Archives for posts with tag: mars

Courtesy ESA

Last week, the White House announced that humans would aim to set foot on Mars by 2033, just sixteen years from now. As a longtime space lover, I found this news momentarily exciting, but then I paused. Is sixteen years in any way realistic? I think not.

Taking people to Mars – and back again – is a massive engineering problem, on a scale we have never before encountered. I believe it’s possible to do it, but if we try to rush it, it will end in calamity. It breaks down to a number of key problems:


Without sufficient protection, astronauts will be subjected to intense radiation from the sun and from cosmic rays for the entirely of their journey. It goes without saying that space is a hostile environment, but, given the absence of a strong magnetic field, so too is Mars. We have very little experience of the effects of long term radiation exposure on humans outside of Earth, so a huge effort is required to gain more knowledge before we go. Frequent trips to or around the Moon would help, but given the absence of any such journeys in the last 40 years, we are starting practically from zero.


A crew of people will need to be sheltered, protected, fed, oxygenated, medicated and kept warm for up to three years from start to finish. They will need to have all the equipment they need to do their jobs, plus replacements, if something goes wrong. This implies a support structure to be in place – around Mars, on the way to Mars, on the way back from Mars and on the surface of Mars itself – before the astronauts begin their journey. That’s a lot of work – much greater than anything encountered by the lunar astronauts. Of course a very large craft might be able to bring people and supplies along in one go, but getting all this out of Earth’s gravity well and into the International Space Station will be a challenge in its own right, not to mention landing so much of it on Mars.

Getting off the surface of Mars

Apart from the Moon, we have never attempted lifting equipment – not to mention people – from the surface of another planet. The Moon, with its weak gravity, is much more trivial a problem than Mars would be. Consider the problems here on Earth. We have yet to conquer routine space launches. They require months of preparation and testing with teams of engineers to execute. Costs per launch are still in the millions of dollars. And even then, things can go wrong: launches fail regularly or are scrubbed in the last few seconds. Now imagine having to do this on Mars, where a failure, no matter how small, might mean you are left on the planet for good. We need a lot of practice at this, on Mars, before we attempt to bring people along.

Leaving them there

Sure, we could forego return craft and find volunteers to go to Mars for good, but without any prior experience of living on Mars, my guess is that they would not survive there for long. We on Earth would be treated to a real-time Truman Show of suffering, sickness and eventual death. This would quickly wipe the shine off mankind’s’ great achievement.


Right now, we still don’t know if life exists on Mars. Even though it’s unlikely, given the harshness of the Martian environment, it cannot be completely ruled out. Small traces of methane have been detected that deserve proper investigation. If we put humans on Mars – or god forbid, leave human corpses there – we lose our chance to find alien life there forever. We will have contaminated Mars with our own DNA, making any subsequent reports of life there highly suspect. We have the opportunity to make a truly extraordinary discovery on Mars. We owe it to ourselves to search hard for Martian life before we put boots there.

Let’s take our time

I get the feeling that this sixteen year trip to Mars is a kind of prestige project for Trump, as opposed to a genuine mission of science and discovery. I would love for us to visit Mars one day, but I think sixteen years is far too soon. We have a lot of learning to do and a lot of infrastructure to build before we can proceed with a manned mission that has a reasonable likelihood of success. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I think that the first successful landing is less likely to be sixteen years from now, and more likely to be sixty.

(via NASA HQ)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is unquestionably one of the best communicators that the scientific community has at the moment. He is an astronomy wonk and all of his talks on the subject are bursting with enthusiasm and passion for his chosen subject. When it comes to public outreach and inspiring new generations of scientists and science fans, I put him up there with Carl Sagan.

He was recently a guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galaf, and he did not disappoint. In the podcast, Neil talks about Obama’s recent NASA announcement, and how it will shape space exploration in the coming decades.

Tyson states that no humans will be going to Mars any time soon. Major expeditions need major, sustained funding and this can only happen if at least one of three fundamental drivers are in place: the glorification of a deity or king, the search for wealth and the need for self-preservation. In essence, power, money and war. None of these driving reasons can currently be used to justify the landing of humans on the Red Planet.

I would note two honorable exceptions to Tyson’s rule: the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider. Both projects were monumentally expensive, but nevertheless none of the reasons outlined above were in place. Tyson notes that the end of the Cold War caused the US superconducting collider project to be cancelled in 1989, but this doesn’t explain why the EU persisted with the LHC as the end of the Cold War affected Europe to just as great a degree.

At the end of the podcast, Tyson discusses the recent movie Avatar and some of the movie’s more badly executed concepts. It’s a delightful discussion. I had to laugh when he talked about the creatures with their own USB ports..

This is a top-class podcast from a top-class communicator so if you get a chance, have a listen.

Rationally Speaking : Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Need For a Space Program

The Phoenix lander alighting on the surface of Mars

Later today (or early tomorrow morning depending on your current time zone), the Phoenix probe lands on Mars to investigate if life, or traces of ancient life, exists in Mars’ polar wastes. There is a fascinating video on APOD today showing the probe entering Mars’ atmosphere and unfurling its instruments.

It is possible that today may mark one of the greatest discoveries in human history – finding life on another planet. But what are the repercussions, really?

From a religious perspective, there appears to be two possibilities: many of the moderate religions would be relatively open to the idea that the universe is teeming with life, a view bolstered by the Vatican astronomer recently. The fundamentalist religions would appear to have a problem, having accepted that the Earth is the ultimate focus of God’s work. It’s unlikely though that any of them will collapse, inoculated as they are against logic and evidence-based thinking. A bit of word-smithing will usually suffice for most of their congregations and to hell with those throwing stones from the outside. In other words: business as usual.

From a scientific perspective, the discovery on life should not come as a surprise. Over the last 400 years, a stong body of evidence has been built up that we are not so important, or unique, in the greater scheme of things. Given the vastness of the universe, and the ability of life forms to survive even in the most inhospitable of conditions on Earth, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would only bolster this viewpoint. Philosophically, the existence of life would be uncontroversial enough. What’s far more interesting would be the questions that this discovery would pose. What is the composition of the DNA? Would the chemical composition be different? What are the origins of life on Mars? Where else might we look for life? What would the implications be were we to bring samples back to earth? What would this tell us about the creation of artificial life in the lab? To put it mildly, the discovery would have the effect of reshaping and redirecting the research agenda in the 21st Century.

From a man-in-the-street perspective, it would be enlightening, a topic of conversation. I’m not sure if it would change anyone’s life irreperably, as we have now become so used to the announcement of impressive scientific discoveries in our lives. It would be a flitting moment of celebrity, until the media find something else to absorb their attention.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is moot and the more probable event of life not being found will be the result. In any case I’d welcome any views you might have.

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