50 year’s after first stepping on the moon, human-kind is looking to put footsteps in a far more ambitious place than ever before.

By Tim Lofthouse

A photograph of frosted sand dunes in Mar’s northern Polar region. Taken by NASA’s Mars Recognisance Orbiter (MRO) in June 2018. Credit: NASA Public domain

Up until Apollo 11 made landfall on the lunar surface in 1969, the ambition of the human race has always been to reach the moon. Now the space exploration community has shifted their focus.

Flash forward half a century, and the flame which burned so brightly in the lead-up to getting Neil Armstrong and his team to the Moon has been reignited by another planet.

In the next 50 years, Geologist and president of the Mars Society of Australia, Jon Clarke predicts the very real possibility that humans will have established an “interplanetary community” on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.

The idea that humans could be sent to a planet on the other side of the solar system is a concept which has obsessed so many. Most notably the likes of Multi-billion-dollar private enterprises like Elon Musk’s space-X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. But some in the space community admits there is a long way to go, and challenges of every nature to overcome before getting to a point where a team of humans is able to be safely sent to Mars.

The ‘We will be Martians’ event capped off a successful 3rd edition of the World Science Festival at QPAC in Brisbane. Credit: Tim Lofthouse

On Sunday morning, five of the world’s most optimistic science and space experts sat down to discuss the journey which lays ahead in front of a packed-out Concert Hall at the World Science Festival in Brisbane.

As NASA astronaut and Mars-team-hopeful Yvonne Cagle highlights, there is an array of challenges which will need to be overcome in order to reach Mars.

One of the biggest challenges for engineers is the need to reduce the amount of fuel needed to push a spacecraft capable of reaching Mars into outer space, which typically makes up 90% of craft’s gross weight.

Australian National University (ANU) Professor and Physicist, Christine Charles, says that alternatives are being developed, including the possibility of re-fuelling Ship’s in outer space, or even a 36,000 Kilometre ‘Space Elevator’ running from the Earth’s surface to a small, orbiting spacecraft.

Ms. Cagle also noted that more efficient ways of protecting astronauts from interstellar radiation and counteracting deep Space’s effect of shortening human life expectancy must be developed. On top of all this, it’s predicted that the cost to send a single person to Mars will be approximately ten billion dollars, with the total cost of a successful team trip expected to cost an eye-watering $500 Billion US.

Humans have successfully sent a total of seven robotic spacecraft to Mars since Mariner 4 reached the Martian planet in 1965 and returned 21 black and white photos of the red planet. Robot missions cost considerably less than manned-missions into outer space and are infinitely expendable, although robots work incredibly slowly, and lack human curiosity.

It’s not just the physical effects and high cost of space travel that are problematic. Psychology Professor at the ANU, Kate Reynolds says the threat that astronauts pose to one another is one of the biggest concerns when attempting to make a trip which is predicted to take as long as 7-8 months. During this time, Astronauts are confined to a set of living quarters described as “the size of a telephone booth”. Professor Reynolds says NASA and cooperating enterprises will need to ensure a strict vetting and selection process is put in place to discern candidate eligibility. She also suggests it’s likely this will entail selected candidates spend up to a year in isolated facilities which simulate the way of living astronauts must learn to function effectively inside.

“It’s very well for a Candidate to be eligible as in individual, however for a trip like this it’s essential that they are able to operate in a team” says Professor Reynolds.

But huge leaps forward in the possibilities of space travel and new theories are developing every day, from the Space Elevator and deep Space gateways, to privately-owned and operated Moon-based re-fuelling and mineral extraction plants. Similar concepts are even being developed right here in Australia.

With the newly established Space Agency opening their headquarters in Adelaide last year, Australia is expected to ramp up Mars mission involvement over the next few decades. Mars Society Australia President, Jonathan Clarke, elaborates on the possible ways in which he believes Australia could contribute to this effort:

Mars Society Australia President and Geologist, Mr Jon Clarke (Speaking) Credit: Jon Clarke

Lots of people, particularly in the media, have become obsessed with the idea that the effort to reach Mars is one which must happen to ensure human survival. To eventually colonise another planet so the human race is able to effectively ‘restart’ when Earth finally succumbs to the destructive effects of Global warming. There is also debate about whether or not humans have the right to ‘invade’ Mars if there are already other living organisms inhabiting the planet. However, Clarke and the rest of the panelists are of the opinion that preserving Earth is our first priority, but as coined by the late astronomer, Carl Sagan, wandering further than we ever have before is simply an instinctual human urge.

To find out more about Australia’s involvement in the Mission to reach Mars head to the Mars Society Australia website by clicking here. Or follow the work and progress of Mr. Clarke and the MSA team on social media.