We’ve been to space, we’ve been to the Moon and now the rush is on to the next frontier – putting a human on Mars.
It may seem the stuff of science fiction but the space race to the Red Planet is real – and the competition is so tough that it makes the old US-Russia battle to be first to the Moon look like friendly rivalry.
NASA believes it can get to Mars before 2030 and the China National Space Administration has set a target of 2021, while the European Space Agency and the Russians’ Roscosmos are already in the first stages of a joint project to put a robot on the surface by 2020.
Meanwhile, SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk aims to ferry 100s of passengers there by 2024, the space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is rocket-testing in the Texan desert and Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp has already recruited eight people for his Mars One mission.
The race is now at the centre of NatGeo’s new multi-million-pound docu-drama Mars, which mixes interviews with the real scientists and entrepreneurs with a dramatisation of a 2033 colonisation mission, starring Olivier Martinez.
To celebrate, they transformed London’s Trafalgar Square into a Martian landscape.
But according to British expert Abbie Hutton, 29, from Kent, it is not unrealistic that we will be there for real soon.
She is one of the main engineers on the UK-built ExoMars Rover, the robot which the ESA and Roscosmos intend to land on the planet.
Its purpose is to answer one question: Is there life on Mars? And its answers will be vital in our quest to set up a new home there.
Abbie says: “The 2030s are quite a realistic target. At present sending a human to Mars would be a one-way ticket because outside Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field we are exposed to cosmic and solar radiation.
“But by the time we send humans we’ll have developed enough technology to protect us. That’s what we have to develop in 10 to 20 years – but these breakthroughs could happen any day.
“It’s a tough challenge. If going into space was a 5k race, landing on the Moon was a 10k – and getting a man on Mars is the marathon.”
So should we all be looking at property on Mars? Will any of us now alive ever be able to go there? And what could we eat?
Here Abbie helps to answer some of our biggest questions about the fourth stone from the Sun.
Why go to Mars?
Despite millions of Americans begging to leave for Mars after Donald Trump’s election, it will not really be a viable option if the Earth succumbs to climate change, as some might think.
“We’ve got to really screw up Earth before Mars looks like an attractive prospect,” says Abbie. “But there are age-old questions, like, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ Exploring the wider solar system might just give us the answers.”
It could also be a stepping stone for the rest of the universe. Abbie says: “Some people talk of the next step being the icy moons of Jupiter, including Europa and Titan, but there are others who want to get into a spaceship and go anywhere.”
How do we get there?
It will take six to nine months to reach Mars, so a craft must shield crew from cosmic and solar radiation, which Earth’s atmosphere normally blocks. We must also find a way to minimise the health impacts of long-term zero-gravity travel, including poor muscle mass and bone density.
There are other dangers too, says Abbie. “Solar flares are likely to reach you every three to four months. They could make you really sick pretty instantly, assuming they don’t kill you outright.”
One answer might be to crack nuclear fusion, which would supply enough energy to shorten the journey and provide a protective magnetic shield around any ship.
The other problem is the first few trips to Mars would be one-way tickets.
“I would not want to be on that first ship,” says Abbie. “There wouldn’t be a way back, with no infrastructure like launch pads. But there are still some people who’d be willing to go.”