Regarding the universe and its mysteries, everyone gets excited. As for now, humans are the only known living beings in this universe who are living in a goldilocks zone. Thinking about our sister planet i.e. The exploration of mars and its potential for habitability, it is the closest to the habitable zone of the solar system.
Mars is the fourth planet among different solar system bodies which has a size almost similar to the Earth. Mars’ soil appears red, that’s why the ‘Red Planet‘. For the past couple of decades, this planet has fascinated scientists because of its most closely habitable environment.
Due to this curiosity, scientists began exploring mars in the 17th century but mostly by telescopic observation. It is only in the 20th century that they sent a spacecraft to the martian surface, mysteries started to unfold.
Over the number of years, many countries have sent several satellites, landers, and rovers to examine the martian atmosphere. Some have found evidence of ancient waterways in the form of river valley networks.
It has also been confirmed that the Martian surface has surface liquid water. Water vapor is mostly absent because of thin air, it evaporates very easily. Let’s explore the red planet and investigate whether it holds the capability of a future human settlement or not.
1. Mars and its Potential for Habitability
The red planet has been an attraction to stargazers since the early 17th century. Scientists started observing this planet through the telescope and due to its reddish appearance, it came to be known as the Red Planet. But the most rigorous investigation began when the American space agency the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent its first aircraft in 1964 named, the Mariner 4.
This spacecraft provided some of the earliest images of mars, presenting it to the whole world. It was the first time when humans saw the planet’s surface. Some of the other missions are as follows
1.1. Early Missions
Humans have tried to explore other planets firstly through telescopic observations and now we are trying to send spacecraft and humans to them. Mars is one such planet that attracted the scientific community. Following are the missions that have been sent by humans to study mars.
1.1.1. Mariner 4: 1965
Mariner 4 was sent by NASA and returned to earth with 21 photos
1.1.2. MARS 3: 1971
This mission was sent by the USSR. It successfully landed on the surface but lost after a few seconds.
1.1.3. Mariner 9: 1971
NASA’s Mariner 9 sent the conformity of volcanoes and Valles on the surface.
1.1.4. Viking 1 and Viking 2: 1976
Viking 1 and Viking 2 were sent by NASA to the surface but were not successful in confirming life on mars.
1.1.5. Mars Global Surveyor: 1997
This NASA mission mapped the whole surface of mars.
1.1.6. Pathfinder Lander and Sojourner Rover: 1997
This was also a NASA mission which was sent mainly to find life on mars.
1.1.7. Mars Odessey: 2001
Odessey was one of the successful missions of NASA which is still sending the data even after 20 years.
1.1.8. Mars Express: 2003
This European Space Agency’s mission had a dual purpose. To set up an orbiter and to send a lander on the surface. Unfortunately, the lander got lost but the orbiter worked for at least 19 years.
1.1.9. Spirit and Opportunity: 2004
Spirit and Opportunity rovers were sent to figure out any ancient flowing surface water.
1.1.10. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: 2006
This NASA mission sent back the largest amount of data to date.
1.1.11. Curiosity Rover: 2012
As the name suggests, it was NASA’s mission to find out the amount of methane and organic compounds in the martian regolith.
1.1.12. Mars Orbiter Mission: 2014
This was India’s first Mars mission which gained popularity because its cost of production was very less and it sent a lot of high-resolution images back to earth.
1.1.13. Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter: 2016
It determines the atmospheric composition of martian extreme environments.
1.1.14. Mars Insight lander: 2018
For the very first time, NASA sent this lander to investigate the martian subsurface.
1.1.15. Hope Orbiter: 2021
This is United Arab Emirates’ first Mars Mission.
1.1.16. Tianwen: 2021
China successfully deployed its lander and rover over the martian surface to investigate the early life on mars as well traces of a habitable environment.
1.1.17. Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter: 2021
NASA’s most advanced mission to date. The ingenuity helicopter took flight from the martian surface, It was a big achievement for future space exploration on this planet. The rover, on the other hand, takes soil samples that will be carried by the Mars Sample Return mission.
Some future missions are directed toward finding whether is mars habitable or not. Mars Sample Return Mission is one such mission that will drill samples and bring them back to earth for testing their chemical makeup and moderately volatile elements in the martian rocks.
With continued space exploration, we can expect more advancements in planetary science that will help us to find more evidence about this planet.
1.2. Evidence on Early Mars
Evidence from the missions suggests that the early solar system was wild. Mars, among the other planets, faced the early ruckus of solar system bodies like asteroids and meteorites.
Scientists suggest that mars lost its atmosphere due to solar winds and UV radiation which wiped off the atmosphere as well as the surface environment. There is evidence which shows that Mars had a vast Northern Ocean which lost over time. However, martian history shows that the situation was not always like this. There was past life on Mars and its evidence comes from the ancient river valleys, the deposits of near-surface liquid water, and polar ice caps.
Some meteorites were recovered from the Sahara Desert highlighting that these were possibly martian meteorites that came from the southern highlands of mars. The Sahara desert holds up some of the oldest rock samples similar to martian meteorites. However, there is no certainty to these facts.
1.2.1. Liquid Water
In a 2015 study, NASA confirmed that liquid water flows in intermittent periods on present-day mars. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) scaled a pattern of ebb and flow of liquid water streams flowing down the lane on the martian mountains indicating a slight possibility of making mars habitable.
This flowing water also led to the discovery of traces of salts which further enable habitability on mars. Till recently, there was a popular belief in presence of ancient water ice on the planet but these discoveries opened a new chapter where the story of early mars can be revealed.
1.2.2. Is Mars Habitable
Early evidence of liquid water, martian meteorites, and basaltic rocks (which Earth also possesses in large amounts in its crust) in the martian crust are direct evidence of the early life forms on mars.
The Northern Hemisphere of Mars is more smooth than the southern one. Constant weathering of the surface made the rocks smooth in the past by rivers. There was a volatile depletion of rocks at this half. NASA suggests that around 3 billion years ago, the environment of the northern hemisphere was much similar to the earth’s atmosphere
However, a thin atmosphere cannot hold liquid water, making it inhabitable for humans. Also, the necessary chemical reactions that are necessary for moderately volatile elements cannot be possible in such a cold climate.
Another important thing that prevents mars to support life is the presence of carbon dioxide almost 96% of the mar’s atmosphere.
1.2.3. Martian Surface
As compared to the earth, the martian crust is thicker but has almost similar chemical makeup and mineral composition like iron, nickel, and sulfur.
However, when it comes to the upper surface, mars is covered with regolith soil, rich in iron oxide, and has vast craters, and large volcanoes. Whereas, the earth’s surface consists of 70% of water.
Although liquid water is present on the surface of mars, the bulk of mars lost volatile elements to support life. Martian meteorites draw a very similar picture of early earth to mars’ past. Sandy dunes, sedimentary rocks, and the chemical composition of rocks are of particular interest.
1.2.4. Atmosphere and Temperature
Mars possesses a very thin atmosphere. Earth has five layers of the atmosphere, all are defined by their temperature and pressure. Mars, on the other hand, has volatile retention of gases. Almost 96% of the atmosphere is made up of Carbon dioxide whereas, Nitrogen, Argon, and Oxygen are in very fewer amounts.
This is similar to pressure. When we compare Earth’s atmospheric pressure with Mars’ atmospheric pressure, it is just 1% of the sea level. Due to this thinness, space aircraft cannot take off from the surface of mars.
Regarding temperature, it is very dynamic on Mars as compared to the Earth. The surface temperature is much colder on mars. It also varies from pole to equator from -143 °C to 35 °C.
1.2.5. Mars’ Potential to Sustain Life
Scientists are of the view that Mars has the potential for a possible human settlement in the future. However, humans have to live in specially created domes because of Mars’ thin atmosphere and its exposure to the sun’s ionizing radiation.
Private sector companies are exploring the opportunity to exploit Mars settlement in the future. Therefore, many are developing reusable rocket technology which can help in achieving a safe take-off from the martian delicate environment.
Overall, it can be said that as of now there is no full proof evidence of a hospitable environment on mars where humans can live. Although mars fall in the habitable zone of solar systems, the conditions are not favorable because of its volatile environment.
2. Challenges of Colonizing Mars
Despite all the efforts by humans to colonize Mars, this mission to settle on mars may never be accomplished.
Following are some reasons why Mars poses a challenge to humans to colonize it.
2.1. Not Sufficient Amount of Liquid Water
Although recent studies show the presence of flowing water and water vapor, however, to establish an entire colony that water is not sufficient in quantity as well quality wise.
2.2. Martian Meteorites Draws a Difficult Picture
The chemical composition that we found in these meteorites is not suitable for humans to grow plants in the soil of mars which led to another problem of food.
2.3. Distance from the Earth
A long distance, about 140 million miles, from our mother planet Earth makes it very difficult for humans to send supplies to Mars in a short period. It takes at least six to eight months to reach Mars and that too depends on the alignment of the planets.
Therefore, a possible future human settlement on mars has to live on its own without any help from the Earth for food or equipment supplies.
It is still possible to live on mars but it will need a huge investment for setting up nearly fail-safe living domes where humans can cultivate plants as well as produce water.
2.4. Climate and Environment
Although, Mars is the one planet for humans to settle among all the planets in our solar system. However, its harsh climate is not suitable for the human body as the surface average temperature is below freezing point and there is no nitrogen fixation which is very critical for plant growth.
Volatile elements like Neon and Argon are readily released from their crust and get converted into water and CO2.
The thin air is another problem because it allows harmful radiation to penetrate and reach the surface, making mars even more inhabitable for humans.
2.5. Technological Challenges
Planetary science is developed manifold during the last 50-odd years to explore the universe. Humans are now capable to see faraway galaxies which are thousands of light years away from us with the help of marvelous inventions of the Hubble Telescope and the James Webb Telescope. We have also found new solar systems where many planets are in the Goldilocks zone.
But at the same time, it is also worth mentioning that planetary exploration by humans is not yet achieved. Mainly in areas of interplanetary travel. It requires a strong propulsion system, reusable rocket systems, a suitable habitat design, and most importantly, huge funding.
2.6. Martian Sub-Surface
We do not know much about the inner structure of mars. Activities of plate tectonics, if there are any, can make a huge impact on the location of the settlement that we choose. The effect of the volatile elements of mars on humans will be another problem.
We do not have any samples of mars’ inner surface to examine. The only samples are collected by the latest mission of NASA which is Perseverance Rover but the penetration depth is not enough to reach ta a certain conclusion.
2.7. Long-Term Health Problems
Mars’ planet gravity is less than that of the earth, making it difficult for humans to live. It will bring several health problems like muscle weakening, blood pressure problems, etc. Artificial gravity has not been successful yet.
Humans will need to create a large space station where all these facilities can be catered to and health problems can be solved.
2.8. Laws of New Colonies
It is subtle yet a huge problem. Who will decide which law will govern these colonies as we are not diligent law-abiding people?
The present law which is mainly defined by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 mentions that outer space is the global common where no country can claim any rights. This means that no country can claim property rights.
However, talking about the colonies, if one colony is settled by Western countries, there are chances that countries of the eastern hemisphere will claim their colonies which will create differences.
2.9. Ethical Dilemma
Looking back on human history, when they started exploring the earth, the population has been exploded leading to a huge climate change crisis on earth. This is due to the ever-exploiting and conquering nature of humans on the nature which resulted in problems like global warming.
When we are discussing settling on other planets, it is a high probability that we will exploit that planet in the same way. Because the main goal to reach there is to find a new home as we are making the earth inhabitable for ourselves.
3. Current and Future Plans for Mars Colonization
Currently, the most advanced Mars missions are conducted by NASA and its partner space agencies like European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Helicopter are deployed to analyze the conditions which can enable habitability on the surface of mars.
3.1. SpaceX Mission
SpaceX is a private company established by Elon Musk. Its prime aim is space exploration. Currently, it is working on developing reusable rockets with high propulsion systems. its mission for mars is to establish a city where around 1 million people can reside in the future.
It is a very ambitious project with the all-time largest budget making it highly advanced.
3.2. NASA Future Plans
The next plan in line is the Mars Sample Return Mission which will bring back the only samples that Perseverence Rover has collected. It’s a joint mission of NASA and ESA which will include Rockets, Helicopters, several Aircraft, and Landers.
The samples will be carefully analyzed in the most advanced laboratories on Earth. Next in line is Artemis Mission. It is a comprehensive collaboration between public agencies and international partners along with commercial players to set up a settlement on the moon for future expeditions on Mars.
3.3. Other Missions
Countries like China, India, and UAE are also exploring ways to reach Mars. They already have launched missions to mars. Tianwen-2 and Mangalyaan-2 are in the lineup to reach mars by China and India respectively.
4. Benefits of Colonization of Mars
The colonization of Mars is the gateway to future space explorations. Humans have grown in large numbers that the earth cannot cater to their needs. We need more space to live. At the same time, climate change has forced humans to find some other lands because the change is very difficult to reverse. The benefits are
4.1. Scientific Research Opportunity
It will create a huge opportunity for the scientific community to study the climate, geology, and mineral composition of mars. The Mars planet gravity is a huge task for them to tackle for a future settlement.
It will also provide a prospect to find evidence of any ancient life on it. Being among the rocky planets, colonization of mars will provide some insights about other rocky planets of our solar system.
4.2. Potential Economic Benefits
Exploration of space is now a booming industry. World’s big space conglomerates are at the top of the chart. Like SpaceX and Blue Origin, many more private companies are exploring this sector to join.
Mars colonization can play a huge role in space tourism and setting up businesses related to its colonization like advanced robotics, 3D printing, solar power-based systems, etc.
4.3. Back-Up Plan for Earth’s Survival
There are some huge threats that Earth is facing now. Climate change, nuclear threats, and population explosion have made some irreversible changes on Earth. To avoid their dangerous consequences, it is important to find new lands to settle humans which will also determine the future of our planet earth.
Therefore this colonization becomes necessary for the survival of our mother planet. It is also important for humans to find new homes and survive our species because of the possible threat of asteroid impact, huge disasters, or any other catastrophe on earth. It will preserve our species, knowledge, and culture for future generations.
4.4. Potential for Resource Extraction
Studies of primitive undifferentiated meteorites have suggested that Mars is a huge source of minerals that we can extract from its surface. Primitive undifferentiated meteorites are small pieces of rocks that have never been exposed to high temperatures. Therefore, they can tell us the actual mineral composition of this planet.
The resource extraction will provide possibilities for future exploration as it will reduce the cost of production and we will have more resources to reach different solar system bodies.
We have come across much new information after The Exploration of Mars and its potential for habitability, and how far humans have reached through different missions starting from NASA’s Mariner 4 mission of 1965 to the Perseverance Rover. Evidence of liquid water is encouraging but not sufficient for sustaining human life.
It is also analyzed that there are numerous obstacles to do away with before reaching Mars. Apart from funding problems, technological obstacle is making it difficult for us to explore the red planet. There are voices of anti-mars exploitation already raised which are raising some crucial ethical issues.
Despite all that, the benefits to reach mars are enormous. It will open a whole new world for humans, especially the scientific community to explore space in a much more effective way.
Overall, Mars exploration is a mission that needs to be undertaken for the betterment of humanity after addressing all the concerns related to its feasibility and sustainability.