The idea of sending humans to Mars has been the subject of aerospace engineering and scientific studies since the late 1940s as part of the broader exploration of Mars. Scientists apart from fiction writers have proposed terraforming to enable the long-term colonization of Mars. Reasons for colonizing Mars include pure curiosity, the potential for humans to provide more in-depth observational research than unmanned rovers, economic interest in its resources, and the possibility that the settlement of other planets could decrease the likelihood of human extinction. Many space agencies including NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, ISRO, and the CNSA ——and private organizations—SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. are working towards a permanent settlement.
The idea is to release carbon dioxide gas trapped in the Martian surface to thicken the atmosphere and act as a blanket to warm the planet. Elon Musk had suggested terraforming Mars by nuking the hell out of its poles. Then he argued that using bombs to destroy the planet’s poles would free enough carbon dioxide to increase the planet’s atmospheric temperature to that of Earth, though scientists warned that the plan wouldn’t even come close to succeeding.
Even then, the idea was scientifically questionable — research found that Musk’s plan would only increase Mars’ atmospheric pressure to seven percent of Earth’s. Now, mathematician Robert Walker calculates on the blog Science 2.0 that if we wanted to make Mars habitable though nuclear explosions, we would need to send what amounts to an assembly line of bombs up to the Red Planet. Walker based his argument on Musk’s clarification that he wanted to create “mini suns” near Mars’ ice caps through sustained nuclear explosions. As Walker writes, the brightest part of a nuclear explosion lasts roughly 50 seconds.
He estimates that If we were to try and melt Mars’ ice caps with nuclear bomb-based artificial suns, that would mean building, launching, and detonating 1,728 bombs per pole every day, without fail, for a total of 3,456 bombs. For perspective, that’s nearly twice as many bombs as the U.S. currently has in its entire arsenal. And that’s without getting into another little problem: the process would probably turn Mars into an inhabitable nuclear wasteland due to all the radiation it’d kick up.
Although the current Martian atmosphere itself consists mostly of carbon dioxide, it is far too thin and cold to support liquid water, an essential ingredient for life. On Mars, the pressure of the atmosphere is less than one percent of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere. Any liquid water on the surface would very quickly evaporate or freeze. Proponents of terraforming Mars propose releasing gases from a variety of sources on the Red Planet to thicken the atmosphere and increase the temperature to the point where liquid water is stable on the surface. These gases are called “greenhouse gases” for their ability to trap heat and warm the climate.
However, Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm Mars, according to a new NASA-sponsored study. Transforming the inhospitable Martian environment into a place astronauts could explore without life support is not possible without technology well beyond today’s capabilities, says NASA. “Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) are the only greenhouse gases that are likely to be present on Mars in sufficient abundance to provide any significant greenhouse warming,” said Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, lead author of the study appearing in Nature Astronomy July 2018.
Another idea is to import volatiles by redirecting comets and asteroids to hit Mars. However, the team’s calculations reveal that many thousands would be required; again, not very practical.
Difficulties and hazards include radiation exposure during a trip to Mars and on its surface, toxic soil, low gravity, the isolation that accompanies Mars’ distance from Earth, a lack of water, and cold temperatures. Mars presents a hostile environment for human habitation. Different technologies have been developed to assist long-term space exploration and may be adapted for habitation on Mars. The existing record for the longest consecutive space flight is 438 days by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, and the longest time spent outside the protection of the Earth’s Van Allen radiation belt is about 12 days for the Apollo 17 moon landing. This is minor in comparison to the 1100-day journey planned by NASA as soon as the year 2028.
In a House space subcommittee hearing, John Sommerer, a space scientist as chairman of a National Research Council technical panel reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight activities testified, “While sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, may be technically feasible, it is an extraordinarily challenging goal, from physiological, technical, and programmatic standpoints,”
“Because of this extreme difficulty, it is only with unprecedented cumulative investment, and, frankly, unprecedented discipline in development, testing, execution, and leadership, that this enterprise is likely to be successful.” According to Sommerer, the technical panel found that it would take NASA 20 to 40 years to send humans to the surface of Mars at a staggering cost of approximately half a trillion dollars.
Mars Exploration Missions and Mars base
Therefore countries are planning first exploration, and then the establishment of a permanent Mars base to support exploration. Once you have this Mars base, which perhaps is supported by the U.S. and its European-Japanese allies, it’s developing all these technologies for creating resources on Mars, and the interplanetary transportation is becoming cheaper. At this point, it becomes possible to envision not only other countries, including small ones, creating their own base on Mars, but private groups, says Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the space advocacy organization the Mars Society during an interview.
The orbiter and rover of China’s Tianwen-1 probe have both completed the targeted scientific exploration missions, announced the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in July 2020. After operating for 706 days and circling the red planet over 1,344 times, the orbiter of Tianwen-1 has acquired medium-resolution image data that covers the whole globe of Mars.
The Tianwen-1 probe consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover named Zhurong. It touched at its landing area in the vast Martian plain of Utopia Planitia on May 15 last year, marking the first time that China landed a probe on the planet. Zhurong started patrolling the planet on May 22, 2021 and finished its 90-Martian-day mission on August 15 the same year but continue further exploration.
Zhang Rongqiao said China became the first country to conduct joint orbital and surface exploration of Mars in a single mission. The probe will provide invaluable data on temperature, atmospheric conditions, and landscape, before Beijing dispatches further missions to retrieve soil and rock samples.
The rover and the orbiter have collected over 1,040 GB of raw scientific data with their 13 onboard scientific payloads after two years of flight and exploration. After the data is completely received and processed on Earth, it will be turned into standard scientific data products and then, they will be delivered to scientists for further analysis and interpreted monthly. According to CNSA. the data will be open to scientists worldwide and “China welcomes global scientists to apply for related research and jointly push forward the exploration of the universe.”
China has announced plans to build a manned moon base which will explore lunar resources and act as a launchpad for missions to Mars. The lunar outpost is expected to have “multiple tube cabins that interconnect and provide oxygen to people inside”, according to a video seen by Chinese media. China is building a 400-million-yuan ‘Mars simulation base’ in a remote area of its dry and rocky north-west to boost scientific research of the red planet and local tourism.
Another Chinese agency, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., or CASIC, expects to launch a nuclear-powered spacecraft in 2040, that will most likely support China’s own Mars mission efforts. Its other projects include exploring the space within and beyond the asteroid belt, building orbital solar power plants, as well as mining the Moon and asteroids.
China is not alone in having Mars Ambitions. On March 21, President Donald Trump signed a new law that mandates NASA send people to Mars by 2033. Then, a week later, the space agency published its most detailed plan yet for reaching the red planet. The scheme involves locking astronauts into a tube-shaped spaceship, sending them into deep space for 3 years, and giving them no form of emergency escape beyond the moon.
Two other probes are also on their way to the red planet – the United Arab Emirates’ first Mars mission, Hope, and the US Perseverance rover. All three missions were launched in July 2020. Loaded with scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing, and other new systems, the Perseverance rover is the largest, heaviest, most sophisticated vehicle NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet.
The rover has a tough mission. Not only does it have to land on a treacherous planet, it has to work on its science goals: searching for signs of ancient microbial life, characterizing the planet’s geology and climate, collecting carefully selected rock and sediment samples for future return to Earth, and paving the way for human exploration beyond the Moon. “Perseverance sets a new bar for our ambitions at Mars,” said Lori Glaze, planetary science director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We will get closer than ever before to answering some of science’s longest-standing questions about the Red Planet, including whether life ever arose there.”
As part of its next Mars mission, NASA is sending an experimental helicopter to fly through the red planet’s thin atmosphere. If it works, the small helicopter, named Ingenuity, will open a new way for future robotic explorers to get a bird’s-eye view of Mars and other worlds in the solar system. “This is very analogous to the Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the project manager of the Mars helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the past six years.
Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There is not much air there to push against to generate lift. At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. The lesser gravity — one-third of what you feel here — helps with getting airborne. But taking off from the surface of Mars is the equivalent of flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No terrestrial helicopter has ever flown that high, and that’s more than twice the altitude that jetliners typically fly at.
The AeroVironment team has worked closely with NASA rotorcraft experts at the NASA Ames and Langley research centers and with JPL electrical, mechanical, materials, vehicle flight controls, and systems engineers. AeroVironment’s contributions to the first Mars drone include design and development of the helicopter’s airframe and major subsystems, including its rotor, rotor blades, hub and control mechanism hardware. The company also developed and built high-efficiency, lightweight propulsion motors, power electronics, landing gear, load-bearing structures, and the thermal enclosure for NASA/JPL’s avionics, sensors, and software systems.
NASA is also building and testing the Space Launch System, a 321-foot-tall rocket that could be the world’s most powerful. Boeing is the prime contractor for the design, development, test and production of the launch vehicle core stage and upper stages, as well as development of the flight avionics suite. Such a launcher would help NASA establish a lunar gateway and send astronauts to the red planet.
The United Arab Emirates’ first mission to Mars will reach the Red Planet on Feb. 9, 2021, Emirates government officials said in Nov. 2020. Should Hope make it safely to Mars, the UAE will be the fifth entity to successfully send a mission to the Red Planet after NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organisation. The spacecraft is expected to remain in orbit and gathering data for at least a full Martian year, which is 687 Earth days. Some of Hope’s scientific contributions will include the first planet-wide examination of Martian atmospheric dynamics and weather, according to the UAE.
September 2020 marked six years since ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalyaan, spacecraft entered Mars orbit, making India the first Asian country to do so. What is even more impressive is that Mangalyaan was the country’s first interplanetary mission. ISRO plans to launch Mangalyaan 2 in 2024 with an upgraded orbiter, with a capacity of 100 kilograms for scientific instruments. The mission could also include a lander and a rover. Mangalyaan 2 will launch after the first Mars rover missions from China and the European Space Agency, and alongside NASA’s ever-present Mars fleet.
ExoMars, a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos aiming to find signs of biological or geological activity on Mars is planned for 2022. In 2016, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a test stationary lander called Schiaparelli were launched. Roscosmos said , that the TGO would start exploring the atmosphere of Mars. The second stage of the mission envisages delivering the ExoMars Rover, developed by ESA, and a Russian surface platform to explore the planet.
The primary goal of the mission is to determine if there has ever been life on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the planet. The ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, includes a drill to access the sub-surface of Mars as well as a miniature life-search laboratory kept within an ultra-clean zone.
Elon Musk, the founder of the rocket company SpaceX , recently said he plans to send people to Mars by 2024 . “I think we have a fighting chance of making that second Mars transfer window,” Musk said in a discussion with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. That window Musk referred to is a launch opportunity that arises every 26 months for mission to Mars. NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to mars in July of this year. The next window opens in 2022 with Musk referring to the 2024 Mars launch opportunity.
Musk has long said that humans need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure “the continuance of consciousness as we know it” — just in case planet Earth is left uninhabitable by a something like a nuclear war or an asteroid strike. Elon Musk’s company routinely recovers and reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, bringing the boosters down for soft vertical landings about 9 minutes after liftoff on ground near the launch pad or on autonomous “drone ships” in the ocean. When deployed in its final form it is expected to be able to deliver some 70 tons to low-earth orbit, or less than 20 tons to Mars, while costing around $150 million per mission.
Mars Base Camp is Lockheed Martin’s vision for sending humans to Mars by 2028. The plan is to transport astronauts from Earth to a Mars-orbiting science laboratory where they can perform real-time scientific exploration, analyze Martian rock and soil samples, and confirm the ideal place to land humans on the surface.
Russia proposes nuclear power plant on Mars in July 2021
Specialists from the Arsenal Design Bureau – a St. Petersburg-based subsidiary of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency specialising in the production of spacecraft, satellites, and other space technologies – have proposed the creation of a nuclear power plant for a future Russian Mars base. Under Arsenal’s proposal, the reactor would be delivered to Red Planet aboard the Zeus, and floated down to its surface using a parachute system. After landing, the power plant would be activated to provide energy to a prospective Russian martian base.
The massive space tug is designed to make use of a nuclear-powered electric propulsion system to deliver payloads throughout the solar system. On top of that, engineers say that if the Zeus were to be deployed at the Lagrange point between the Sun and Mars (i.e. the point in space where gravitational forces of these bodies are equally strong), its onboard communications sensors and transmitters could serve as a “high-speed channel for the transmission of information to Earth from the surface of Mars and from spacecraft orbiting the planet.”
Earlier, Sputnik reported that the Zeus project’s proposed megawatt-class electric propulsion system would allow it to disable the control systems of adversarial spacecraft using an electromagnetic impulse, and even allow it to fire laser beams. Designers at the Moscow-based Keldysh Research Centre have also suggested the spacecraft class can be used as a component in Russia’s air defence network – detecting targets from orbit and relaying this information to ground-based missile systems. Russia is hoping to begin flight-testing it starting around 2030.
NASA’s MARS Roadmap
Four months after President Trump directed NASA to return to the Moon, the agency has presented a road map to meet the goals outlined in Space Policy Directive-1. The updated plan shifts focus from the previous “Journey to Mars” campaign back to the Moon, and—eventually—to the Red Planet.
“The Moon will play an important role in expanding human presence deeper into the solar system,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, in a release issued by the agency.
While the revamped plan may share the same destination as the Apollo program, NASA said it will approach the return in a more measured and sustainable manner. Unlike humanity’s first trip to the Moon, the journey back will incorporate both commercial and international partners.
To achieve this, NASA has outlined four strategic goals:
- Transition low-Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight activities to commercial operators.
- Expand long-duration spaceflight activities to include lunar orbit.
- Facilitate long-term robotic lunar exploration.
- Use human exploration of the Moon as groundwork for eventual human missions to Mars and beyond.
Lockheed Martin announces Mars ‘space base’ and will send humans there in 2028
Lockheed Martin recently announced plans to set up a Mars base orbiting the red planet, known as ‘Mars Base Camp.’ Mars Base Camp is a concept for an orbiting science station envisioned to launch in 2028 that sets the stage for a human landing mission in the 2030s.
“We think that orbiting Mars is a necessary precursor to landing humans on the surface, and putting scientists with laboratories right there in Mars orbit will allow them, in just a few months, to accomplish more science than we’ve been able to accomplish in the past 40 years,” said Tony Antonelli, Lockheed Martin’s chief technologist for civil space exploration.
In theory, at least, the idea of sending an orbiter before a surface mission would let NASA flex its Mars muscles while buying crucial time to develop descent and landing technologies, says space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University.
“It gives one the opportunity to check out all navigation, life support, [and] radiation protection—all the things you need to get to Mars and back without also accepting the risks that come with going to the surface,” says Logsdon. “There are good parallels between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11.”
What’s more, a crewed orbiter would allow for real-time control of Mars rovers, a potentially huge help to scientists, who currently face up to 45-minute communications delays. An orbiting lab could also process samples robotically launched from Mars’s surface, helping future astronauts’ efforts and advancing the search for past—or present—Martian life.
According to Lockheed Martin, the Mars Base Camp concept is built on a strong foundation of today’s technologies – making it safe, affordable and achievable:
- Orion: The world’s only deep-space crew capsule, built with deep space life support, communications and navigation. This is the mission Orion was born to do.
- Space Launch System: Super heavy lift designed to send critical labs, habitats and supplies to Mars.
- Habitats: Building on our NextSTEP research, deep space habitats will give astronauts room to live and work on the way to Mars.
- Solar Electric Propulsion: Based on technology already in place on satellites, this advanced propulsion will pre-position key supplies in Mars orbit.
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