Curiosity or opportunity? By Anwesha Sahu As technological advancements thrust practical applications to new frontiers, new possibilities open up. New opportunities spark curiosities. Bright minds are ignited, as are innovative approaches to implement these ideas. In the end, it is all about survival at the optimum threshold, with minimal effort. Life beyond Earth. This is brilliant and tempting; however, is it the elixir of life or is it the fruit in the Garden of Eden?
Mission to Mars. Life on Mars. Such phrases have often caught the attention of society – what if our neighbouring planet hosts life? As early as the 1800s, many were convinced that Mars hosts exotic, advanced life forms due to simple telescope observations. Mars is an evergreen highlight, be it through scientific breakthroughs, such as the discovery that water may have flowed on the surface of Mars (evidenced by dark streaks called “recurring slope lineae”), or through sci-fi entertainment with movies such as The Martian and Mission To Mars. Undoubtedly, mankind will make its first step venturing out of the Earth-Moon system, visiting Mars and, perhaps, that is not far: NASA plans to execute manned missions to Mars by the 2030s. In 2012 the once-famous Mars One mission planned to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2026. Though captivating, the realities of scientific exploration were a constant setback. Not only did the project receive consistent criticism from members of the scientific field, but the project was officially dissolved in January 2019 due to lack of funds. Let’s suppose such a mission was implemented now; is it feasible, and is it really worth the time and effort? There are several reasons to go to Mars; one important reason is that Earth could be obliterated in the near future by an asteroid or a nuclear weapon – a safety planet for survival could become a necessity. In 2014, a group of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) researchers developed an elaborate settlement-analysis tool, which enabled them to assess the feasibility of such a mission. The results were not so surprising: new technologies will inevitably be needed to survive on Mars. If settlers are to grow crops, as Mars One proclaimed, unsafe levels of oxygen would be produced, which would require a further system to remove excess oxygen – a system that has not yet been developed. Moreover, technologies to procure pure, safe water from Martian soil are not ready to be deployed. Future deliveries to Mars and the astronauts’ launch itself would cost $4.5 billion per launch. This cost would only grow as the population increased. MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Olivier de Weck, acknowledged the fact that such a mission would definitely be exciting, yet challenging. He remarked, “We’re not saying, black and white, Mars One is infeasible but we do think it’s not really feasible under the assumptions they’ve made. We’re pointing to technologies that could be helpful to invest in, with high priority, to move them along the feasibility path.” Mars One was merely the first endeavour at this large scale. Despite its failure, the facets brought forward due to this highly publicised project will be the stepping stones to future missions. Moving back to the initial question: is such a mission really worth it? A manned mission to Mars could easily cost several billions of dollars. In a world that struggles to survive due to poverty, wars, and natural calamities, that amount of money could be used for the betterment of the world, instead of a manned mission to Mars. Sending humans for research is valuable; however, we have the next best option available to us now, which gives us rich data to make significant improvements to our understanding of Mars: rovers and robots. In the long run, these are cheaper, since they do not require supplies in advance, such as food, water or medicines. Long-term missions would cause significant harm to the human body, such as muscle and bone wasting. Astronauts would require a rigid exercise routine and a proper nutrient intake. All of this would escalate costs with no certain promises of a brighter future. If Mars is meant to be a safety planet in case Earth is destroyed, it is only a temporary home, until the sun becomes a red giant in around 7 billion years. If humanity is to survive, we have to look towards habitable planets around stars younger than our sun, that are not too far away in astronomical terms. Indeed the cost of such a mission would be colossal – but the question here is of surviving efficiently. As stated by Stephen Hawking, “I believe that the long term future of the human race must be space and that it represents an important life insurance for our future survival, as it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonizing other planets.”
From Issue 19