By Rajasvi Gandhi
Recent strides in the field of astronomy, including the discovery of water on the surface of Mars and Titan (Saturn’s moon), gravitational waves, and the possible existence of a ninth planet in our Solar System, have further encouraged the centuries-long fascination with the night sky. The rapid and unprecedented growth of technology has triggered several successful space ventures, the most memorable being the Curiosity Rover to Mars and the Cassini Probe flying past Saturn and its moons. All of this has encouraged scientists to consider sending astronauts out into the Solar System, especially onto Mars. This move has been lauded by organisations like SpaceX and Mars One Ventures, who are significantly invested in this venture and hope to accomplish this goal in the space of a few decades.
Not all that simple, technologically
While colonising the Red Planet sounds like an idea borrowed from science fiction, it has received surprising backing from prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J. Richard Gott III, Buzz Aldrin, and Bill Nye. The main reason for this is the understanding that limitless survival on Earth is an assumption that goes against history. In the history of the existence of the Earth, many species have become extinct, dinosaurs being the most prominent example. There exists no guarantee that humankind will be able to survive the ongoing environmental damage, caused by consumption of natural resources and backed by possible natural disasters.
However, a plan of colonising another planet is one that will surely take decades to prepare, fund, and perfect. Each space exploration venture has pointed to several lags in existing mechanisms and prompted changes – the mission to the moon necessitated pacemakers, artificial hearts, non-invasive ultrasound technology, breast biopsy systems, firefighter air breathing systems, infrared cameras, cordless appliances, household smoke detection systems, energy efficient aircraft, and water purification systems. The mission to Mars itself will require increasing automation, more sophisticated crop-rearing methods, fully mechanised medical procedures, and greater environmental control. It may even appear that the billions being spent on space exploration could be used for solving more pressing problems on Earth itself. It can also be argued that such an attack on space exploration falls flat when the space budget of any government is compared with, for instance, its military budget.
The climate on Mars resembles the conditions back on earth, and the Red planet also suggests a possibility of water in its dry river beds, indicating the presence of life as well. These extraterrestrial life forms might still exist and could provide scientific insight into the evolutionary processes on Mars. Such a possibility not only holds the imagination of scientists but is also a way to understand the chemical processes that acted as the building blocks of life.
Furthermore, the widespread ecological damage and climate changes, make Mars reminiscent of Earth, as the former can provide knowledge of a possible future for the latter. A study of the drastically changed climate, the planetary formation and the geological structuring of Mars is sure to give a fascinating glimpse into the way planets can change and develop. As a bonus, living for any amount of time on Mars, where the gravitational force is 62% less than that on Earth will allow us to study the effects of low gravity on the growth and sustenance of the human body.
A picture not so rosy
Recent efforts at colonisation and exploration do not appear to be as hopeful as expected. A recent study of Mars One’s plans to reach Mars reveal several shortcomings, chief among which is the fact that a civilisation on Mars cannot exist independently until it can produce the goods it requires. Any efforts to continuously subsist on crucial items brought over from Earth will lead to a sharp increase in the mission costs, making it economically unsustainable. Many technologies required for the mission, such as life support, taking off and landing, as well as possible terraforming, do not yet exist. Mars One’s goal to send a regular and increasing number of people to a Martian colony also necessitate a steady increase in crop growth area and costs, requirements which have not been accounted for.
The harsh climatic conditions, the risk of radiation, the indoor or underground living and crop rearing, and the dangers of space travel sound daunting enough. It is further believed that the Martian ecosystem faces an equal amount of danger from us. There are billions of microbes both on and inside the human body and apparatus, and by introducing so many living organisms to a foreign environment, there is the risk of killing Martian microorganism, if indeed they exist. These microorganisms possibly perform crucial functions in the environment. Similarly, humans may be affected by such bacteria as well, possibly leading to the contamination of the Earth’s ecosystem.
Just another bold claim?
The vast dream of exploring and eventually colonising Mars involves various possible missteps that could adversely affect this venture. The biggest drawback in this situation is that scientists do not have access to enough knowledge about Mars. On the other hand, there is no denying that access to another planet will flush scientific study with limitless knowledge, even though the first few trips are likely to be solely for the transportation of supplies, not humans. Exploring Mars is a long-term endeavour that seems to throw up as many challenges as benefits, but there is no denying that this dream is closer to fruition than ever before.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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