The landing of American space ship ‘Perseverance’ on Mars on February 20, 2021 is termed a major breakthrough in decades of scientific exploration to search for life in that mysterious planet. Called the ‘red planet’ because of the iron-oxide dust that gives it the red colour, Mars is half the size of Earth and is a source of curiosity for world scientists reflected in their years of exploration to find out the possibility of establishing life on that planet. Projects like Mars foundation based in the Netherlands and Mars space mission located in New York are composed of scientists and aerospace companies exploring how Mars can be liveable in the first half of 21st century.
After Venus, Mars is the closest planet to Earth. In 2003, Mars was closest to Earth having a distance of 56 million kilometers. If Mars and Earth are farthest from the sun, the two planets can be 401 million kilometers far. Likewise, travel time from Earth to Mars in a spaceship with a speed of 58,000 kilometers per hour with a closet approach will take 39 days and with farthest approach 289 days. On an average, travel time to Mars from Earth will be 162 days. With these facts in mind, scientists engaged with NASA and elsewhere are researching on the characteristics of Mars which can provide a ray of hope to colonise the red planet. It may be a wishful thinking and a utopian concept to send spaceships to Mars from Earth taking human beings for their settlement on a planet which may require a lot to start a life over there. Yet, human curiosity and innovative mind has no boundaries and frontiers which tend to sustain efforts for the colonisation of Mars in 21st century.
Can Mars be liveable in coming decades and how can the evidences — which scientists have accumulated in the last one decade by sending rockets and getting information from the technology used about the existence of water and gases in Mars — be used for starting life on that red planet? Is colonising Mars a myth or it can be transformed into a reality with the application of technologies which can engineer the environment of that planet? These are the questions which are raised particularly in scientifically advanced societies when it is felt that because of overpopulation and environmental catastrophe, the Earth will not be liveable in coming years and human beings need to explore another planet where they can start a new life.
Mars can certainly be a source of anxiety for those who realise how in the last 200 years scientific innovation and discoveries made it possible to drastically cut travel time from one continent to another; enable people to connect each other from telephone, telex, fax, email to online sources. If reaching Mars will take several months and is an uphill task to develop that planet which has marginal possibility to have water and air, scientific innovations like modern ships, aircraft, modern highways and bullet trains enabled people to shorten travel time from Japan to Europe and from North America to Asia, one can expect science to cause miracles and make Mars liveable.
In a 2014 conference at the NASA Ames Research Center, Dr Chris McKay, a planetary scientist and founding member of The Mars Society, presented a list of Mars’ most important resources that early Martian colonists would exploit to make the planet habitable. According to him, under “Atmospheric CO2, Mars’ atmosphere is its most easily accessible resource, providing feedstock for manufacturing methane propellant. The chemistry involved in separating it is simple, low power, and has been employed on Earth for more than a century.” Referring to H2O from the atmosphere and polar ice, he further argues, “Mars is a dry planet compared to the Earth, but compared to other celestial bodies like the moon and asteroids, its water budget is quite generous. Mars has a polar cap composed of a mixture of water-ice and CO2 dry ice, and even at non-polar latitudes, water-ice is known to exist a few meters under the surface regolith. This water can be purified and consumed, or electrolyzed to produce O2 and hydrogen, which can be further combined with atmospheric CO2 to produce a range of useful plastics.”
Traces of glaciers, lakes and water in some of the regions of Mars and human ability to make use of minimum resources necessary for colonising the red planet is perhaps a single most important source of hope for NASA and other world scientists that if they are persistent a day will come when human settlement on Mars may not be a dream. Instincts of lust for resources and power have remained two major characteristics of human mind which gave an impetus to the colonisation of Americas, Australia, Africa and parts of Asia. Similar instincts motivate human beings from scientifically developed nations to sustain their efforts to transform Mars as the second world for human beings.
Human’s quest for knowledge, exploration and discovery has no parallel. The West, on account of its edge in science and technology in the last four hundred years, wouldn’t like to give up hope to make use of the opportunity to colonise Mars provided there are chances of some success. Investment on scientific missions to be sent to Mars will pay off as the West, particularly the United States, will be the first one to put their mark on the red planet and unleash the process of colonising Mars.
Scientists are going an extra mile to probe how even a small percentage of available ice and CO2 can help start colonisation process on Mars. Therefore, they agreed upon selecting some of the parts of Mars so as to conduct engineering of environment which can raise the freezing temperature of Mars and at least lead to life on the red planet. According to Robin Wordsworth, “this regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification.” Unlike Earth’s polar ice caps, which are made of frozen water, the ones on Mars are a combination of water ice and frozen CO2.
Scientists researching on Mars point out that several million years ago Mars was warm and wet and at that time there was a large blue fresh water lake. Huge underground aquifer of liquid water exists there, according to a group of scientists, who say they have found convincing evidence. A Dutch company ‘Mars One’ has called from volunteer astronauts to fly to Mars in 2022 with one-way ticket and reaching the red planet in seven months’ time. A project costing $6 billion has attracted the attention of 10,000 people who expressed their interest to take the risk of traveling to Mars with no chance of returning to the Earth. If efforts to colonise Mars sustain, one can expect in coming decades the miracle of the centuries in the form of humans going to Mars and starting life on the red planet. Last month, the United Arab Emirate was the first Muslim country to send its mission to Mars to explore prospects of human living, thus giving an impetus to further explore the red planet.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2021.