Eyeing Mars: Marching Towards the Red Planet

More than 50 years ago, man landed on the Moon for the first time. Today, we are aiming for our neighboring planet, Mars.

For many years Mars has fuelled the curiosity and imagination of earth dwellers to think of the red planet as one with a bustling civilisation rife with futuristic technologies. Soon after, as mankind embarked on space exploration and interplanetary missions, we opened our eyes to the fact that the red planet next door was all but habitable, much less with a thriving civilization. But that has not stopped us from learning more about Mars and its planetary features, such as its iron oxide soil that gives the planet its blood-red hue, violent dust storms that cover the planet and lasts for months, and the largest volcano and highest mountain in our solar system, Olympus Mons.

Merely learning about the planet from afar did not suffice our curious minds. As our spacefaring capabilities progressed, we sent Mars rovers and other spacecraft to discover more. And now, we are eyeing the planet for its first human visit.

Illustration of astronauts and human habitats on Mars. (Source: NASA)

The Artemis program by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a grand venture directed at paving the road for sustainable lunar exploration and preparing explorers for the types of mission duration and operations that will be experienced during Mars missions. In essence, NASA not only aims to encourage advanced technologies and capabilities for sustainable missions on the Moon, but also extend the capacity for the first human mission to Mars.

One such example would be the LunaNet, a lunar communications and navigation architecture that will allow lunar crafts and crew to achieve network access similar to networks on Earth. This means that LunaNet will be able to enable data transmission from Moon to Earth, send real-time warnings from space weather instruments to the lunar crew, support positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services, and allow for highly precise surface operations. More importantly, these features are flexible and extensible to allow for operations in NASA’s lunar and future Mars explorations in the 2030s — according to goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy.

Illustration of Mars Base. (Source: SpaceX)

While NASA is in preparations to have a crewed mission to Mars sometime in the following decade, private space company, SpaceX, has plans to land the first humans on Mars by 2029, or 60 years after the first moon landing in 1969. What’s more ambitious is that SpaceX is not only looking to visit the red planet, but also build a self-sustaining city on Mars for humans as a multi-planetary species. These aspirations for Mars seem to be carried on the back of SpaceX’s giant rocket, Starship, that towers at about 390 feet when fully stacked.

Illustration of Starship. (Source: SpaceX)

The Starship, a deep-space spacecraft, will be propelled into orbit by Super Heavy, a first-stage booster rocket supported by 33 Raptor engines, and have the capacity to lift up to 165 tons from the ground. This powerful architecture of the rocket could lead the way in not just colonizing Mars but also in exploring the outer solar system, and even in militaristic missions to asteroids to protect Earth. Despite several successful suborbital flights, the Starship has yet to undergo its first orbital flight test, although the flight test is expected to be carried out in May 2022. If all goes well, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, said that up to a dozen flights could be executed in 2022 with Starship’s first lunar mission scheduled for 2023.

Chinese rover Zhurong and the Tianwen-1 mission lander on the surface of Mars. (Source: China National Space Administration)

But NASA and SpaceX are not the only ones planning to plant their boots on Martian soil. China will also be joining the contest to lead the first manned mission to Mars in 2033, with long-term plans to create a permanent Mars base. The crewed launches are expected to take place in 2033, 2035, 2037, 2041 and beyond. In order to accomplish this herculean task in creating a habitable station on the red planet, the country plans to study and scout the Martian landscape for possible base sites, develop advanced technology for crew to fly back and build systems to extract resources that will be essential for sustained activity on a future Mars base, such as extracting water from under the soil and resources for electricity to provide oxygen for crew. As such, China has in its books an uncrewed Mars mission to obtain soil samples by 2030.

It is no secret that a successful crewed mission to the red planet will require a gargantuan amount of planning, not only in the technology and equipment needed but also in scheduling the right time for the spacecraft to take off towards Mars. Space agencies and companies will need to take advantage of the optimal launch windows where the distance between Earth and Mars is the shortest, which tend to be in later this year, late 2024, late 2026 and late 2028/early 2029.

This competitive Mars race and related ambitious projects will be an iconic mark of the current space era. More excitingly, it is a sign of hope for mankind for a future in revolutionary planetary missions and in creating spacefaring legacies. As for the question of whether humanity will make its mark on Martian soil and see a future in the red soil, we just have to wait and watch.

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