Not long after scientists announced that Mars is home to briny water and ancient rivers and lakes, NASA has released its three-phase plan for building a human colony on Mars by the 2030s.
But there’s a lot to do before humanity gets there, and NASA’s plan — outlined in a report with the very exciting title “Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration” — is basic, Smithsonian reported.
NASA’s plan has three stages, the first already underway at the International Space Station. It’s called “Earth Reliant,” and addresses how living in space affects the human body. Next is “Proving Ground,” which will test habitation. Last, “Earth Independent,” will mark the first manned spacecraft to orbit Mars and eventually land on the Red Planet.
This NASA mission, therefore, is unlike any other it has undertaken before, and the report calls it a “historic pioneering endeavor” comparable to America’s early settlers and the moon landing.
“Like the Apollo program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay.”
With that tantalizing language, it’ll be a bit disappointing to note that NASA doesn’t include a firm timeline in its report, though the Telegraph reported that the plan suggests the first colonists will likely make Mars home in the 2030s.
The “Earth Reliant” stage has been going on at ISS for years. NASA astronauts and international colleagues have been living there in rotations since 2000, the Christian Science Monitor added, and the agency needs to figure out how to deal with the negative effects long-term missions have on the human body.
Radiation exposure can lead to cancer, fertility problems, dementia, and eye damage, and astronauts’ ongoing experiences aboard ISS are helping NASA better understand these effects. In this first phase, NASA is also testing technologies that could make a Mars colony possible and develop ways to power and communicate crafts meant to fly deep into space.
In phase two of the plan, NASA will test complex tasks during longer missions and venture past ISS to work around the moon. They’ll also test deep space habitation for short missions in the early 2020s, and then longer ones as the decade progresses.
But perhaps the coolest part of this phase in the mission to Mars is the plan to grab an asteroid from near Earth and fling it into lunar orbit, where astronauts can visit it in the future. This mission, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission, will be powered by solar-electric propulsion, which uses the Sun’s energy to plunge spacecraft into the void.
Stage three is the most exciting, because that’s the part of the plan that sees humans living and working on the distant planet. And these people have to be prepared to live far away from home, completely on their own, the report states.
“We seek the capacity for people to work, learn operate and sustainably live beyond Earth for extended periods of time. Any journey to Mars will take many months each way and early return is not an option. Efforts made today and in the next decade will lay the foundation for an Earth Independent, sustained presence in deep space. Living and working in space require accepting risk and the journey is worth the risk.”
This mission will need international teamwork and will be informed by the previous stages in the plan, human missions, and data gathered by the Red Planet’s current pioneers — robots. And there are plenty of them: NASA Opportunity and Curiosity on the surface and three in orbit — the Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN.
More robots will be put to work, including a lander called InSight next year, to examine the planet’s interior, and the Rover 2020, which will look for life and collect samples to bring back home. It will also have an instrument that makes oxygen from carbon dioxide.
NASA has more details to work out in the plan, and they’re under no illusion that the mission to Mars will be easy.
“There are challenges to pioneering Mars, but we know they are solvable. We are developing the capabilities necessary to get there, land there, and live there.”
[Photo by NikoNomad / Shutterstock]