Mars colonisation: Three fundamental questions

Efforts are mounting to get us on the red planet - why, how and who?
A rendering of what Mars might have looked like earlier in its life
A rendering of what Mars might have looked like earlier in its life

With so many international space agencies pouring their resources into refining technology and research on Mars as a potential new home for humans, we take a look at the elementary driving factors behind the mission of making humanity an interplanetary species. For those of us who are not clued up on every development of Elon Musk or NASA, here are three primary considerations to think about, starting with the most important:

Why Mars?

If one takes a look at the variety of planets that form part of our solar system with a view to inhabit one of them, it becomes clear that our options are very limited. The first major benefit in the column of Mars is sheer proximity. The red planet is quite close to us in relationship to other planets. The closeness of Mars allows us to calculate the trajectory of rockets realistically.

Mars remains, of course, a massive distance away from Earth when considering the time and money that it will require when compared to a modern Moon mission, for example, but reaching the Moon was also considered beyond the bounds of possibility only a few decades ago. Additionally, the proximity of Mars allows scientists to consider it as a stepping stone: Mars could eventually be treated as an outpost on the way to other celestial destinations rather than humanity’s final frontier.

The red planet bears striking physical resemblances to Earth even though it is billions of years older. Granted, Mars is only one-third the size of Earth and void of blue and green, but its landmass exceeds that of our seven continents. It has also been found that Mars holds water. Vast amounts of ice lie underneath its surface and around its polar regions. Mars has further geological coincidences with Earth: mountains, craters and volcanoes suggest that it was once a more hospitable and wet planet than it is now and if we can find a way to heat it back up, we may be able to reinvigorate its resources too.

Mars also has an orbit around the sun and axis of rotation similar to Earth’s. One day on Mars takes about 24.5 hours. Both planets have annual and cyclical seasons. While Mars does have gravity in its atmosphere, it is only 30% as strong as Earth’s. It stands to reason that Mars’ light gravity could eventually result in the evolution of much taller human beings.

The climate of Mars is quite problematic, though. The average temperature of the globe is a bitingly cold -85°F or -65°C and its atmosphere is 95% pure carbon dioxide. Despite this, Mars still holds the most accommodating alternative atmosphere for humans.

What kind of ship do we need to get there?

Design groups and amateurs alike around the world are dreaming up solutions for interplanetary transportation. We previously featured one example, the Solar Express of Imaginactive, which addresses the problem of efficiency and economy in a theoretical sense.

One model that is approaching realisation is SpaceX’s Colonial Transporter. It is entering prototype design phase and the ship is designed on the principle of superior reusability of its tanker and booster. By reusing the same rocket to launch cargo over and over again improves cost-effectiveness greatly. A ship that makes full use of solar energy is paramount too, as Mars is exposed to roughly the same amount of sunlight as Earth is. Using every readily available resource will combat looming financial ramifications.

The subject of fuel is particularly tricky. Traditional rocket fuel (kerosene) is convenient for an inaugural launch, but it is unsustainable as kerosene is difficult to fabricate on Mars for a potential return trip. Thus, engineers have started investigating alternatives such as deep-cryo methalox (a type of methane which is easier to produce on Mars). According to Red Colony, the fusion reaction of deuterium-tritium also holds economic potential as it releases a massive amount of energy with a minimal amount of input.

Who will go first?

It remains unclear what the first group of humans to embark on the Mars mission (who will probably live there for the remainder of their lives) will look like. Again, the obstacle of massive cost means that there is a great disparity between the people on Earth who can afford a seat on the Mars missions and those who actually want to do it (or are physically able to endure it). Many are divided on how to decide who is eligible to start a new human colony.

We looked at the HI-SEAS expedition programme previously, which is a NASA-funded initiative to determine optimal crew configurations. They continue to investigate the social implications of a manned Mars mission and how to prepare candidates for the real trip.

Mars One is an international organisation whose internal committee will apparently determine which astronaut groups in training around the world will be given the chance to set foot on Mars. They plan to identify these groups some months before the first official Mars launch date has been established, at which point they will open the final selection to the public.

“Because this mission is humankind's mission, Mars One has the intention to make this a democratic decision. The whole world will have a vote which group of four will be the first humans on Mars,” the organisation has stated.