Space is cool. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t think space is cool, and I don’t think I want to. Everyone loves it when NASA releases its gorgeous, high definition new images of faraway galaxies, swirling colors punctuated with stars. Galaxy print has taken over the fashion scene, on everything from leggings to backpacks to laptop skins. And, of course, there’s been a massive resurgence of both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” with each franchise releasing two new movies in the past few years.
And, for the most part, this fascination is reflected in science. Space travel has progressed incredibly rapidly in the past seventy years, from the first man in space in 1961 to the Mars rover Curiosity landing in 2012. And people want to take this even further — the idea of Mars colonization has been talked about among everyone from astrophysicists discussing the serious logistics of the idea, to businessmen hoping they can make a lot of money from space tourism.
But is this actually realistic, or is this one step that humanity isn’t quite ready for?
Currently, the average surface temperature on Mars is about -67 degrees, well below the freezing point of water. But atmospheric scientists have recently determined that millions of years ago, the atmosphere on Mars could have had a high proportion of methane. While the current carbon dioxide- and hydrogen-based atmosphere is well below the freezing point of water, when the methane is added, the chemical forces that exist between the methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen molecules are able to absorb far more light.
This could have led to a process similar to the greenhouse effect on Earth — where the atmosphere easily takes in radiation but is too thick to allow the reflected radiation back out, trapping the heat on our planet. This happening on Mars could have created conditions warm enough for water to flow and complex life forms to evolve.
The more we discover about Mars, the more evidence there is for the fact that the planet could once have sustained life. And if it’s had that potential before, then maybe it could again.
Of course, this is such an exciting opportunity that despite all the risks and the things they’d be leaving behind on Earth, humans are literally queueing up to live on Mars. When a private crowdfunded company, Mars One, offered people the chance to apply for a lifelong Mars mission in 2013, it received over 200,000 applications.
But, we’d have to start completely from scratch to build a civilization, without even livable temperatures or breathable air. Experts have suggested that we could import massive quantities of ammonia or methane from the atmospheres of other planets or moons, and pump them into the Mars atmosphere to increase pressure and artificially recreate the greenhouse effect. Single celled organisms such as phytoplankton and cyanobacteria could slowly convert the carbon dioxide in the Mars atmosphere to oxygen for humans to breathe.
However, these processes are on a massive scale and would take hundreds of years to implement. And even though they’d work theoretically, nobody has yet come up with a practical, realistic plan of how to make them happen. And Mars One, which promised to take humans to Mars as early as 2022, is already well behind schedule.
I definitely see why the idea of colonizing Mars appeals to people — it’s a chance for a fresh start, to build a new planet without the environmental problems of Earth, and a chance to really make a difference to the future of humanity. And with how fast technology is advancing, I think it’ll absolutely be a reality someday —- but I don’t think it’ll be within our lifetimes.