We’re sending probes to explore Mars, but will humans follow?

Queensland University of Technology adjunct professor David Flannery, who is one of the leads on NASA’s Perseverance rover mission, says the reasons for the renewed interest in Mars are mostly practical.

“The big one is that it’s the easiest planet not just to get to, but to conduct missions on,” he says. “It is fairly close to Earth relatively speaking, and it has a pretty inert surface, so there’s lots of opportunities to do research. Basically it’s a case of if you want to shoot a probe into the solar system, if not at Mars, then where?”

Flannery says there is some renewed interest in the Moon, and also a few missions aiming for Venus, most noteworthy a Russian program. But the bulk of interplanetary exploration at this time is aimed at Mars.

He and his team at QUT have been analyzing data from PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), one of the highly-specialized tools on board the Perseverance rover.

Their original mission brief had been to look for signs of ancient life in the Jezero crater, as they initially believed that it had contained water. However, once the rover landed and conducted preliminary surveys, they made a discovery that was both frustrating and fascinating – Jezero was likely the site of ancient volcanic activity on the Martian surface.

“So that is obviously not great if you want to find anything living, but it’s great for one of our other goals which is to date rocks on Mars for the first time,” he says.

Perseverance, aided by Ingenuity keeping watch in the sky, is now doing a speed run across the Jezero crater to investigate more rock formations which could prove the existence of liquid water on Mars’ surface in the distant past.

The area, known as “the delta”, was named because it resembles a dried out river delta, and it is hoped the rocks will bear that out.

The rover project will eventually create two caches of rock samples that will be taken back to Earth to be analysed.

However, they won’t be sent back by the current mission, but by the next one, which is currently in development. A lander is expected to be developed that can land on the surface, collect the samples and then return to Earth – an engineering feat which would itself be a first.

Part of the renewed interest in Mars involves talk of sending not just probes, but also humans, especially in a permanent capacity.

A number of proposals have been made in recent years, including one earlier this year by billionaire Elon Musk, who suggested there could be crewed missions to Mars by 2029.

Flannery is less optimistic about that. He says sending people to Mars is likely much further off and believes that any suggestions of colonies or an even larger exodus of people to Earth’s neighboring planet is nothing but science fiction.

“We have the rockets that could get us there, but that is only one tiny part of the problem,” he says. “The sort of claims Elon Musk makes on Twitter – you can quote me on this – are a load of baloney.”

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Chief among the limitations is the cost – Flannery estimates a crewed Mars mission would cost more than $100 billion, before even starting to construct a colony.

Then there is the technical challenge of building a colony which can keep humans alive in an environment with no air on a planet with no magnetic field to block cosmic radiation.

“The fact is that there is no way you could destroy the Earth so badly that moving to Mars would be a viable option,” he says. “Any technology that allows you to live on Mars would allow you to live anywhere on Earth in far more comfort and far more cheaply.”

Having said that, Flannery agrees that the red planet holds a particular fascination for people, and says seeing our knowledge of it grow, even over the past decade, has been exciting.

Insights from the current missions have given scientists a much clearer picture of how Mars is today and of the history that led it there, although there is still a long way to go.

The NASA mission releases its findings in “waves”, allowing the scientists involved to analyze their data before making it public for professionals and amateur enthusiasts alike to pore over.

Flannery teases that the next tranche of findings is due out “soon”, but even after that there is still plenty more to discover about our planetary neighbour.

“With Perseverance in particular we have essentially by accident discovered these rocks that will help us put the role of volcanism in Mars’ development into better context,” he says.

“That sort of thing happens when you send something to Mars and have a look around. So the fact that there is growing interest in doing that means we’re going to learn so much more about Mars in the future.”

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