We stepped on the moon half a century ago — so why haven’t we reached Mars yet? Let’s go there and see.
Every day, we humans look up and see the stars that have been shining down on us from the beginning of time. Sometimes, we wonder what is out there. What would life be like on another planet?
In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, immortalised by both the act and his famous first words “one small step for man; a giant leap for mankind”. He wasn’t alone for long, with his colleague Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was following close behind. Aldrin’s less iconic first utterances from the moon are a good deal more relevant to us now. What he said was:
Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.
In the years that followed, several more missions were made to the moon, and it seemed like space travel was picking up. People were talking about settling on the moon, moving onto Mars, and eventually colonising the whole solar system.
And then, everything stopped.
Today, any camera-wielding spacecraft landing on the moon reveals a landscape that is still as beautiful as the one Buzz Aldrin saw — and as desolate. And as for setting foot on Mars? Don’t even think about it.
If we managed to reach the moon so many years ago, why haven’t humans set foot on Mars yet? Especially given the number of unmanned spacecraft we’ve sent there.
Well, going to Mars has a few challenges that make it harder than going to the Moon. The journey involves hazards ranging from harmful ultraviolet radiation to the tedium of getting your steering and math equations correct.
Fortunately for us, there are also potential solutions to many of these problems, and work is on to make them better. So, fasten your seatbelt, cross your fingers despite how unscientific that is, and let’s try to see how a successful mission would go.
All space missions start with a launch, and the launch is very important to the colonization of Mars. If we don’t have a successful launch, you can say goodbye to millions of dollars and several years.
Fortunately for us, we’ve done a few launches before.
Like every rocket, ours is assembled and loaded onto a launchpad. There it stands, towering above you, held upright by the ‘launch mount’ that surrounds it. The launch mount has other responsibilities too: it’s what delivers power, cooling liquids, and other essential components to the rocket during launch.
To provide easy access to workers, a Rotating Service Structure sits wrapped around the rocket. They can move up, down, and around as they need to, in order to reach and fine-tune the various parts. This structure also helps to protect the rocket from the worst of the outside world.
Eighteen hours before launch, the rotating structure is removed in preparation for the final event. When the count reaches nine, hydrogen and oxygen are poured into the external tank — in liquid form, of course. When the two react, lots of energy is produced. The filling process takes several hours: that’s how much fuel we need to go all the way to the next planet!
T-7 seconds is when the main engines are all started. Six, we count down.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
At the count of zero, all the engines ignite at once, shooting us and the rocket into the air.
To understand the launch, we have to understand how a rocket works. The key feature here is the exhaust, caused by chemical reactions inside (the nitrogen and oxygen, remember?).
The engines push out the exhaust very fast — and with enough exhaust, the rocket gains momentum, pushing itself off the ground.
Most rockets have two ‘stages’ of engines. When the first stage is drained, it can be disconnected and dropped down, taking that much extra weight off the rocket. Stage 1 is usually the biggest part of the rocket because it needs a lot of energy to make the rocket start moving. But having done its job of giving us speed, we can now let it go.
After the first stage is dropped, the second stage of engines ignite. These engines don’t have to carry so much weight (the first stage had to carry itself, in addition to everything else!) so there usually isn’t as much fuel in them. They are used for the next stage of the journey — when we’re out in space and need to decide which direction to go — and how to stay on that set course.
Roll torque, which is when an object tends to rotate around its axis, can be generated by the way the fuel is being pushed out of the nozzle. During the launch, wind could affect the rotation of the rocket as well.
Once the rocket is in outer space, how can it steer towards Mars? The technique we use utilises smaller rockets to point the main engine in the right direction. Upward/downward motion, called pitch, and horizontal motion, called yaw, are both brought under control by using a bell-shaped nozzle at the back of the rocket. The Ares X-I, a test rocket, used this technique. Roll, which is a circular motion, as you probably guessed, is a little harder to control. Adding thrusters in two separate modules on the side of the rocket helps keep it in check. Data from sensors on the side of the rocket are used to decide which thrusters should be fired and when - so that the rocket is kept on its correct flight path.
But that’s only one kind of roll: in space, you have all directions to work with. Thrusters also help with roll torque, which is when an object tends to rotate around its axis, This happens when fuel is pushed out of the engine. Another way a rocket may be pushed off course is during launch, when winds may affect its motion.
A huge problem in space is radiation. Without an atmosphere, radiation can affect astronauts very severely. The shielding on a rocket isn’t enough to protect astronauts. More shielding means more mass, which means more fuel, which means higher costs. Many space exploration organizations are currently researching how to minimize the amount of radiation that goes inside the spacecraft. Our best bet is probably making faster spacecraft. However, how fast the spacecraft goes doesn’t matter if it doesn’t land properly.
The landing is very important if we want to succeed. Everything could go wrong or right here. We don’t have that much information on this part, but we still have enough. According to NASA, there are a few steps to landing the spacecraft.
The first step to landing is to activate a heat shield. This will protect the spacecraft and the things inside from getting too hot when it enters the atmosphere. Friction will slow the rocket down a lot, but you would still be going much too fast to land safely. The second step is to deploy a parachute. This will slow it down even more, but still not quite enough. The third step is to activate a jetpack to slow down the descent. This will slow the rocket down enough for you to safely land on the surface of Mars. It may seem easy, but every part of the landing process has to be done at the right time, or else the results could be devastating.
People have been researching how we could potentially live on Mars for a while. First, we would need a lot of equipment. Some of the equipment we need include the equipment needed for experiments, drills, and lots of other machinery.
The experimenting equipment is the most important part. We need to understand Mars to be able to live there. Doing experiments on the soil, air, and other parts of the planet can help us find out how to make life on Mars as efficient and easy as possible.
Some of the experiments done by the rovers have led to huge discoveries, such as finding iron oxide and silicon oxide in the soil, as well as coming to the conclusion that there are places with a lot of geothermal heat.
This last bit is especially relevant since geothermal heat can be used for many things, most notably or power, though it can also be used to heat water and ice. We know that there is ice on Mars, so geothermal heat can provide a convenient way to have drinking water ready. It is also very cold on Mars, because of a combination of having a thin atmosphere and being far from the sun. However, the other discovery made by the rovers is also very important.
The fact that iron oxide and silicon oxide are present in Martian soil means that you can, with some equipment, make iron, steel, and glass on Mars. Imagine being a NASA scientist, and you had to make a perfect launch and landing happen every few months, just to get basic equipment. It wouldn’t be an easy position to be in-not to mention the amount of funding that would need! However, if you were to have some soil and a little equipment, you wouldn’t need frequent shipments with new equipment, because you would be able to build a lot on your own.
Living on Mars won’t be easy. There are many challenges that you will face, the most pressing of which is the problem of energy. Fortunately, NASA is researching many possibilities, including more efficient batteries.
Another issue any astronauts who take this trip will have to face is having to spend years with the same people, sometimes with very little communication to Earth. If the sun is in between Mars and the Earth, then it could take a very long time for anything to be sent or received. If there was a major failure, the team on Earth wouldn’t be able to do anything because they wouldn’t know about it until a long time after it happened.
Every day, we humans look up and see the stars that have been shining down on us from the beginning of time. Sometimes, we wonder what is out there. Someday we will have the audacity to find out.
Getting to and living on Mars won’t be easy at all, but at least we’ll know what it’s like, finally. There are so many things that could go wrong, so many problems that you would have to face, and so many things that can’t be controlled.
Because of this, we must rethink everything. In the long run, is going to Mars worth the cost? Many lives could be lost, but many lives could be saved. Nobody knows until we try.