Unlike our lovely Earth, Mars won’t shield us from blasts of cosmic radiation.
If we hope to live there, we’ll need to equip our future colonies with underground tunnels, Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, tells Tech Insider. Like Earth’s magnetic field, the tunnels will shield colonists from rays. That way, we won’t need to always suit up when we travel between habitats.
“Imagine living in a subway system,” Zubrin says.
While scientists disagree on the timeline, future space colonies will required technology that we don’t yet have. “We need some breakthroughs that fundamentally change the game,” Ariel Waldman, committee member of the National Academy of Sciences, tells Tech Insider. “Then, all the timelines will get erased and revised.”
This is what it would take to live on Mars.
Ion engines looks the most promising. Spacecrafts can travel farther, faster, and cheaper with ion engines than any other propulsion technology, NASA says.
How it works: a solar panel connects to the engine, which speeds up a bunch of particles (or ions) inside. The magnetism from the particles, in turn, generates energy and powers the engine.
Space missions have used these engines for more than four decades, and researchers are still working to improve them. A group of researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently developed a new design that increases their lifespan.
The current challenge: the engines don't generate enough solar energy. It will take advanced solar technology to move rockets 141 million miles to Mars or power a large Martian colony.
Good news: we have pretty much everything we need to physically build space colonies.
Zubrin says we could live in inflatable, aluminium habitats connected by underground tunnels. This would make it easier to travel between the habitats without a spacesuit.
Since Mars sees plenty of sun, plants can grow in greenhouses. Most plants are also very resistant to radiation, Zubrin says.
Organisations, like Zubrin's Mars Society in Utah and HI-SEAS in Hawaii, simulate Mars missions in fake colonies. At HI-SEAS' research station, cots in the 1,300-square-foot domes include the bare minimum: a foam mattress, a narrow table, and a set of drawers.
When we run out of food or a part of the habitat breaks, we will need to figure out how to transport extra supplies.
Until the colony can sustain itself, we'll have to drop off cargo from Earth. To minimise trip time, astronauts should travel when Earth and Mars align, which happens every 26 months, Waldman says.
'If it does happen, it will take more collaboration than we've ever seen before,' she says. 'It'll be more worthy of celebration than the moon landing, because it will take a lot of people coming together on an unprecedented scale.'
'The key ingredient is courage,' says Zubrin. 'That's what got us to the moon.'
That, and billions of dollars of funding over decades.
Spacesuits that can deal with Mars' extremely low and unpredictable pressure will be essential.
This month, NASA unveiled a spacesuit prototype that can take the pressure. With the Z-2 suit, astronauts can manoeuvre in and out of rovers, collect samples, and walk around with ease.
Once we have the suits, we will also need to shield the colonies from cosmic rays.
NASA recently reported that solar wind stripped Mars' atmosphere and turned the planet into a wasteland. Now, it has about 1% of the atmosphere of Earth.
Zubrin says that our best bet is to cover the colonies in sand bags.
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