Mars awaits: The dawn of the new space era

By Malibongwe Tyilo 9 February 2021
Photo: The Martian © 20TH CENTURY FOX

Over the past few years technology has improved and made space exploration easier and far more realistically affordable. Now, the race is on to land a human on Mars.

“This month, three different nations will arrive on Mars, the United States, China and the UAE. That’s… that’s unheard of… right? This is a historic time!” says Jim Adams, the retired former deputy chief technology officer of NASA and former deputy director of planetary science, who spent nearly three decades with the space agency.

Indeed, February 2021 will be a particularly significant month for the realisation of the dream of eventually landing a human (or humans) on Mars. The China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) spacecraft, the Tianwen-1, launched July 2020, is expected to reach Mars’ orbit by 10 February 2021 and land its rover by May. The United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s Hope probe, which is part of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), the UAE’s ​first mission to Mars, was expected to reach the planet’s orbit a day earlier, on 9 February. It is designed to create a complete picture of the planet’s atmosphere and give scientists a better idea of its climate dynamics. NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to be the first to land on the surface of Mars, on 18 February, completing a nearly seven-month, 470-million-kilometre journey and making it NASA’s ninth Mars landing. All three are unmanned robotic missions.

Perseverance will be unique in the sense that it will have technology on board to search for ancient microbial life. The other missions so far have only established conditions that are suitable, that Mars might have harboured primitive life in the past. But there were no means of actually exploring that fact, to see whether microbial life ever existed,” says Dr Pieter Kotze, extraordinary professor at the North-West University’s Centre for Space Research.

3D render of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Photo: NASA

Perseverance is expected to land on Jezero Crater, identified as the site of a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago. According to NASA, the broken rock and dust the rover will collect from Jezero could help answer fundamental questions about the existence of life beyond Earth.

“The second thing [Perseverance will do] is to continue the journey towards Mars through technology demonstration. It’s carrying a helicopter onboard, a drone. And that drone’s mission is to demonstrate that we can actually fly in that atmosphere. We’ll have much more access to the planet if we can fly drones around on the surface of Mars and its very thin atmosphere,” explains Adams, referring to the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which weighs a mere 1.8kg.

“Perseverance is also carrying a technology demonstration of what we need to send humans to Mars, and then come back,” says Adams. That technology is a system known as MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment). It is about the size of a car battery and its purpose is to demonstrate the conversion of the Martian atmosphere, which is mostly carbon dioxide, into oxygen. “That would be the first step towards making rocket fuel. Nobody has ever made rocket fuel on another planet. For Apollo 11, they took all of the fuel that they needed to get off the surface of the moon. And, of course, the oxygen is useful for the astronauts, so they can breathe. It’s a tiny experiment, but it’s extremely important to human space exploration.”

Unlike the space race that led to the first crewed moon landing in 1969, in addition to national space agencies, the players in the current wave of space exploration include commercial entities founded by some of the world’s wealthiest private citizens. There’s Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is building spacecraft in the hope of taking space tourists to the International Space Station (ISS) and further. Branson founded the company in 2004, and in 2008 he predicted its spacecraft would make their first flight into space by 2009. However, the company has been dogged by numerous delays, although they haven’t stopped about 600 customers from registering for future flights at $250,000 (R3.8-million) per person. 

In 2018, the Virgin Space Ship Unity (VSS Unity), manned by two pilots, reached an altitude of more than 80km, officially entering outer space by US standards. Virgin Galactic installed passenger interiors, revealed in July 2020. In December 2020, the company aborted the first of two final tests before its first passenger flight due to technical issues. It has yet to announce new dates for the tests.

There’s also Blue Origin, the evolving rocket company founded by the world’s second-place billionaire, Jeff Bezos, in 2000, whose mission is to build “a road to space so our children can build the future”, by building reusable rockets. In May 2019, Bezos unveiled Blue Moon, a cargo carrier and lunar lander capable of delivering 4,500kg to the surface of the moon, possibly helping to carry the equipment needed to build infrastructure there. The first projected mission will be in 2024.

The biggest ‘start-up’ of them all is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, 2021’s richest man in the world and possibly the most prominent private citizen in the space race. “[He] is currently leading the drive to send the first humans to Mars, and as one of the richest people ever, he’s on track for the mission,” says Dr Adriana Marais, a theoretical physicist, director of the Foundation for Space Development Africa, founder of Proudly Human, and a former candidate on the now defunct Mars One project that sought to land humans on Mars by 2030.

“In May 2020… SpaceX became the first private company to launch crew to the [ISS] in the Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX is planning the first-ever flight entirely of private citizens to the ISS with Axiom Space, scheduled no earlier than January 2022. Towards Musk’s goal of a city of one million people on Mars by 2050, SpaceX is finalising development of the Starship… [which] will attempt its first orbital flight later this year, cargo delivery to the surface of Mars in 2022, and if all goes to plan, be ready to transport the first humans to Mars in 2024.”

Like Marais, Adams is excited for the strides Musk and SpaceX are making towards getting humans to Mars, but he is less confident about the timeline: “It seems a little ridiculous, but it’s visionary, right? And it motivates people. So I honestly feel we need people like Elon Musk, to make these bold, braggadocious statements that say, ‘Let’s go, let’s keep moving forward’, and of anyone that I’ve seen of these new players that has the ability and the opportunity to be able to send humans to Mars commercially, it would be Elon Musk. Though I really doubt it’s going to happen on his schedule. Space and Mars are really, really hard, and given the state of where he’s at with his technology right now, I really doubt that we’re going to see a human headed to Mars by 2024.”

Kotze is even more cautious in his outlook: “I think it will not happen in this decade. I think the plans are [there, but] they first want to establish all the conditions. And then in 2030, 2033, round about that time, I think there might be a movement towards a ‘return visit’; not putting the astronaut on the surface, but maybe travel to Mars, make a few orbits around the planet and then return. You also have to take into account that the journey to Mars takes at least six months, and that is only every 26 months when Mars is the closest to Earth, when they can launch towards Mars in order to reduce the travel time. And on the way towards Mars there’s extremely high probability of radiation from outer space. We’re not shielded… nobody’s shielded in outer space from space radiation like cosmic ray particles, a very high ionisation type of radiation that can cause changes to the DNA of people, and even cause death in certain instances. It is an extremely dangerous journey to Mars.”

Then, there’s the practical matter of entering the orbit and slowing down. “Coming into the atmosphere of Mars, you’d be travelling at around 35,000 kilometres an hour. And then you have to reduce your speed to zero within seven minutes. Taking into account the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, you cannot really use parachutes very extensively, only when you get very low down. You have to rely on the retro rockets and fire in the opposite direction to reduce the speed of your launch vehicle or your satellite. And they normally call that the seven minutes of hell, when a craft enters Mars,” says Kotze

Marais, on the other hand, says “a lack of imagination” is what is keeping humanity from sending a human to Mars. “We have been delivering cargo to the surface of Mars successfully since the 1970s, and have 20 years of experience of crew living beyond Earth in the ISS. We are well overdue to take the next steps in exploring the reality in which we find ourselves: a presence on next-door-neighbour planet Mars is an entry-level requirement to becoming a spacefaring society, and an important step towards deepening our appreciation of our home planet Earth.”

Proudly Human, the company she founded in 2019, is working on a project called Off-World, “a series of habitation experiments, building off-grid infrastructure and communities in the most extreme environments on the planet, from the desert to Antarctica to under the ocean. Each experiment will last several months, generate exploration-driven innovation and research, and be filmed for a global audience through a documentary series,” she explains.

According to Proudly Human’s website, the project, which opened applications for participants on 1 February 2021, “prepares for life on the moon, Mars and beyond, as well as providing solutions for those living in harsh conditions here on Earth.”

Another ongoing project that could greatly affect the timeline to get humans to Mars is NASA’s Artemis programme, which aims to “land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024”, among other objectives, such as building infrastructure on the moon that will make it possible to launch and refuel rockets from Earth’s satellite. “Landing and creating an outpost on the surface of the moon, if we do that… from my standpoint, it’s going to need to be a partnership, not just of nations, but also of commercial enterprise. So we need to demonstrate that there’s a reason for commercial enterprise to want to go to the surface of the moon, and perhaps return materials. But for sure, if we were to put a small space station, like what NASA calls the Gateway, to orbit the moon, it could be a jumping-off point for the journey to Mars,” says Adams.

While Kotze is excited about space exploration he is wary of what humans might do to the environment of other planets, especially Mars: “In my personal opinion I don’t think it’s a very bright idea to put people on other planets, because… what’s the purpose of it? I think the main goal should be to do science investigations, to understand the environment in which we live. Putting humans on Mars would just contaminate a pristine scientific environment with no other microbes and [none of the] germs that come with the human being. It doesn’t matter how good you sanitise yourself, there’s always the possibility that there will be some kind of pollution. And Mars is such a beautiful laboratory for scientific investigations to tell us how the solar system evolved, how planets evolved, how life evolved, it is just unthinkable that we would just contaminate the surface of Mars… I think we must just make our own habitat much more environmentally friendly and eliminate all kinds of pollution, and then we won’t need to relocate to another planet. We should limit our investigations to advance the frontiers of science and to understand our solar system and the universe, but not permanently relocate people to a planet like Mars. In my opinion it’s a waste of time and money.”

But Adams is far more enthusiastic about space travel going beyond scientific research and into space tourism: “I believe it is our destiny to move beyond the bounds of Earth. And that is more than the realm of governments. That’s going to involve entrepreneurs, it’s going to involve businesses, it may involve space tourists. What a fantastic opportunity that would be if you could send people to buy tickets to go for a journey around the moon,” says Adams.

But as to how far we are from the dreams of human colonies in space and other planets: “The best way to look at it is, if we were to [compare where we are in terms of space travel] to the days when Europe was dominating the oceans, you know, the Spanish galleons and that sort of thing; we’re still looking at how to build good canoes. Yeah, we fly from Earth routinely and it’s an amazing feat, but we only go up to [408km] or so to the International Space Station. Since the days of Apollo, nobody’s flown any deeper into space than what we call low Earth orbit. There’s a lot that can be done there, but living and working in low Earth orbit only teach us so much about how to live and work in deeper space. We can only hang in low Earth orbit for so long before we have to say to ourselves, ‘let’s keep moving forward, let’s go further out’.” DM/ML


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