Build-up of traffic on the outskirts of Mars

NASA’s Perseverance: The craft cost $2.7bn, and is powered by plutonium. © NASA

Could Mars be the answer to our problems? As spacecraft from three different nations hurtle towards the red planet, the creation of a colony there looks more and more plausible.

“Seven minutes of terror.” That is what NASA scientists are expecting when their Mars rover, Perseverance, descends to the Red Planet next week. First, it will hit the upper atmosphere at 13,000mph; then a huge parachute will be released; then rockets will fire to slow it until it hovers 20m above the surface. Finally, the rover will be lowered by cables from a “sky crane” onto the surface.

The potential for mishaps is enormous. Around half of the craft previously sent to Mars have either crashed or missed the planet completely as a result of mechanical or software failures. And over the next 10 days, no fewer than three will be running the interplanetary gauntlet. The United Arab Emirates’ probe, Hope, is scheduled to arrive today, and China’s Tianwen-1 tomorrow.

“It can be a heartbreaking business,” says Colin Wilson, a physicist at Oxford University. “I have had instruments on two previous Mars missions – Britain’s Beagle lander and Europe’s Schiaparelli probe – and each time I was in the control room, clutching my seat, during their descents. And on both occasions, the probes crashed.”

The first problem is distance: while the Moon is 250,000 miles away, Mars is 35 million. If you think of it as a game of golf, says Susanne Schwenzer of the Open University, the journey to the Moon is a short putt. Mars is “a full tee-shot, and a lot trickier”.

Landing is difficult because, although Mars has an atmosphere, it is not very thick. “That means there is enough air to trigger dust storms and winds that sheer and push your lander off course and into danger,” says Colin Wilson. “On the other hand, it is not thick enough to allow you to use parachutes for a probe’s entire descent.”

On previous missions, NASA relied on airbags which allowed the probes to bounce to a standstill. But Perseverance is the size of an SUV and, at more than a tonne, much heavier than its predecessors.

Perseverance’s task is to look for signs of habitable conditions for life and evidence of microbes. Tianwen-1 is designed to map Mars’s surface and hunt for signs of past or present life.

The UAE’s Hope will spend two years orbiting the planet to study its atmosphere and climate.

The race to achieve a manned landing may be won by a private programme – Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Musk claims to be “highly confident” of managing it by 2026, and hopes to send one million people to Mars by 2050. "The important thing,” he says, “is that we establish Mars as a self-sustaining civilization."

A key question for potential colonists is whether they will find water. Hopes have been raised by research being done at the SETI Institute in California into RSLs – short for Recurring Slope Lineae.

These are dark stripes which appear to flow down the sides of craters at the warmest times of the year. Some scientists have attributed them to sliding dust, but the SETI team believe that dust combined with water is a more likely explanation.

Could Mars be the answer to our problems?

Home from home

Some say, yes. Humanity’s days on Earth are numbered thanks to overpopulation, climate change and our extravagant use of the planet’s resources. If we are to survive, making a fresh start elsewhere in the universe is the best solution – and with every probe we send to Mars, the more possible it looks that we can create a viable colony there.

Others argue that it is ridiculous to swap a planet which is perfectly suited to our needs for another one 35 million miles away where life would be incredibly difficult. Even if Elon Musk’s ambitions are realised, only a tiny fraction of the human race will ever get there. The money and ingenuity involved in exploring it would be far better used solving the problems we face on Earth.

You Decide

  1. If there are really going to be one million people on Mars by 2050, would you want to be one of them?
  2. Many people today criticise the colonial powers which conquered other countries in the 19th Century. Should the same arguments apply to conquering Mars?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are sending an SUV to Mars. Make a drawing showing how it would differ from one for use on Earth.
  2. Write a one-act play in which astronauts from three different countries land their spaceships on a new planet at the same time.

Some People Say...

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about.”

Elon Musk (1971 - ), South African entrepreneur

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that China has emerged as a major new force in space exploration. Launched on a Chinese rocket, Tianwen-1 is a highly sophisticated craft, consisting of four different parts: an orbiter, a lander, a rover and a deployable camera. The rover is equipped with radar that can penetrate 100m below the surface. China has already landed a rover on the dark side of the Moon, and is in the process of building its own space station.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether we are witnessing a new space race like the one between Russia and the US in the 1960s. A key difference is that there are now private companies involved, such as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, in addition to national space agencies. There has also been a lot of co-operation since the creation of the International Space Station: Hope will be conducting a joint experiment with a European-Japanese craft, BepiColombo.

Word Watch

NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, responsible for the US space programme.
Gauntlet
An old name for a glove. Running the gauntlet was a punishment in which the victim had to run between two rows of soldiers who would strike him as he passed.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates. A country in the Middle East consisting of seven states. Its capital is Abu Dhabi.
Beagle
The craft was supposed to land in 2003, but contact was lost. One theory is that it landed safely, but its communication equipment failed.
Schiaparelli
Named after a 19th-Century Italian astronomer, the craft was a joint project between the Russian and European space agencies in 2016.
Elon Musk
A South African-born entrepreneur whose companies have included the online payment service PayPal and the electric-car company Tesla.
SETI
The institute is devoted to investigating the development of life and whether it might be found elsewhere in the universe.

Subjects

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