The Reality of a Mission to Mars

The summer of 2015 may have belonged to Pluto, but it looks like Mars has taken the spotlight this fall. First, scientists announced evidence of liquid water flows on Mars, and then the movie The Martian was released in theaters.

In late September 2015, the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s imaging spectrometer detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes. The streaks appear to ebb and flow, and flow down steep slopes during warm seasons.

The flows are possibly related to liquid water.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water—albeit briny—is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

The darkened streaks on the Red Planet’s surface were first discovered in 2010 by University of Arizona undergraduate student Lujendra Ojha, now of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” he said. “Now we know there’s more to the story.”

So does the presence of liquid mean Mars could support life? In the movie The Martian, based on the book of the same title, astronauts in 2030 are making fairly regular trips to Mars to live for months at a time and study the planet and its ability to sustain life more closely. And, in fact, NASA has proposed sending manned spacecraft to Mars by 2030—a feat that won’t be easy.

As the movie shows, the trip to Mars will take a long time—8 months—and that long voyage under zero gravity will have adverse effects, such as bone density and muscle loss. In addition, another issue the movie addresses, the Mars team will not be able to easily communicate with home. At the distance they will be from Earth, there will be a long lag for radio signals and communication will take at least 7 minutes.

Combine those challenges with cold temperatures, a thin atmosphere, huge dust storms, and potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and a mission to Mars may almost seem impossible. But it’s possible NASA will be able to work around some of the problems.

“As the astronauts establish their base, NASA is planning to use Mars’ own resources to overcome some of these obstacles,” Sidney Perkowtiz, PhD, MS, Emeritus Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University, wrote in a blog post for the university.

The new discovery of surface water means NASA astronauts won’t have to mine for water below the Martian surface, plus oxygen is readily abundant in the atmospheric CO2, which can be broken up into breathable oxygen. And it is possible that Martian sources can be used to produce compound methane to be used as rocket fuel for the return trip, according to Dr. Perkowitz.

What might make the premise of The Martian seem more realistic than anything else is the fact that 9 of the technologies in the movie that make habitation on the planet possible for the fictional astronauts are very much real.

For instance, just as Matt Damon’s character grows plants in a created farming space, recently astronauts were successfully able to grow lettuce in the International Space Station.

“Every extra pound that has to be hauled up from Earth makes the project that much more difficult,” Dr. Perkowitz explained. “‘Living off the land’ on Mars, though it might affect the local environment, would hugely improve the odds for success of the initial mission—and for eventual settlements there.”

In addition, the habitation module in the movie has a real-world equivalent in the Human Exploration Research Analog, a self-contained environment that real-life crews use to train for long-duration space missions.

Plus, NASA also has prototype space exploration suits and a Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, which will allow for long travel on other planets.

“Yes, we’re closer to Mars than many may think,” Dr. Perkowitz wrote. “And a successful manned mission could be the signature human achievement of our century.”

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