Spacex and Nasa are some of the players who soon hope to be able to put the first man on Mars. But when can the first steps on the red planet be taken, what technology is needed to make it possible and why is the ice on Mars so important?
There are still many steps left before there can be talk of manned spaceflight as far as Mars, at least 55 million kilometers away. But that does not stop celebrity entrepreneurs and space enthusiasts from dreaming of big cities in March. The American company Spacex are the ones that have come the furthest in their plans.
The newest prototype the company has manufactured is SN9, which tested its engines on 13 January. But the test showed that two of the engines needed to be replaced, and it is not clear when the launch of the SN9 can take place.
How does Spacex technology work?
It is a spaceship called Starship that will make the journey possible. The entire spaceship is 120 meters high and measures nine meters in diameter and, according to Spacex, will have room for 100 passengers and a large cargo. The variants that have already been postponed, now the latest SN8 and soon SN9, are simpler prototypes of Starship.
Starship actually consists of two parts, a lower part called “super heavy” where most engines will sit, and the upper part for passengers and cargo. The lifting power comes mainly from the self-developed engines called “Raptor” in the lower part. The Raptor engines are powered by a fuel consisting of liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Exactly how many engines to use is not clear, but each engine has a traction of two Meganewtons.
Another important part is the heat protection on the outside of the spaceship. As Starship will enter the atmosphere of March at a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second, Spacex reckons that extremely strong protection is needed against the heat that will arise.
How is Spacex going to get to Mars?
Before Starship can set off for Mars, Spacex plans to build infrastructure along the way, for example in the form of space stations where the ship can refuel. When everything is in place, at least two unmanned missions must be carried out, to transport supplies and some form of power generator to Mars. There has even been speculation as to whether a small nuclear power plant could be the best solution.
Once on Mars, the unmanned spacecraft will also start building a facility for the production of rocket fuel. Spacex reckons that the ice on Mars’ surface together with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will be able to be converted into liquid methane and liquid oxygen, which can then be used to produce rocket fuel.
The first manned trips should be able to make such a facility in place, and initially with a few people. Although the spacecraft is designed to carry 100 passengers, the site will initially need to be used for various necessities in order to begin life on Mars.
Who else is on the way?
In addition to Spacex, NASA also has high-flying plans to get to Mars. An alternative is to rent from Spacex and use their technology, but the US government is also considering using its own technology “Space Launch System”. However, the development of that technology has been delayed by many years.
NASA’s equivalent in the EU, ESA, has set itself the goal of “reclaiming Europe’s role in the discovery of Mars”. But any European manned flight to the planet seems far away – according to ESA, new technology is required in the form of landing methods, fuel management and rocket systems.
Both China and the United Arab Emirates have sent unmanned spacecraft to Mars, but plans to send humans there are either unknown or very far in the future. In 2017, the United Arab Emirates announced the project “March 2117”, with the goal of having a city with 600,000 inhabitants in March that year. The city, including infrastructure and food and oxygen supply, would then be built by robots before anyone could get there.
When can humans reach Mars?
Spacex is, again, the company with the most offensive plans. After putting people on the moon in 2023, the plan is to organize a manned Mars trip in 2028, according to CEO Elon Musk. Nasa, for its part, is talking about sending astronauts to the red planet sometime in the 2030s.
The schedules are complicated by how the planets move. Every 26 months, Mars and Earth are extra close to each other – which makes the journey much shorter and easier. It is precisely in these time windows that the Mars voyages will be made. The next chance is 2022.
What are they going to do there?
Unlike when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 51 years ago, the ambition now is not to go there and turn around, but to stop. NASA’s long-term goal is a human settlement on Mars that achieves “Earth indepedence”, ie independent of planet Earth. But the US government estimates that it may take a few more decades from the time humans first land on Mars.
Elon Musk, on the other hand, talks about a colony on Mars with millions of inhabitants. To get there, Spacex has been looking for places that meet a number of criteria: it should be easy to land there, it should be at a low altitude so that a spaceship that goes in for landing is slowed down by a thicker atmosphere, and there should be very a lot of ice nearby. Ice is, as previously mentioned, an important raw material for producing rocket fuel.
To build a colony where people can live for a longer period of time requires the construction of significantly more infrastructure, but Spacex has said that it focuses on transport and leaves that type of work to other companies.