Life on Mars

Credit of featured image: WikiImages / 1175 images , pixabay.

On Monday the 18th of February, NASA released a short video captured by their Perseverance rover which showed its successful arrival on the surface of Mars, making it the first video of its kind to be sent back to Earth. As of today, 26th February, Perseverance has been on Mars for a total of eight days. When it comes to the survival of our species, life on another planet might well be out of reach for the near future. If any planet can give us hope however, Mars may hold the secret to the survival of humanity.

During its time there, Perseverance‘s job is to investigate the environment on Mars with a particular focus on the assessment of past habitability. By examining layers of ancient river sediments that could preserve chemical signs of life, Perseverance could ultimately help us to discover if life has ever existed on Mars. It will also be storing sample containers along its route in the hope that they will be retrieved by future Mars mission. Perseverance is equipped with 19 cameras and two microphones allowing those of us here on Earth to experience the sound of the Martian environment for the first time.

So far, the space industry has had a relatively narrow focus, facilitating activities specific to supporting Earth including satellites used for communication, navigation and broadcasting. As we progress further into the 21st century however, the space industry will continue to evolve. Influential figures such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are competing to revolutionise our relationship with space, paving the way to commercial space travel and laying the foundations for what might one day lead to life beyond Earth.

Given the risks that we as humans pose to the planet, a day may come when we leave our current home behind. The amount we consume each year already exceeds what our planet can sustain, and the World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2030 we will be consuming two planets’ worth of natural resources annually. Although the global effort to achieve a sustainable existence on earth has improved incredibly in the last couple of decades, we still have a long way to go. It’s only natural to wonder what life might be like beyond our current home. Human missions to Mars have been the subject of sci-fi art, aerospace engineering, scientific proposals and general human curiosity and fascination for a very long time. A wide variety of plans and ideas have been continuously thrown around the world of science, ranging from brief exploration missions to longterm proposals including sending settlers to colonise the planet.

It’s an incredibly exciting thought, that just as our grandparents or parents witnessed the first man landing on the moon, we may yet witness the first man landing on Mars. NASA is aiming for the first human missions to Mars in the 2030s. In November 2015, Administrator Bolden of NASA reaffirmed the goal of sending humans to Mars. He laid out 2030 as the date of a crewed surface landing, and noted that the recent landing of Perseverance would support the human mission. Most of the progress towards actual space settlement is being accomplished in the private sector with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX along with Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Boeing.

Looking much further into the future, one has to wonder, would the human race actually be able to survive on Mars? The short answer is of course, no. Or alternatively, not yet. However, if future technological advancements did allow us to overcome the hazards of the red planet, radiation exposure, toxic soil, an atmosphere full of CO2, a lack of water and temperatures as cold as -142 c, to name a few, there are certain aspects of the red planet we could potentially come to enjoy. We may have more in common with our closest neighbour than you might think. Mars today is essentially just one big, dusty desert, but there was possibly a time when it wasn’t so different from our own planet.

Scientists have learned that billions of years ago, Mars used to have oceans, rivers and lakes but over time almost all of it either froze beneath the surface or evaporated. Water on the red planet still exists today but mainly in the form of polar ice caps. It’s this former presence of water that leads scientists to believe that life may once have existed on Mars and therefore, could potentially exist again. The difference between the two hemispheres of Mars is particularly interesting. If the surface of Mars was covered with water just as Earth is, all of the water would be in the predominantly flat northern hemisphere, essentially creating one giant ocean that takes up half of the planet’s surface. Alternatively, the southern hemisphere is covered with large craters, meaning that it would remain relatively high and dry. Martian sand dunes form very similarly to the sand dunes on Earth. Although they tend to grow up to twice as large due to a gravitational pull that’s only about 1/3 as strong as ours.

Without any water, the weather on Mars would be relatively straightforward, there wouldn’t be any rain. Which means that you also won’t experience any tsunamis or storms. The only real, but very significant weather hazard on the red planet is dust storms. These dust storms play a large role in giving Mars its red colour as they distribute rusted iron particles around the surface of the planet and up into the air. These storms have the potential to last for months and cover the whole planet due to the lack of moisture and low gravity. Any potential human dwelling would have to be located as high as possible to limit the impact of these storms.

The summit of Olympus Mons might be sufficient. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano and the highest peak on Mars. The volcano has a height of over 21 km (13.6 mi or 72,000 ft) as measured by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), which is about two and a half times that of Mount Everest. It’s also the tallest planetary mountain, currently discovered in our solar system. However, it isn’t the only natural wonder to be found on the red planet. Valles Marineres is the largest canyon in the solar system. The canyon is so wide that from one side, the rim of the opposite side wouldn’t be visible as it would be below the curvature of the horizon.

The human race has always enjoyed speculating what alternative worlds might look like. Movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar or the Star Wars franchise bring our imaginary depiction of other planets to life. From the Amazon Rainforest, to the Himalayas and the Great Barrier Reef, natural wonders here on our own planet have been serving as sources of inspiration since the very beginning. Interestingly however, while all of these fictional planets we see in films boast a spectacular variety of surfaces and landscapes, the sky always remains similar to our own. Regardless of what part of Earth you live in, we all live our entire lives underneath the same sky, making it quite difficult to imagine any alternative.

As it turns out, if you were standing on Mars and looking upwards, the view would be just as surreal as anything you would find on the surface. During the day on Mars, the sky is predominantly reddish/orange due to the significant presence of rust and dust in the atmosphere. This all changes at sunset. As the sun dips down closer to the horizon, the sky around it fills with a spectacular blue light, creating a blue sunset. This is because more of the sun’s light is travelling through dust and rust at sharper angle, causing more of the red light to scatter while the blue light pierces our eyes. It’s the very same process that happens here on earth, the difference in colour is due to the make up of the atmosphere.

The launch of Mars 2020 was the last of three space missions sent toward Mars during the July 2020 Mars launch window. With the national space agencies of the United Arab Emirates (the Emirates Mars Mission) and China (the Tianwen-1 mission), having also launched similar missions, it’s clear that the next decade of space exploration will be incredibly significant. All going well, the pace of advancements is going to increase dramatically.

To the ancient Romans, Mars was symbolic of blood and war. Now, around two thousand years later, many people believe the red planet may be the key to a bright new future for humanity.

Published by Rory Corbett

My take on the world and everything in it

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