It was Valentine’s Day, two years before I was born.
On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1, had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System forever. At the request of astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA sent a command to the spacecraft to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth from the edge of our Solar System across the expansive void. The photo of Earth, taken from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), famously christened “Pale Blue Dot”, is shown below.
In the photograph, the Earth is smaller than a single pixel, suspended among bands of sunlight scattered by the camera’s optics.
Carl then famously called humanity to action with the following words that have since been inextricably linked to this photograph. Here’s an abridged version of his famous speech –
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
While it is definitely one of the most stirring and inspiring speeches (read the full version here) and touches on every salient point of what it means to be human, it ends on a note that may now be up for debate.
“..the only home we have ever known.”
What if that were not true? What if there were an increasing possibility that humanity will have two homes in the very near future? I am talking, of course, about the exponentially increasing interest in colonizing Mars and making it inhabitable for humans. Over the last decade or so, this topic has burst into the public domain and has stirred up a lot of debate, controversy, and a sense of wonder. In 2015, I led a team of fellow student-researchers from my university in a NASA research conference. One of the themes to choose from, and the one that we decided to work on for six months, was designing a self-sustaining (that means without pizza deliveries from Earth) habitat for human explorers on Mars. Working on that project and sitting around in rooms filled with some of the smartest people on the planet gave me a deep insight into the Herculean technical challenges that will have to be overcome to even get to the planet, let alone colonize it. However, and this is an important point to make, it was an unwritten law in those rooms to not utter the word ‘impossible’.
Bear in mind that the aim of this piece is not to address the merits or demerits of a future with two home planets for humanity, but rather to expand upon some of the major hurdles we will face and the technical advancements happening today in pursuit of such a goal.
Ready for some literal rocket science? (Don’t worry, I’ve made it all bite-sized) Alright, let’s dive in!
It was an unwritten law in those rooms to not utter the word ‘impossible’
A long flight, with no complimentary booze.
The journey to Mars from Earth takes approximately 6 – 9 months (direct flight; takes longer with layovers like the Moon). Astronauts will need to bring all the food, water and other resources needed. Their bodies will need to be able to withstand the reduced gravity and increased radiation in deep space. And they’ll have to find a way to deal with the boredom. Yes, boredom. You think your 6-hour work trip to Minnesota was boring? Try being stuck for SIX MONTHS in a metal ball hurtling through nothing but darkness, with people you have not known for very long and may start hating two days into the journey. Oh also, there’s no Netflix, sushi, or wine.
On March 28, 1934, Admiral Richard Byrd, during his second expedition to Antarctica, where he was in isolation for four months, wrote in his diary that during that time, “the things of the world shrank to nothing.” It is a feeling likely to be magnified for future travelers to Mars. With missions this long, space agencies are using studies of life on Antarctic bases to look at ways of keeping astronauts sane. They are also looking to technological solutions such as interactive robots – Japan’s Seal-shaped, cuddly, therapeutic Bot called Paro (built for Alzheimer’s patients) is a front-runner.
You think your 6-hour work trip to Minnesota was boring? Try being stuck for SIX MONTHS in a metal ball hurtling through nothing but darkness, with people you have not known for very long and may start hating two days into the journey. Oh also, there’s no Netflix, sushi, or wine.
Killer Space Junk
Let’s say you find ways to deal with all of the above. Mazel-Tov! You’ve successfully launched a craft off the Earth and towards Mars with detailed plans on how to keep your astronauts happy, fed, and entertained for six months. WHAM! A scrap of metal from a Soviet era satellite, still floating around in space, crashes into your second-stage fuel tank. Whoops. No more gas. No more Mars. No more Earth.
Space debris is a real problem. More than 500,000 pieces of debris are tracked by NASA as they orbit the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph. At these velocities, even a fleck of paint can crater entire critical systems (not hyperbole; this has happened multiple times).
Researchers at The Aerospace Corporation in California are working to develop a spacecraft that’s meant to mop up these pieces of space debris (see picture below). The tiny ships, called Brane Crafts are like a sheet that is thinner than a human hair (but very strong). Each one would wrap around a piece of debris and yank it down to into the atmosphere, where it would eventually be incinerated about 155 miles above the Earth’s surface. “You can essentially think of it as one giant piece of saran wrap covered with thrusters” one researcher said.
Space debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph. At these velocities, even a fleck of paint can crater entire critical systems
So before we go on to the next major problem, let’s pause for a bit. Just wanted to remind you that there’s a bunch of challenges with this kind of a mission – How will they construct buildings once they get to Mars? You can’t take a lifetime supply of cement and bricks with you on the Spaceship (not if you want to take off anyway)! What about radiation – how do you prevent space-cancer? What about laws for Martian settlers? Do they still pay Earth taxes?! Will a child born on Mars be a Martian??? But, this blog post has run out of ‘space’ (HA!) so all those will have to wait for another article (If you really want to know about one of those, feel free to get in touch with me directly – or, you know, just google it ya lazy dingus). Having said that, let’s move on to our last major challenge. One that we can all relate to.
What’s for dinner?
There may very well be a Domino’s on Mars in the future, but there sure as heck ain’t one now (maybe I should pitch this idea to investors). Providing a full, nutritious and varied diet for future Red Planet travelers could be one of the most difficult aspects of planning the trip, one NASA researcher said. Astronauts on space shuttle missions and flights to the International Space Station currently get 3.8 pounds (1.7 kilograms) of food per day. At that rate, astronauts would need almost 7,000 pounds (3,000 kg) of food per person for a five-year round trip to Mars. And when launching a hunk of heavy metal and gas off the planet, every pound matters.
One possible solution proposed by NASA is to fly a self-contained “bio-regenerative system” to grow food during the trip to Mars. Plants in such a system would multitask by providing food, serving as little oxygen factories, cleaning the air of carbon dioxide exhaled by crews, and purifying water. NASA scientists have identified 10 candidate crops that seem to fit the bill for astronaut food: lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs, and cabbages. See the first lettuce grown in outer space below!
In the initial missions, however, NASA is considering sending an unmanned capsule up to Mars with three years worth of freeze dried food that has over 200 menus to choose from. Why? because ‘food fatigue’ is a real psychological effect and NASA needs the crews to be functioning at the highest mental levels. Plus, when you’re all alone on another planet, food is one of the few creature comforts and has a huge effect on morale.
There may very well be advancements in the tech world in the next few years (now that private sector companies like SpaceX are involved) that may solve many of the problems with a Mars mission. Having said that, I think the point is to recognize that it is not going to be easy. Right or wrong, this mission will be one of the significant milestones in humanity’s short lived time in this Universe.
On July 16, 1969, we humans took a small step into our cosmic neighborhood. It is now time to take a giant leap. Maybe eons from now, a spaceship launched from Mars will turn around, as it visits neighboring galaxies, and take a picture of home – a pale red dot.