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Source © NASA | Amanda Suarez/Culture Trip
Source © NASA | Amanda Suarez/Culture Trip
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The Earthly Benefits of a Mission to Mars

Picture of Peter Ward
Tech Editor
Updated: 4 May 2018
There will come a time when we leave this planet. Not on a fleeting sortie into space, but to establish a home in another part of our solar system. Our moon, Venus, and Saturn’s moon Titan have all been put forward as potential hosts for human life, but the idea of living on the Red Planet, Mars, has captured the collective imagination of mankind more than any other.

Past missions to space have brought forth many new technologies. The development of computerized tomography (CT) scanners, satellite television, freeze-dried food, and cordless tools all owe something to our incursions into space. But the challenges of colonizing space—as opposed to just visiting—are vastly greater than any we’ve faced as a species. The solutions to those challenges, from 3D-printed hearts to synthetic foods, will change life here on Earth forever, even before we set foot on other planets.

Why travel to Mars?

More habitable worlds than Mars have been discovered outside our solar system. TRAPPIST-1, the system boasting seven planets which can all potentially support life, is 39 light years away. That means if we were able to travel at the speed of light—a feat which is currently well beyond our reach, technologically—it would still take us 39 years to travel the 229 trillion miles. The fastest spacecraft ever launched—New Horizons, which flew past Pluto in 2015—would take 817,000 years to reach TRAPPIST-1’s location.

Until we learn how to fold space and time, the practical choices for colonization are in our own solar system. Here, scientists are mainly split into two camps. Some believe we should return to the Moon and settle people on a lunar base before venturing further. Others believe we should strike out to Mars first.

Among those who believe in the priority of a Moon mission is the Waypaver Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the science and technology needed for lunar settlement. “The Moon is the gateway to the rest of the solar system,” says Nick Arnett, founder of Waypaver. “To us, it’s not the Moon or Mars. It’s the Moon, then Mars. Making use of lunar resources could make a Mars mission much cheaper.”

Other options are Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which could hold vast energy resources; and Venus, the closest neighbor of Earth. But the atmosphere on Venus is furnace-like, due to extreme greenhouse effects, and Titan is made more difficult by the hydrocarbons raining from the sky.

Mars has always been the destination of choice in pop culture, and the same is true in real life. A journey to the planet would take approximately six months using current spacecraft, if both planets are aligned properly for the shortest possible journey.

As you would imagine, NASA has plans to go to Mars, and they stretch out over decades. The agency has sent rovers, landers, and orbiters to the planet—and the next one, the Mars 2020 rover, will study the local availability of key resources like oxygen. NASA is using the International Space Station to conduct tests on how the human body copes with living in space for prolonged periods of time. Research is also being undertaken on communication methods which will be vital for any manned mission to the Red Planet.

The Mars Rover | Courtesy of NASA
The Mars Rover | Courtesy of NASA

Between 2018–2030, NASA will move experiments to what it calls the “Proving Ground”, an area of space days away from Earth and near the Moon. During this phase, a technique called Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)—using energy from solar arrays to propel a spacecraft—will be tested. The final stage will begin in the early 2030s, when NASA will send humans to a low orbit around Mars. “Mars is the next tangible frontier for human exploration, and it’s an achievable goal,” their website says. “There are challenges to pioneering Mars, but we know they are solvable. We are well on our way to getting there, landing there, and living there.”

In March 2017, the U.S. Congress passed a NASA authorization bill that, among other things, gave the green light for the agency to attempt to reach “near or on the surface” of Mars in the 2030s. Donald Trump signed the bill the same month, which mentions Mars and Mars-related programs 28 times. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said: “This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing. Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars.”

And according to some Mars experts, NASA is not showing enough ambition in its goals. Dr. Robert Zubrin is CEO and founder of the Mars Society, a space advocacy organization. He says NASA is using flimsy excuses to delay a more immediate mission.

“The radiation hazard of flying to Mars and back is an additional one percent chance of getting cancer at some stage in your life. Smokers assume 20 percent more risk,” he explains. “Ten-year-old kids, when it snows, they use it as an excuse not to go to school. NASA has been using radiation as a snow day. There’s radiation in space. You go to any foreign country and there are diseases your body has a weak defense against. But you go.

“Acts of courage are valuable in themselves. If we as a society say we’re not going to do something until it’s safe, we run the risk of falling into decay.”

Space exploration has come a long way since NASA put men on the surface of the Moon, and part of the reason is the rise of private space companies. SpaceX is probably the most prominent of these companies. Musk announced in September 2016 the company is planning to build the most powerful rocket ever built, combining it with a spaceship that will have the capacity to carry at least 100 people to Mars. In September 2016, at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk said the reusable rocket will help humanity establish a permanent colony on Mars within the next 50 to 100 years.

“What I really want to do here is to make Mars seem possible—make it seem as though it’s something that we could do in our lifetimes, and that you can go,” Musk said in his presentation.

An artist's impression of SpaceX's approach to Mars | Courtesy of SpaceX
An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s approach to Mars | Courtesy of SpaceX

Another high-profile mission to the Red Planet is run by Mars One, an organization with the goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars. A call was put out for volunteers to be among the first group to live on Mars, with the caveat that they would never return to Earth. Over 2,000 people applied, and that number is being whittled down to a final 100 hopeful colonists.

The current Mars One timeline, which has already been delayed, would see an unmanned mission depart in 2022. The first humans would then head to Mars starting in 2031, with subsequent crews leaving every 26 months after that.

Whether it’s private companies or government organizations, the race to Mars is well and truly on. That doesn’t just mean rockets and spaceships, but plenty of other technologies needed to support life in a truly hostile environment.

The Mars Robot Population

It’s highly likely that any humans sent to the Red Planet would be preceded by robots capable of doing some of the groundwork. As Mars is so far away, robots deployed there will have to deal with the same communications issues Mars rovers encountered in the past few years. Unless there is a drastic leap in communications technology—which shouldn’t be ruled out completely—robots on Mars cannot be controlled in real time, which means they have to be at least semi-autonomous.

“On Mars, one of NASA’s missions is to create robots for pre-deployment of assets,” says Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, Director of the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics. “You need all types of robots for this, horses for courses, different robots for different tasks.”

Vijayakumar and his team recently worked with a team of scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to build Valkyrie, a humanoid robot designed with Mars in mind. Despite this achievement, he believes these kinds of robots still have a long way to go before they can be used on the surface of Mars.

“The level of autonomy is not where we need it to be. There are challenges with navigation. Primarily we need more advances in algorithms, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” says Vijayakumar, whose team is also working on how to create robotics capable of performing shared tasks, meaning they are safe to work alongside humans. Another use for robots in colonization will be to conduct spacewalks to repair ships and space stations, particularly those located near Earth. “We have astronauts doing spacewalks to repair things. But every time we launch there is more debris—this makes it even more dangerous for humans, even in reinforced suits, to repair things. So, we will need robots to do that.”

NASA Valkyrie | © Futurilla/Flickr
NASA Valkyrie | © Futurilla/Flickr

The potential benefits for us here on Earth lie in the technology which enables robots to be autonomous. As experts work on new and more sophisticated algorithms to make a robot operate on its own on Mars’ surface, the same technology can be deployed here. Sensing capabilities also need to improve, and this will lead to smarter and faster autonomation in self-driving cars, manufacturing robots, and many more areas. Building humanoid robots such as Valkyrie also has the potential to unlock advancements in prosthetics and exoskeletons.

“We have a notion of robotics on a particular scale,” says Vijayakumar. “When the technology develops, we’ll see new scales and extremes, like nanobots that can operate inside the human body, and on the other end are massive robots that could 3D-print a house.”

Water on Mars?

Mars is not a hospitable planet. Around 4.2 billion years ago, it lost its magnetic field, meaning it was exposed to the powerful solar winds that originate from our sun. Those solar winds are stripping Mars of its atmosphere, turning it into a cold, dry planet where no known life could survive.

So at present, would-be Mars colonists face the unwelcome prospect of taking all the food and water needed with them, with regular replenishment shipped from Earth. Heavy cargoes are extremely expensive to get off the surface of Earth, let alone ship all the way to Mars. Given it could cost as much as $43,000 to ship a bottle of water to the International Space Station, it’s crucial from a budget standpoint to keep cargoes to a minimum.

There are several strategies being pursued to ensure at least some food and drink can be produced on Mars. The first of these is perhaps the simplest, and will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 2015 Matt Damon movie The Martian. As the surface is so cold, the plants would be grown either indoors or underground. But there’s another problem: to take a huge amount of soil and other nutrients to Mars would be as heavy as transporting the food. So, scientists are figuring out how well they can grow plants and vegetables in Martian soil.

Wieger Wamelink, a researcher from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and an advisor to the Mars One project, has been attempting to grow food in soil comparable to that found on Mars. “Since we don’t have Mars soil on Earth, we use a simulant that we get from NASA,” Wamelink says. The soil on Mars is extremely dry and salty, but does contain the nutrients needed to grow vegetables. In this soil, Wamelink and his team have grown a number of vegetables, like peas, tomatoes, radishes, and rye. But there is still work to be done. The researchers aim to ensure that the next generation of seeds to come from the initial vegetables will be viable. There seem to be no ill effects in some species, but others have not been able to germinate. “For garden cress and peas we had seeds that did not germinate, though over fifty percent still did. It is not uncommon that some seeds will not germinate; a 100% score is rare, even though we had that for rye. We did have indications that the germination of the two species would be less, the seed weight was lower and visual inspection already showed that some seeds looked dead. Why this exactly is we do not know yet,” Wamelink explains.

He goes on to suggest that it would be beneficial to take bacteria to Mars as well, in an effort to increase crop yields. Fertilizer won’t be a problem, of course, as astronauts and colonists will produce plenty themselves.

Providing the construction of the agricultural building was completed and a supply of energy was established, Wamelink’s packing list for a garden on Mars is surprisingly short, but does contain two items that stand out: bees and worms. The worms would enable natural recycling and improve the quality of the soil, while the bees would be used to help pollinate certain plants like tomatoes and cress.

How Wamelink imagines a home on Mars | Courtesy Wageningen University
How Wamelink imagines a home on Mars | Courtesy Wageningen University

Another project has raised hopes that potatoes could even survive on the surface of the planet. The International Potato Center (CIP)—yes such an organization exists—launched a series of experiments to see if potatoes can grow in the atmospheric conditions of Mars, and results were promising. The project started in February 2016 and involves planting tubers into a hermetically sealed environment inside a specially constructed CubeSat (a type of satellite) that can mimic the conditions of Mars. The experiment used soil from the Peruvian desert instead of Martian soil. The potatoes were specifically bred to withstand the extreme conditions of Mars, and were able to grow tubers in the soil.

But how does growing food on Mars under these conditions benefit us on Earth? “The simulants we used—one comes from a Hawaiian volcano. The simulant for Martian soil comes from the Arizona desert,” explains Wamelink. “If we are successful in growing plants on Mars, we can help food production on Earth.” This would be particularly useful in areas where the land is not well-suited to growing crops, and where food scarcity becomes a killer.

Climate change is making it increasingly difficult to grow crops in some regions, and these types of projects prove that crops can survive in terrible circumstances. “The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros said about the successful test in Peru.

Synthetic food

There’s a very small chance any large animals will be taken on a colonization mission, meaning meat, for one thing, won’t be readily available. But if synthetic meat can be manufactured or printed in the colony, then the menu for explorers can become quite diverse.

One company working on the molecular construction of food and drink is Ava Winery, which is aiming to sell the finest wines, copied and created molecule by molecule. “It can be done anywhere in the world, as long as you have the starting components,” says co-founder Alec Lee. He says the next logical step for the technology is to make it using printers at home, although Ava’s plan is to make and distribute wine the same way a regular winemaker would.

Being able to print out wine in a Mars colony is a fantastical thought, and one that isn’t as far away as people may think. Taking the components to print wine on Mars would be far more effective and realistic than growing vines there. This technology is being developed here on Earth regardless of any mission to Mars, and Lee believes the major benefit for his company to it being included in any colonization plan would be promotional.

He says the technology needs to be embraced here, now. “There are many agricultural resources that are dwindling—a great example is vanilla. [Vanilla orchids] grow only in a very narrow geographical region and are slow to grow—75 percent of vanilla now comes from petrochemicals, not even from vanilla extract,” he explains.

Lee adds that a number of other highly popular crops and plants can’t be grown fast enough for demand, and we are going to need to turn to synthetic foods to make up the difference.

The final option to ensure there is food on the planet is probably the most ambitious: to change Mars from a red planet to a green one.

What is terraforming?

Terraforming means creating a habitable atmosphere on the planet, and various theories have been put forward to how we could accomplish that on Mars. Elon Musk famously suggested we should detonate nuclear bombs at the Martian poles, to instantly warm the planet.

His method would mean nuking the sky over the poles every couple of seconds to create pulsing “suns”. This would turn the frozen carbon dioxide on the planet into gas, which would then trap heat and warm up the surface. Scientists reacted with skepticism to the idea, some noting that you’d need so many nuclear bombs, the radiation produced would be enormous. Others worried about the ethical implications, since it would involve nuking a planet that may still theoretically be home to some sort of life. There are also concerns that clouds could form which would actually cool the planet further.

Another ambitious solution to the problem comes from a NASA-led team and involves a magnetic shield sitting at a strategic point close to the planet, which would deflect incoming solar winds and incoming radiation. The hope is that the atmosphere would get thick enough to melt the carbon-dioxide ice, sparking a greenhouse effect that would eventually restore the Martian oceans. It’s thought the shield could be a giant inflatable structure.

An artist's impression of how Mars may have looked in its early days, compared to now on the left | Courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
An artist’s impression of how Mars may have looked in its early days, compared to now on the left | Courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Some researchers are looking into a less drastic and more patient approach: to introduce microbes into the Mars atmosphere. One company working in this field is Techshot, an Indiana-based engineering, research and development firm, which has a NASA-funded project underway. “The long-term goal is to use microbes to produce oxygen on Mars, either for long-term terraforming or the more short-term benefit getting around having to take oxygen with us,” says Dr. Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot.

Boland argues that the process of recycling oxygen on a space station is only 50–65 percent efficient, meaning you have to take almost half of the oxygen needed to survive with you. Pure oxygen is both heavy and extremely dangerous to transport, which is why Boland suggests letting microbes do the work for us.

The idea is that microbes like cyanobacteria would be sent in advance of any manned mission, making the environment more hospitable. Cyanobacteria capture the sun’s energy and use it to create food, while taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. The organisms would react with compounds in the soil of Mars and store oxygen in the planet’s surface. This would provide a silo of oxygen for future explorers and settlers.

The company has a simulator which approximates the atmosphere of the Red Planet, although it can’t fake the partial gravity. “We had initial tests, and all microbes survived the 48 days in the Mars chamber,” says Boland.

Ideally the company would like to set up some controlled test areas on Mars, but the next scheduled NASA rover mission in 2020 already has a full quota of science to carry out. The company hopes to get on the next rover mission in the mid-2020s. In the meantime, Boland and his researchers plan to study potential genetic manipulation of the microbes so they replicate faster and produce more oxygen.

Custom microbes also have many uses on Earth. The local supply of oxygen is not an issue, although microbes have been put forward as possible tools to clean up oil spills and air pollution. One of the major areas of potential is in energy, where cyanobacteria are ideally suited to produce biofuels due to their fast growth and ability to take in carbon dioxide.

Microbes isn’t the only area which Techshot is conducting research in. The company has also been working on 3D-printing a human heart in space.

Long-term survival on Mars

The advantages of being able to 3D print a heart, or any body part, are clear; the benefits of printing one in space are less obvious. But that’s exactly what Techshot is working on as a perhaps surprising answer to an Earthly problem.

Consider the human heart. It’s one of the more complex body parts to print due to its enclosed chambers and intricate structures. If the structures are as thin as a real heart, the printed organ won’t stand up on its own during construction; it’ll collapse into a pool of bio-ink. For the heart to hold its shape, the structures must be thickened. But if they are thickened too much, it’s hard for cells to move around inside.

The answer: Take away gravity. “With zero gravity, we can print complex structures and they will stand up. If you print here on the ground, it’s a puddle,” says Boland.

The company has already tested the theory, and achieved encouraging results in June 2016 aboard a Zero Gravity Corporation aircraft flying 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. Boland hopes to have a working bioprinter designed for the International Space Station in 2018.

This example may not involve Mars specifically, but the extra time in space working towards the goal of the Red Planet will allow for more of these types of experiments. In theory, someone with a degenerative heart disease could have their stem cells sent up to space for a heart to be printed, then delivered back to earth. As the heart would be printed using the patient’s own stem cells, there would be no need for anti-rejection drugs.

The Techshot 3D printer being tested in zero gravity | Courtesy of Techshot
The Techshot 3D printer being tested in zero gravity | Courtesy of Techshot

Aspirations of space adventures have had numerous positive impacts on health, whether intended or not. Anybody going to space must go through a rigorous set of medical tests. Esther Dyson, a prominent investor in space companies, trained to go into space in 2008. During her training, tests showed she had a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus, which can lead to a very deadly form of cancer. With this knowledge in hand, she underwent regular checkups, looking for a disease which is often extremely difficult to diagnose initially. When the cancer did show, she caught it early, and was able to treat it. “Training for space saved my life,” she says.

Mars One saw similar health repercussions among its candidates. “What really left an impression with us is the fact that the medical tests turned out to have a major impact on the candidates’ lives, as some of them found out that they needed to undergo an operation, were sick and needed medical attention, or even had a malignant form of cancer that otherwise would not have been detected in such an early stage,” says Mars One Chief Medical Officer Dr. Norbert Kraft.

Colonizing Mars

These 3D printers won’t just be pumping out hearts in space. In fact, they’ll play an important role in any Mars colonization mission.

Made in Space, a California-based company founded around six years ago with the aim of helping people colonize the solar system, focuses on manufacturing in space.

Here’s how it theoretically works: a 3D printer and source feedstock are sent into space. The source feedstock is the “ink” in the printer—what all the items printed are built from. Now instead of sending a whole toolbox up into space, a “menu” of printable objects can be sent instead, ready to be constructed as needed. And we need not be limited to simple objects like tools. Large, complex structures like satellites could also be printed with appropriate technology.

A 3D-printed wrench in the International Space Station | Courtesy of MadeinSpace
A 3D printed wrench in the International Space Station | Courtesy of MadeinSpace

“The real value and capability that manufacturing in space gives is the local, real-time manufacturing. If they need something, they can make it on the spot,” says Andrew Rush, CEO of Made in Space. Rush’s company is already printing in space. In 2014, its Zero-G printer was launched into orbit and is currently on the International Space Station. Made in Space’s ambitions don’t stop there, however.

“We’re launching a completely robotic factory that will operate on the ISS,” explains Rush.

The company aims to manufacture optical fiber in space and make a profit from the first launch. When optical fibers are made on Earth, crystals can form and cause signal loss. When you manufacture in microgravity, those crystals don’t form. That makes the optical fiber very valuable, and offsets the cost of hitching a ride on launches to the space station.

The development of 3D printers has widespread implications on Earth, mostly logistical. Military and scientific missions to remote areas can use the technology to lighten the amount of equipment shipped the old-fashioned way. “In retail, if you can do the manufacturing on location, you can shorten the supply chain and bring more value to consumers,” says Rush.

Training for space

All these technologies have the potential to make our lives easier, whether we live on Earth or elsewhere. But there is another benefit of aiming for Mars that transcends all others: inspiring the next generation of humanity. If we can do that, then we almost guarantee growth of the most important resource on the planet: intellectual capital.

“Intellectual capital is the basis of progress,” says Dr. Zubrin of the Mars Society. “There could be no better engine to drive that than a human-to-Mars mission.

“In the U.S. today, people are concerned about schools. And they’re trying to fix it with testing programs. That won’t work—you need to inspire people.”

As progress in space accelerated thanks to the Apollo program in the 60s, PhD intake at American universities almost tripled, and Zubrin believes a similar program today would have an even larger impact.

“I was speaking to classes in Georgia, they were doing assignments on what a Lunar colony would look like,” says the Waypaver Foundation’s Nick Arnett. “They truly believe they’ll be living in space someday. If we’re going to do this, it’s going to depend on inspiring these people.”

One major hope for that inspiration to materialize is the rise of private companies. Even outlandish statements from the likes of Elon Musk have the ability to energize people, particularly the young, while some have come to see NASA as too slow and cautious.

“I think it’s a good thing we have private companies popping up. It’s good we have both right now,” says Arnett. “NASA has done wonderful things, but it tends to be bureaucratic. It’s not able to adopt new technology or ways of thinking as quickly. You have small startups advancing at lightning speeds.”

Life on this planet is far from perfect: insular, isolationist political figures are on the rise, climate change is increasing unchecked, and many areas of the world still lack basic resources. But by pushing the limits of human ambition and becoming interplanetary immigrants, we can improve life on Earth, and inspire a new generation in the process.

This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.