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  • Writer's pictureDan Steiger

Journey to the Red Planet

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

NASA/JPL/MSSS; processings and mosaic: Olivier de Goursac (fr), 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

As a previous SMLI blog post titled “The Final Frontier” discussed, tiny the earth just a tiny blue dot when compared to the expanse of outer space. It is truly incredible to think about the number of stars, galaxies, and planets are out there and unfathomable to imagine the great distances between them. We truly are just a little blue dot in the vastness of space. Yet, with all the marvelous phenomena, galaxies, stars, planets, and objects that are out there, the thing that seems to gather the much of the attention is the little red planet right next door.

It is difficult to determine who it was that discovered it, but Mars has a long history of admirers. The first written records of Mars can be traced back over 4,000 years to Ancient Egyptian star maps. The Babylonians were also fascinated with the planet and made detailed observations about its path through the sky. As they observed all of the bright objects in the sky, they noticed the bright one with the red hue had travelled through the sky a little bit differently than the others. The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle made further observations and is credited as the person who first declared that Mars was farther away from the Earth than the moon simply by noticing that it disappeared behind the it when it passed by. Many of us are aware that the name of the planet comes from the Roman god of war, it was the Greeks that first named the planet after their god of war, Ares.

The planet Mars and its craters. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Galileo Galilei was the first person to use the telescope to study astronomy first observed Mars using one in 1610. His telescope was too primitive to make out any detail and simply noted that it was a flat disc that wasn’t perfectly round. As the telescope became more advanced, scientists were able to make more detailed discoveries about the red planet. In 1877, an interesting “discovery” was made by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. He claimed he saw channels on Mars that seemed similar to manmade canals on Earth. Other astronomers who observed these canals determined that they had to have been built by an advanced life form. The possibility of intelligent life living on the planet right next door generated an interest in Mars that grew beyond the realm of science and into science fiction. Authors suddenly became fascinated with the red planet with works of fiction discussing Martians, their interactions with Earthlings, travel between the two planets, friendly discoveries, and all out invasions.

With the advent of flight, the seemingly impossible ideas of science fiction suddenly began to seem attainable and before long, scientists began to wonder about the possibilities of interplanetary travel. The first attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars occurred on October 10th, 1960 by the Soviet Union. The mission ended in failure during launch, but other attempts would follow shortly after. The first successful mission came on July 15, 1965 as NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft completed a flyby of the planet. Missions since have seen 14 man-made satellites in orbit, 16 attempts at landing on the surface, and 4 successful rovers roaming about the planet. In addition, there are currently 5 spacecraft en-route to Mars, expected to land in 2021.

Curiosity Rover
NASA's Curiosity rover has been exploring Mars since 2012, courtesy NASA

Unmanned missions to Mars have seen varying degrees of success and certainly has its share of challenges, manned missions however, are a much greater degree of difficulty. Can we be successful in sending people to Mars? NASA and SpaceX both seem to think so. Both organizations are working on multi-staged efforts to colonize mars. NASA’s “Moon to Mars” plans to first send astronauts to the moon by 2024. Their plan is to use it as a testing site for long term space missions and systems needed for astronaut survival including long term habitation, equipment, and resources. Once these tests are deemed successful, the agency will then prepare missions to send people to Mars. The SpaceX plan centers on the SpaceX starship which is designed to be reusable spacecraft used to deliver resources to Mars and return to Earth. This plan will focus first on delivering resources and equipment to the planet and then send a crew of people afterwards to develop habitable settlements.

According to NASA, a manned mission to Mars could last between 1-3 years. Why so long? The closest it gets to Earth is 33.9 million miles and at that distance, it takes 6-9 months of travel time to get there. If the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, that distance grows to 250 million miles. Mars and Earth are at their closest proximity to each other only once every 2.2 years leaving a very small launch window. Missions on the red planet would either need to last just a few weeks or over a year before the next opportunity to launch presents itself. A lot of planning would be necessary to supply a crew with everything it would need to survive because the mars environment lacks necessary resources to sustain human life. There is no breathable air, no food, and the water is toxic to drink. Mars is also much colder than earth with an average surface temperature is -81 degrees F (Antarctica averages -14 degrees F). With an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than earth, heat is not retained very well causing extreme temperature fluctuations of over 150 degrees F. If that weren’t enough, there is also no protection from space and solar radiation.

The idea of sending people to Mars may seem like insurmountable task with great challenges to overcome however, new information about the red planet and its resources are being uncovered every day. Continued research into solving these problems may have its potential benefits. NASA is responsible for helping develop over 2,000 products and technologies through the work it has done. The fields of medicine, computing, energy, military and others have benefited from its discoveries and everyday products like LED lights, memory foam, and scratch resistant lenses have all come from NASA’s work. The journey to send people to Mars will be long but potentially beneficial. Until then, the little red planet next door will continue to be a focus of wonder, imagination, and dreams.

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