that the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX is close to completing, will serve as the launch vehicle. SpaceX intends to conduct its first flight test (Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1) of the heavy-lifter in December of 2016. Three more test flights are scheduled to take place between 2017 and the launch of the Mars lander mission, which is still scheduled for May of 2018.

In addition to helping NASA prepare for its mission to the Red Planet, SpaceX’s progress with both the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 are also crucial to Musk’s long-term plan for a crewed mission to Mars – the architecture of which has yet to be announced. They are also extremely important in the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter, which Musk plans to use to create a permanent settlement on Mars.

And while $300 million is just a ballpark estimate at this juncture, it is clear that SpaceX will have to commit considerable resources to the enterprise. What’s more, people must keep in mind that this would be merely the first in a series of major commitments that the company will have to make in order to mount a crewed mission by 2024, to say nothing of building a Martian colony!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Crew Dragon in flight:

Further Reading: NASA STMD
TOTH: SpaceNews

SpaceX Announces Plan to Launch Private Dragon Mission to Mars in 2018

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX announced plans today, April 27, for the first ever private mission to Mars which involves sending an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon spacecraft to accomplish a propulsive soft landing – and to launch it as soon as 2018 including certain technical assistance from NASA.

Under a newly signed space act agreement with NASA, the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for the new spacecraft known as a ‘Red Dragon’ and possibly also for science activities.

“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and other social media about the history making endeavor.

The 2018 commercial Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ – also known as Dragon 2 – on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a prelude to eventual human missions.

The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX and does not include any funding from NASA. The agreement with NASA specifically states there is “no-exchange-of-funds.”

As of today, the identity and scope of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Hopefully it will include a diverse suite of exciting research instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as high powered cameras and spectrometers characterizing the Martian surface, atmosphere and environment.

SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has previously stated his space exploration goals involve helping to create a Mars colony which would ultimately lead to establishing a human ‘City on Mars.’

Musk is also moving full speed ahead with his goal of radically slashing the cost of access to space by recovering a pair of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage boosters via successful upright propulsive landings on land and at sea – earlier this month and in Dec. 2015.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending uncrewed SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

The 2018 liftoff campaign marks a significant step towards fulfilling Musk’s Red Planet vision. But we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details.

“Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” SpaceX noted.

Musk plans to reveal the details of the Mars colonization architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.

Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.

In the meantime a few details about the SpaceX Red Dragon have emerged.

The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX further posted.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

As part of NASA’s agency wide goal to send American astronauts on a human ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s, NASA will work with SpaceX on some aspects of the Red Dragon initiative to further the agency’s efforts.

According to an amended space act agreement signed yesterday jointly by NASA and SpaceX officials – that originally dates back to November 2014 – this mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.

“We’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a NASA blog post today.

“In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”

“This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” NASA noted in a statement.

The amended agreement with NASA also makes mention of sharing “Mars Science Data.”

As of today, the identity, scope and weight of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Perhaps it could involve a suite of science instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing various aspects of the Martian environment.

In the case of NASA, the joint agreement states that data collected with NASA assets is to be released within a period not to exceed 6 months and published where practical in scientific journals.

The Red Dragon envisioned for blastoff to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 would launch with no crew on board on a critical path finding test flight that would eventually pave the way for sending humans to Mars – and elsewhere in the solar system.

“Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said Musk.

“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”

However, the Dragon 2 alone is far too small for a round trip mission to Mars – lasting some three years or more.

“But wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region,” tweeted Musk.

“Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.”

Furthermore, for crewed missions it would also have to be supplemented with additional modules for habitation, propulsion, cargo, science, communications and more. Think ‘The Martian’ movie to get a realistic idea of the complexity and time involved.

Red Dragon’s blastoff from KSC pad 39A is slated to take place during the Mars launch window opening during April and May 2018.

The inaugural liftoff of the Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for late 2016 after several years postponement.

If all goes well, Red Dragon could travel to Mars at roughly the same time as NASA’s next Mission to Mars – namely the InSight science lander, which will study the planets deep interior with a package of seismometer and heat flow instruments.

InSight’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is targeting a launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. Liftoff was delayed from this year due to a flaw in the French-built seismometer.

SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept. Credit: SpaceX

Whoever wants to land on Mars also has to factor in the relevant International treaties regarding ‘Planetary Protection’ requirements.

Wherever the possibility for life exists, the worlds space agency’s who are treaty signatories, including NASA, are bound to adhere to protocols limiting contamination by life forms from Earth.

SpaceX intends to take planetary protection seriously. Under the joint agreement, SpaceX is working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper planetary protection procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development a Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of a PPP including identifying existing software/tools.

Red Dragon is derived from the SpaceX crew Dragon vehicle currently being developed under contract for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to transport American astronauts back and forth to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded commercial crew contracts from NASA back in September 2014.

Both firms hope to launch unmanned and manned test flights of their SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the ISS starting sometime in 2017.

The crew Dragon is also an advanced descendent of the original unmanned cargo Dragon that has ferried tons of science experiments and essential supplies to the ISS since 2012.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

To enable propulsive landings, SpaceX recently conducted hover tests using a Dragon 2 equipped with eight side-mounted SuperDraco engines at their development testing facility in McGregor, TX.

These are “Key for Mars landing,” SpaceX wrote.

“We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been,” Newman states.

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mars Colony Will Have To Wait, Says NASA Scientists

Establishing a human settlement on Mars has been the fevered dream of space agencies for some time. Long before NASA announced its “Journey to Mars” – a plan that outlined the steps that need to be taken to mount a manned mission by the 2030s – the agency’s was planning how a crewed mission could lead to the establishing of stations on the planet’s surface. And it seems that in the coming decades, this could finally become a reality.

But when it comes to establishing a permanent colony – another point of interest when it comes to Mars missions – the coming decades might be a bit too soon. Such was the message during a recent colloquium hosted by NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. Titled “Selecting a Landing Site for Humans on Mars”, this presentation set out the goals for NASA’s manned mission in the coming decades.

Continue reading “Mars Colony Will Have To Wait, Says NASA Scientists”

How Do We Colonize Mars?

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that cold and dry world known as “Earth’s Twin”. I’m talking about Mars. Enjoy!

Mars. It’s a pretty unforgiving place. On this dry, dessicated world, the average surface temperature is -55 °C (-67 °F). And at the poles, temperatures can reach as low as  -153 °C (243 °F). Much of that has to do with its thin atmosphere, which is too thin to retain heat (not to mention breathe). So why then is the idea of colonizing Mars so intriguing to us?

Well, there are a number of reasons, which include the similarities between our two planets, the availability of water, the prospects for generating food, oxygen, and building materials on-site. And there’s even the long-term benefits of using Mars as a source of raw materials and terraforming it into a liveable environment. Let’s go over them one by one…

Examples in Fiction:

The idea of exploring and settling Mars has been explored in fiction for over a century. Most of the earliest depiction of Mars in fiction involved a planet with canals, vegetation and indigenous life – owing to the observations of the astronomers like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell.

However, by the latter half of the 20th century (thanks in large part to the Mariner 4 missions and scientists learning of the true conditions on Mars) fictional accounts moved away from the idea of a Martian civilization and began to deal with humans eventually colonizing and transforming the environment to suit their needs.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

This shift is perhaps best illustrated by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (published in 1950). A series of short stories that take place predominantly on Mars, the collection begins with stories about a Martian civilization which begins to encounter human explorers. The stories then transitions to ones that deal with human settlements on the planet, the genocide of the Martians, and Earth eventually experiencing nuclear war.

During the 1950s, many classical science fiction authors wrote about colonizing Mars. These included Arthur C. Clarke and his 1951 story The Sands of Mars, which is told from the point of view of a human reporter who travels to Mars to write about human colonists. While attempting to make a life for themselves on a desert planet, they discover that Mars has native life forms.

In 1952, Isaac Asimov released The Martian Way, a story which deals with the conflict between Earth and Mars colonists. The latter survive by salvaging space junk, and are forced to travel to Saturn to harvest ice when Earth enforces an embargo on their planet.

Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) tells the story of a human who was raised on Mars by the native Martians, and then travels to Earth as a young adult. His contact with humans proves to have a profound affect on Earth’s culture, and calls into questions many of the social mores and accepted norms of Heinlein’s time.

Artist's concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist’s concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Philip K. Dick’s fiction also features Mars often, in every case being a dry, empty land with no native inhabitants. In his works Martian Time Slip (1964), and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), life on Mars is presented as difficult, consisting of isolated communities who do not want to live there.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), most of humanity has left Earth after nuclear war ravaged it and now live in “the colonies” on Mars. Androids (Replicants) escaping illegally to come back to Earth claim that they have left because “nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age”.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (published between 1992–1996), Mars is colonized and then terraformed over the course of many centuries. Ben Bova’s Grant Tour series – which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – also includes a novel titled Mars (1992). In this novel, explorers travel to Mars – locations including Mt. Olympus and Valles Marineris – to determine is Mars is worth colonizing.

Alastair Reynolds’ short story “The Great Wall of Mars” (2000) takes place in a future where the most technologically advanced humans are based on Mars and embroiled in an interplanetary war with a faction that takes issue with their experiments in human neurology.

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard
Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

In Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010), we get a glimpse of Mars in the far future. The story centers on the city of Oubliette, which moves across the face of the planet. Andry Weir’s The Martian (2011) takes place in the near future, where an astronaut is stranded on Mars and forced to survive until a rescue party arrives.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) takes place in a future where humanity has colonized much of the Solar System. Mars is mentioned in the course of the story as a world which has been settled and terraformed (which involved lasers cutting canals similar to what Schiaparelli described) and now has oceans covering much of its surface.

Proposed Methods:

NASA’s proposed manned mission to Mars – which is slated to take place during the 2030s using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) – is not the only proposal to send humans to the Red Planet. In addition to other federal space agencies, there are also plans by private corporations and non-profits, some of which are far more ambitious than mere exploration.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has long-term plans to send humans, though they have yet to build a manned spacecraft. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is also planning a manned Mars mission, with simulations (called Mars-500) having been completed in Russia back in 2011. The ESA is currently participating in these simulations as well.

In 2012, a group of Dutch entrepreneurs revealed plans for a crowdfunded campaign to establish a human Mars base, beginning in 2023. Known as MarsOne, the plan calls for a series of one-way missions to establish a permanent and expanding colony on Mars, which would be financed with the help of media participation.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) Feb 2009. Credit: NASA

Other details of the MarsOne plan include sending a telecom orbiter by 2018, a rover in 2020, and the base components and its settlers by 2023. The base would be powered by 3,000 square meters of solar panels and the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket would be used to launch the hardware. The first crew of 4 astronauts would land on Mars in 2025; then, every two years, a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive.

On December 2nd, 2014, NASA’s Advanced Human Exploration Systems and Operations Mission Director Jason Crusan and Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs James Reuthner announced tentative support for the Boeing “Affordable Mars Mission Design“. Currently planned for the 2030s, the mission profile includes plans for radiation shielding, centrifugal artificial gravity, in-transit consumable resupply, and a return-lander.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to establish a colony on Mars with a population of 80,000 people. Intrinsic to this plan is the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a spaceflight system that would rely of reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth.

As of 2014, SpaceX has begun development of the large Raptor rocket engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter, and a successful test was announced in September of 2016. In January 2015, Musk said that he hoped to release details of the “completely new architecture” for the Mars transport system in late 2015.

In June 2016, Musk stated in the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT Mars flight departing in 2024. In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs.

There may come a day when, after generations of terraforming and numerous waves of colonists, that Mars will begin to have a viable economy as well. This could take the form of mineral deposits being discovered and then sent back to Earth for sale. Launching precious metals, like platinum, off the surface of Mars would be relatively inexpensive thanks to its lower gravity.

But according to Musk, the most likely scenario (at least for the foreseeable future) would involve an economy based on real estate. With human populations exploding all over Earth, a new destination that offers plenty of room to expand is going to look like a good investment.

And once transportation issues are worked out, savvy investors are likely to start buying up land. Plus, there is likely to be a market for scientific research on Mars for centuries to come. Who knows what we might find once planetary surveys really start to open up!

Over time, many or all of the difficulties in living on Mars could be overcome through the application of geoengineering (aka. terraforming). Using organisms like cyanobacteria and phytoplankton, colonists could gradually convert much of the CO² in the atmosphere into breathable oxygen.

In addition, it is estimated that there is a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO²) in the form of dry ice at the Martian south pole, not to mention absorbed by in the planet’s regolith (soil). If the temperature of the planet were raised, this ice would sublimate into gas and increase atmospheric pressure. Although it would still not be breathable by humans, it would be sufficient enough to eliminate the need for pressure suits.

A possible way of doing this is by deliberately triggering a greenhouse effect on the planet. This could be done by importing ammonia ice from the atmospheres of other planets in our Solar System. Because ammonia (NH³) is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also supply the buffer gas needed for a breathable atmosphere – much as it does here on Earth.

Similarly, it would be possible to trigger a greenhouse effect by importing hydrocarbons like methane – which is common in Titan’s atmosphere and on its surface. This methane could be vented into the atmosphere where it would act to compound the greenhouse effect.

Zubrin and Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Ames Research center, have also suggested creating facilities on the surface that could pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus triggering global warming (much as they do here on Earth).

Other possibilities exist as well, ranging from orbital mirrors that would heat the surface to deliberately impacting the surface with comets. But regardless of the method, possibilities exist for transforming Mars’ environment that could make it more suitable for humans in the long run – many of which we are currently doing right here on Earth (with less positive results).

Another proposed solution is building habitats underground. By building a series of tunnels that connect between subterranean habitats, settlers could forgo the need for oxygen tanks and pressure suits when they are away from home.

Additionally, it would provide protection against radiation exposure. Based on data obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it is also speculated that habitable environments exist underground, making it an even more attractive option.

Potential Benefits:

As already mentioned, there are many interesting similarities between Earth and Mars that make it a viable option for colonization. For starters, Mars and Earth have very similar lengths of days. A Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes, which means that plants and animals – not to mention human colonists – would find that familiar.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO
Diagram showing the habitable zones of the Solar System (upper row) and the Gliese 581 system (lower row). Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

Mars also has an axial tilt that is very similar to Earth’s, which means it has the same basic seasonal patterns as our planet (albeit for longer periods of time). Basically, when one hemisphere is pointed towards the Sun, it experiences summer while the other experiences winter – complete with warmer temperatures and longer days.

This too would work well when it comes to growing seasons and would provide colonists with a comforting sense of familiarity and a way of measuring out the year. Much like farmers here on Earth, native Martians would experience a “growing season”, a “harvest”, and would be able to hold annual festivities to mark the changing of the seasons.

Also, much like Earth, Mars exists within our Sun’s habitable zone (aka. “goldilocks zone“), though it is slightly towards its outer edge. Venus is similarly located within this zone, but its location on the inner edge (combined with its thick atmosphere) has led to it becoming the hottest planet in the Solar System. That, combined with its sulfuric acid rains makes Mars a much more attractive option.

Additionally, Mars is closer to Earth than the other Solar planets – except for Venus, but we already covered why it’s not a very good option! This would make the process of colonizing it easier. In fact, every few years when the Earth and Mars are at opposition – i.e. when they are closest to each other – the distance varies, making certain “launch windows” ideal for sending colonists.

For example, on April 8th, 2014, Earth and Mars were 92.4 million km (57.4 million miles) apart at opposition. On May 22nd, 2016, they will be 75.3 million km (46.8 million miles) apart, and by July 27th of 2018, a meager 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) will separate our two worlds. During these windows, getting to Mars would be a matter of months rather than years.

Also, Mars has vast reserves of water in the form of ice. Most of this water ice is located in the polar regions, but surveys of Martian meteorites have suggested that much of it may also be locked away beneath the surface. This water could be extracted and purified for human consumption easily enough.

In his book, The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin also explains how future human colonists might be able to live off the land when traveling to Mars, and eventually colonize it. Instead of bringing all their supplies from Earth – like the inhabitants of the International Space Station – future colonists would be able to make their own air, water, and even fuel by splitting Martian water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Global map of Water ice on Mars
New estimates of water ice on Mars suggest there may be large reservoirs of underground ice at non-polar latitudes. Credit: Feldman et al., 2011

Preliminary experiments have shown that Mars soil could be baked into bricks to create protective structures, which would cut down on the amount of materials needed to be shipped to the surface. Earth plants could eventually be grown in Martian soil too, assuming they get enough sunlight and carbon dioxide. Over time, planting on the native soil could also help to create a breathable atmosphere.

Challenges:

Despite the aforementioned benefits, there are also some rather monumental challenges to colonizing the Red Planet. For starters, there is the matter of the average surface temperature, which is anything but hospitable. While temperatures around the equator at midday can reach a balmy 20 °C, at the Curiosity site – the Gale Crater, which is close to the equator – typical nighttime temperatures are as low as -70 °C.

The gravity on Mars is also only about 40% of what we experience on Earth’s, which would make adjusting to it quite difficult. According to a NASA report, the effects of zero-gravity on the human body are quite profound, with a loss of up to 5% muscle mass a week and 1% of bone density a month.

Naturally, these losses would be lower on the surface of Mars, where there is at least some gravity. But permanent settlers would still have to contend with the problems of muscle degeneration and osteoporosis in the long run.

 The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library
The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library

And then there’s the atmosphere, which is unbreathable. About 95% of the planet’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to producing breathable air for their habitats, settlers would also not be able to go outside without a pressure suit and bottled oxygen.

Mars also has no global magnetic field comparable to Earth’s geomagnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this means that a significant amount of ionizing radiation is able to reach the Martian surface.

Thanks to measurements taken by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), scientists learned that radiation levels in orbit above Mars are 2.5 times higher than at the International Space Station. Levels on the surface would be lower, but would still be higher than human beings are accustomed to.

In fact, a recent paper submitted by a group of MIT researchers – which analyzed the Mars One plan to colonize the planet beginning in 2020 – concluded that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days, while the others would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

In short, the challenges to creating a permanent settlement on Mars are numerous, but not necessarily insurmountable. And if we do decide, as individuals and as a species, that Mars is to become a second home for humanity, we will no doubt find creative ways to address them all.

Who knows? Someday, perhaps even within our own lifetimes, there could be real Martians. And they would be us!

Universe Today has many interesting articles about the possibility of humans living on Mars. Here’s a great article written by Nancy Atkinson about the possibility of a one-way, one-person trip to Mars

What about using microbes to help colonize mars? And if you want to know the distances between Earth and Mars, check it out here.

For more information, check out Mars colonies coming soon, Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and NASA’s Quick Facts

The Mars Society is working to try and colonize Mars. And Red Colony is a great resource of articles about colonizing Mars.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars, and Episode 94: Humans to Mars – Part 1, Scientists.

Reference:
NASA Quest: Possibility of colonizing Mars