By Donna Vanzetti

With the recent successful launch of the SpaceX Rocket delivering two NASA astronauts safely to the International Space Station, it brings the challenging endeavour of sending humans to Mars, one step closer.

It was an historic flight, being the first human spaceflight to lift off from the United States since 2011 and a joint SpaceX-NASA venture.  However, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has bigger ambitions and has asked his staff to put their focus now onto the company’s next space craft, Starship. Starship is already being built and tested and is designed to carry a larger payload and more crew to the Moon but Elon Musk has his eyes firmly on Mars.

Since 2016, SpaceX has described a two-phased mission to colonise Mars. The first will send at least two Starship rockets to land on Mars, carrying drones and robots to discover resources such as water and investigate any geographic hazards.

In following years, the second phase will send two more Starship craft, carrying the first astronauts to land on Mars, along with all the necessary equipment to build a sustainable human base camp on the red planet.

This got us thinking… What are the pros and cons of going to Mars?

Mars Colony
An artists depiction of astronauts colonising Mars. Image: NASA

What are the Pros of Going to Mars?

Out of our nearby terrestrial neighbours, Mars is the best possible option for colonisation. Venus and Mercury are way too hot and the Moon has no atmosphere meaning inhabitants would endure destructive bombardment from meteors. Not fun! Mars also has a day similar in length to Earth’s and most important of all, water ice can be found on its surface.
  • History shows that life continuing on Earth is not guaranteed. We only need to look at the extinction of the dinosaurs to realise that to ensure the continuation of humanity, we should become a ‘multi-planet’ species.

  • Humans on Mars could make discoveries many times faster than robots. One key discovery would be to confirm whether life currently exists on Mars or not. Further exploration of the rocks, soils and key surface features on Mars can help us to learn more about how to survive on the red planet plus understand more about our own planet.

  • Humans living on Mars for prolonged periods would need to be self-sustaining and require specialised human habitats, grow their own food, utilise solar energy and set up reliable water sources, just for starters. Developing these types of innovations for Mars, will translate into better expertise here on Earth. New technologies, particularly in water saving techniques and more efficient solar energy storage could eventuate.

  • Humans living on Mars would, no doubt, have robots and rovers assisting them in their endeavour to safely inhabit the planet. Advances in robotics and autonomous navigation will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and filter down into our everyday lives here on Earth. Just to name a few, we could see major improvements in sensing capabilities for self-driving cars, perhaps nanobots that operate inside our body, future medical techniques plus major advances in all forms of communications.
NASA's Perseverance Rover will collect core samples of rocks and soils on Mars and search for signs past microbial life. Image: NASA

And What are the Cons?

Mars is 55 million kms away and even though a spacecraft can travel more than 20,000 km/hour, it will still take eight or nine months, depending on the alignment of Earth and Mars, to get there. Compare this to flying to the Moon which only takes approximately three days.
  • It goes without saying that it is super dangerous sending humans to Mars. There are any number of things that could go wrong. People could starve, freeze, run out of oxygen or be hit with lethal doses of radiation, not to mention the global dust storms that occur on Mars for weeks on end. And then there are the possible mechanical failures of rockets during flight, crash landings, holes in oxygen tanks, the list goes on!

  • Rescuing people from Mars, should a disaster transpire, is not just a matter of launching another spacecraft to assist them. People could be stranded on the red planet for up to two years until the window of opportunity to launch a rescue mission from Earth comes around.

  • It’s an expensive exercise! The estimated cost to send people to Mars is around 500 million dollars US. Although some analysts suspect it would likely be more!

  • The further you travel in space, the bigger the rocket you need to get there and that requires huge amounts of fuel, adding to the cost.

  • Communications between Earth and Mars would be very ‘long-winded’ conversations, as the delay is between 7 and 24 minutes, depending on where Earth is in relation to Mars. So suddenly those few seconds delay on today’s video conferencing doesn’t seem so bad!

  • It’s a dangerous world out in space and the ‘black swan’ of space travel threats, is the unknown, unknowns!

Even understanding all the risks, humans have always yearned to explore beyond the limits and that determination breeds innovation. Can you imagine waking up and looking out your Mars habitat window at dawn, to see a red, barren landscape and the two Moons, Phobos and Demos just setting. Perhaps your day would consist of caring for edible plants in the hydroponic greenhouses and later, going out with a team to explore the nearby craters, looking for Martian life.

As technologies advance, this fanciful scenario could only be 10 or so years away. The opportunity to build a new far-flung settlement and be called a Martian, would certainly be an adventure of all adventures. As long as a timely return to Earth could happen. So, who’s up for a trip to Mars?

Ready for a career in space?

In WA, you’re in the box seat! You can study astronomy and astrophysics with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at either Curtin University or the University of Western Australia.

We look forward to welcoming you to our friendly community of Stargazers & Astronomy Lovers where we thrive on making learning about the galaxy easy & fun!

Carol Redford - Founder Stargazers Club WA