Earth to invade Mars with a summer of rockets

Impossible? Only 26 of the 56 space missions to Mars have been successful.

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.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live on Mars?
  2. Are Mars missions worth the expense and the difficulty?

Activities

  1. Design a rocket to send astronauts to colonise Mars. It has to be able to land safely and you must take everything you need to survive on the red planet.
  2. It is 2050 and you are a new arrival to the Martian colony. Write a diary about your time there, using the videos in the Expert Links for ideas.

Some People Say...

“Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”

Carl Sagan (1934-1996), American astronomer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that there is no intelligent life on Mars. However, in 1877, the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli noticed channels on the planet’s surface. His observations were mistranslated as “canals”, and the assumption that these formations were made by intelligent life fuelled feverish speculation about Martian civilisation. But, in 1964, probes sent back photos of a desolate, lifeless planet. However, recent research suggests Mars was once warm and wet, and may still have life.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether life evolved independently on Earth and Mars. For planetary scientists, it is an incredibly important question. If we are not descended from Martians but we discover signs of life on Mars, then organic matter emerged twice in the same solar system. This would suggest life is much more common in the Universe, and that our chances of finding intelligent life beyond Mars may be much greater.

Word Watch

Narrow window
Every 2.2 years, the orbits of the two planets bring Mars and Earth within 40 million miles of each other. The current “launch window” will close on the 3 August.
Martian curse
In 1997, the journalist Donald Neff went one step further, joking that a “Giant Galactic Ghoul” was living off a diet of Mars probes. Satellite images of “pyramids” and “faces” in the Martian landscape have fuelled theories that there is something mysterious about the red planet.
UAE
United Arab Emirates is a small country that didn’t even have a space programme until six years ago. But last year, it put its first astronaut, Hazza al-Mansouri, into space and it wants to build a city on Mars by 2117.
Rover
They will join Curiosity, a car-sized Nasa robot that has been trundling around the Gale crater since 2012. Three other rovers have successfully landed on Mars: Sojourner, Opportunity, and Spirit.
Crushable structures
The European Space Agency planned to test this technique in 2016. Two metres above the ground, the engines turn off and its impact is absorbed by a deformable material. Unfortunately, the Schiaparelli lander malfunctioned and crashed near the Martian equator.
Decades
HG Wells’s 1898 science-fiction classic War of the Worlds imagined a Martian invasion of Earth. It was adapted for radio in 1938, causing public panic as listeners mistook it for a real invasion.
Answers
The rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have found evidence of ancient water, as well as the organic compounds necessary for life. However, because of the high levels of atmospheric radiation and toxicity in the soil, any existing life will be buried deep in the ground.
Elon Musk
The South African-born entrepreneur plans to test his SpaceX Starship this week. The reusable rocket is intended to send humans to Mars. Tickets will start at $500,000.
Astronomer Royal
A senior post within the British Royal Household, it was established by Charles II in 1675. The king was an enthusiastic patron of scientific exploration, setting up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and granting a charter to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific institution.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.