“Human beings have always looked to expand the territory that we can live in,” former NASA astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman told Business Insider. We spoke with Hoffman at BBC FUTURE’s World-Changing Ideas Summit about what it will take to colonize Mars. “You’ll find people who are willing to go and live there because they can.”
Hoffman is even confident that if we set our minds to it, then we have a good chance of successfully colonizing the Red planet. “Life is always looking for new environmental niches and habitats and often evolves to be able to live there,” he said.
Humans must overcome many obstacles between the Mars we know today and establishing a future Mars Metropolis. The two biggest hurdles standing in our way right now are radiation and technology, Hoffman said.
“The first [hurdle] is the radiation that you’re exposed to when you’re in deep space and there’s a lot of research going on there now,” to figure out how to deal with this limitation, Hoffman said.
Since 2008, more than 40 scientists at institutions across the country have been studying what space radiation does to the human body and how to mitigate those effects. Moreover, NASA has established nearly a dozen specialised centres of research in this field.
The sun is primary source of harmful radiation that astronauts would face on their way to Mars. Powerful bursts from the sun called solar flares, like the one shown below, release lethal doses of radiation with the power of 160 billion megatons of TNT.
We are safe here on Earth because our planet’s magnetic field and thick atmosphere protect us from these radiation blasts, but there’s no protection in space. During deep space flights, astronauts would be bombarded by dangerous, high-energy radiation, like x-rays and gamma rays, from solar flares.
The human body can handle certain kinds of radiation in small doses, but the longer you are exposed the more likely your body will blow past those “safe” radiation levels into the danger zone. The result is a series of scary symptoms like vomiting, fatigue, changes to white blood cell count, and impaired immune system, all of which could jeopardize an astronaut’s ability to do much else.
Long term, radiation exposure will increase astronauts’ risk of developing cancer and can also lead to damaged cardiovascular system, eyes, and central nervous system.
In order to colonize Mars, we first need to get there safely and in good health. That’s why it’s so important that scientists find a way to protect astronauts before they travel anywhere far from Earth, Hoffman said.
“There’s various avenues,” he explained. “There’s new types of radiation shielding. Of course, if we had better rockets, we could get there faster and you wouldn’t be exposed to as much radiation. And then there’s also genetic investigations that people have different sensitivities to radiation and there may be also pharmacological ways of mitigating the impact of radiation.”
Making The Most Of Martian Resources
The second hurdle to colonization, Hoffman said, is the technology that will help humans survive on Mars.
“If you’re going to spend any significant amount of time on Mars, you ought to be able to use Martian resources to help survive because it’s extremely expensive to bring anything to Mars from Earth.”
According to NASA, it costs $US10,000 to send a single pound of payload into space. However, the space agency is working on next-generation launch vehicles to be ready for long-term space travel by 2025, and they hope these new vehicles will reduce the price tag down to $US100 per pound. Helping push this goal forward is SpaceX’s attempts to make rockets reusable, which would save the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to build a new rocket for every space-bound launch.
In addition to the cost, there’s the time it takes to send anything to Mars to consider. On average, Earth and Mars are 140 million miles apart. The fastest spacecraft NASA ever launched, the New Horizons mission, left Earth in 2006 travelling through space at 36,000 miles per hour. At that pace, it would take a spacecraft 162 days, 5.5 months, to travel 140 million miles.
With limited space for payloads and long periods of space travel, future Mars colonizers will have to make the most of the resources available on Mars.
“We know that Mars has carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It has all the elements that we need so we could — in principle — live off the land given sufficient energy and solar energy,” Hoffman said. “Maybe set up nuclear reactors or maybe a fusion reactor if we have fusion by that time. That would make a big difference.”
A Recipe For Success
Hoffman is a principle investigator for an intriguing machine that is scheduled to go to Mars in the next decade aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.
Called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, the instrument is designed to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.
If successful, Hoffman and his colleagues at MIT hope to design an even larger version of MOXIE that they hope could produce enough oxygen to both supply astronauts on long explorations across the Martian surface and be used to fuel rockets that would return astronauts to Earth.
“Given sufficient energy and sufficient chemicals that we have on Mars we could live off the land. And that will be a giant step in actually living on another planet,” Hoffman said.
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