• Reading Level 5
Science | History | Design & Technology | RE

Earth to invade Mars with a summer of rockets

Are we all Martians? Three spacecraft will soon begin a hazardous journey to the red planet in search of life. Some dream of colonising Mars – but the Martians may already have colonised us. In the next few days, three separate rockets will attempt to beat the odds and send a probe to the red planet. With only a narrow window to complete their launch, timing is critical. The missions have faced delays due to bad weather and technical glitches, but it is after lift-off that the real challenge will begin. Space engineers describe the mission to Mars as seven months of boredom followed by “seven minutes of terror”. The manoeuvres are so technically difficult, half of the probes never reach their destination – leading some to talk about a Martian curse. The Chinese, American, and UAE spacecraft will reach Mars early next year, after a 38.6 million-mile journey. The UAE mission will have the relatively easy task of slowing down from 75,000 to 11,000 mph in order to orbit the planet. The other two have the much harder task of actually landing a rover on the surface. Entering the Martian atmosphere, the lander reaches temperatures of 2000°C, hot enough to melt iron. A protective heat shield keeps the expensive equipment from burning up, whilst a parachute reduces its speed. But a rover the size of a car needs more than a parachute to stop it hurtling to the ground. Creative solutions for a soft landing have included giant airbags, a sky crane, and sophisticated crushable structures. And if that wasn’t enough, all this must be done on autopilot. Manual controls travel at the speed of light via radio signals and would take eight minutes to get to Earth and back. By which time, the rover will either have safely landed or have become Martian dust. But if getting to Mars is so hard, why bother? The current expeditions will study the planet’s atmosphere and collect soil samples in order to answer the question: is there, or was there ever, life on Mars? This puzzle has intrigued us for decades and we may be getting closer to finding some answers. But others are dreaming of a very different kind of life on Mars. The entrepreneur Elon Musk plans to send the first crewed expedition in 2024 and wants to build a Martian city by 2050. He says we need a “backup planet”, for when a meteorite or climate change makes Earth uninhabitable. “I would like to die on Mars,” Musk says. “Just not on impact.” But with a $10-trillion price tag, some think Musk’s plan is Mars madness. With so many problems to solve here on Earth, critics say we should “fix Earth first” before reaching for the stars. We have evolved over billions of years to survive on this planet and many think our best chance of survival will be here, on our home world. After all, we are Earthlings – not Martians. Or are we? Astronomer Royal Martin Rees says rocks carrying “primitive Martian life” may have “seeded our planet” billions of years ago, bringing life to Earth. If this is true, then we are not heading out into the unknown, we are – in fact – going home. So, are we all Martians? Seeing red Some say, yes, Mars is our past and our future. Since ancient times, we have been fascinated by the red planet. If fuels our imagination, our sense of wonder and adventure. Earth will not be our home forever and, if we want to explore the galaxy, we must first colonise Mars and learn to become Martians. Others say, no, this Mars fever is pointless. It doesn’t make any difference whether we are descended from Martian microbes or not, the planet we have evolved to live on is right here, under our feet. Throwing billions of dollars into space will not end poverty or stop the climate crisis. We should devote our imagination to protecting the planet we have. KeywordsElon Musk - A South African-born entrepreneur whose companies have included the online payment service PayPal.

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