Becoming an Interplanetary Species

Having a human colony in Mars seems like a feat that would take us a century to accomplish at the least—but Elon Musk, a multimillionaire and CEO of SpaceX, is optimistic about building a human colony on Mars.

On September 27, Elon Musk revealed the company’s daring plan to colonize Mars, with the prediction that the project will be complete by 2024 if all goes as planned. According to the New York Times, SpaceX’s goal is have multiple SpaceX vehicles take a hundred passengers to Mars, once every twenty-six months at precise time in which the Earth and Mars are closest to each other.


Challenges

Being on Mars would be quite an adventure for humans, because of the differences between Earth and Mars. As Musk explained in his speech transcribed by Business Insider, “It would be quite fun because you have gravity[on Mars], which is about thirty-seven percent of that of Earth, so you’d be able to lift heavy things and bound around and have a lot of fun.”

Although it may be fun to experience less gravity that we do on earth, the long-term effects of having gravity that is thirty-seven percent of that on Earth on the human body are unknown, and some of the known effects of a low-gravity situation on human health are negative. The transition between Earth’s gravity and Mars’ gravity would affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and movement. In low-gravity situations, the human body bones grow weaker because they lose minerals and their density drops at a rate close to one percent per month. In addition, there is no oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere and the temperature of Mars is a freezing negative fifty-five degrees celsius.

MVHS Physics teacher Michael Lordan, a former thermal engineer at an aerospace company Space Systems Loral, has experience working to build satellites. Mr. Lordan sees SpaceX’s eight year target as optimistic.

Traditionally, with the satellites that I worked with—they’re commercial satellites, so there are not even any people on board that you worry about keeping alivethe life of those satellites, from when you would contract to when it would launch, it is like a three-year life,” he stated. “So for something of this magnitude, something that we haven’t done before, eight years sounds like a long time, but it is really ambitious.”


Technology

Although the Mars’ atmosphere contains no oxygen, it does contain carbon dioxide. The planet also has water that only exists in the form ice.

Musk plans to take advantage of the ice and the carbon dioxide that exists on Mars, in order to refuel the SpaceX vehicle when it gets to Mars, so it can return back to Earth. The Sebatier reaction is a reaction between hydrogen and carbon dioxide that produces methane and water under specific pressure and temperature conditions and the presence of a catalyst. The energy needed to carry out this reaction will come from the energy that will be harvested by the SpaceX vehicle’s solar panels.

In the past, NASA has successfully landed vehicles on Mars, but the SpaceX vehicle that will carry humans to Mars will be much heavier because it will carry not only the humans to Mars but also the fuel needed to complete the journey and the supplies needed to keep the humans on the vehicle alive.

The problem is you have to lift up all of that stuff, and get it into space. And so it takes fuel to get it into space,” Mr. Lordan explained. “And if it’s a heavier spaceship, then you’re going to need more fuel. But fuel also has mass, and so it becomes this kind of like a problem that compounds itself.”

Because the craft will be heavier, it will require more fuel to power the SpaceX vehicle than the amount required to power an unmanned robot mission to Mars, making using the Sabatier reaction as a refueling method as part of the solution to the fuel problem crucial.

Mr. Lordan believes that the Mars mission is feasible because of the amount of data scientists and engineers have access to.  

“They’ve figured out a lot of stuff already about what Mars is like,” he said. ”And so they have data to help them make this work.”

Efforts are in place to increase the amount of data scientists and engineers have. In order to prepare for the mission in which SpaceX will send humans to Mars and prepare for unexpected challenges posed by the Martian environment, there will be several spacecrafts sent to Mars to survey Mars in detail for the colonization mission. The objectives of the missions will include finding locations where carbon dioxide can be collected and water can be mined.


Endless Possibilities

There are many physiological and technological challenges that are present when dealing with sending humans to Mars. Nevertheless, the plan that Musk has created is important because it makes landing humans on Mars seem like an attainable task.

Mr. Lordan reflected on how Musk’s plan would could influence the futures MVHS students, highlighting the fact that making the dream of getting to Mars attainable may stimulate students.

“I think it is a very big dream to have,” Lordan said. “This is such a huge accomplishment, that something we could hardly dream of years ago is within our reach, and so I think that achievability of the dreameven though the 2024 date is a little ambitious-is something that is exciting for students today because it is something that they can kind of work toward.”

SpaceX’s ambitions do not stop at putting humans on Mars. The company even has the long-term goal of sending humans to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, because of predictions that these moons have subsurface oceans. Truly, the possibilities are endless and efforts are underway that in the long-term may make humans a multi-planetary species.

Cover image: Flickr/Kevin Gill