This Month in Science – Getting to Mars

NASA has been thinking about getting humans to Mars for decades. Scientists want to study the geology of the planet to learn more about how planets form. They also want to search for evidence of life and lay the foundation work to build a long-term research and habitat structure. In order to do this, NASA needs to create new technology and improve what currently exists. Advancements in spacesuit technology, rocket propulsion systems, and communications are just a few of the hurdles scientists must overcome before humanity can set foot on Mars. In 2015, NASA developed a three-phase plan to get to Mars; Earth Reliant, where space travel depends on support from Earth; Proving Ground, where new technologies can be tested on a spacecraft near the Moon; and Earth Independent, where space travel no longer relies on immediate support from Earth.

It takes six to nine months to get to Mars (34 million miles away) depending on the orbits of both Mars and Earth. The spacecraft needs to be equipped with enough fuel and supplies to get astronauts safely to Mars, but it would weigh too much to get off the ground if it carried everything needed for the trip from the beginning. To decrease weight at liftoff, astronauts will need to grow their own food in space and stop at the Moon to refuel and restock along the way.

NASA must prepare astronauts to overcome the hostilities of a planet unsuited for human life. Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field around it to protect it from solar radiation like Earth does, so habitats and spacesuits must be able to protect astronauts from the sun’s harmful rays. Temperatures on Mars reach a high of 20°C (68°F) and low of -125°C (-193°F) depending on the location, with an average of -63°C (-81°F), so spacesuits must also protect people from extreme temperatures. Astronauts must be prepared to take action on their own in the event of an emergency because it takes 20 minutes to send a communication between Earth and Mars. Astronauts will have also have to deal with gravity that is about one-third of Earth’s gravity. Scientists and doctors don’t know what long-term effects of lower gravity will have on the body, but they are studying these effects on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA is actively working on solutions to these problems as part of the three-phase plan.

During phase one, Earth Reliant, scientists and researchers work to develop the various technologies necessary to travel into deep space and sustain human life for long periods of time without support from Earth. If something breaks on the ISS, astronauts have a full team of engineers working to help them solve it down on Earth. When the station is low on food, Earth sends more. The support staff on Earth can’t help a spacecraft on its way to Mars in the same way because they will be too far away. Without this readily available assistance, the spacecraft needs to be robust and onboard all systems need added redundancy in the event of failure.

The ISS is the only habitable spacecraft currently in orbit around the Earth, and therefore, the only place to do research in microgravity. Microgravity is the environment where there is such a small amount of gravity it appears that there is none at all. Astronauts and objects float because of microgravity. Astronauts will be in microgravity throughout the duration of the journey to Mars. Once on the surface of Mars, they will be in gravity that is one-third of Earth’s gravity. New technologies developed on Earth are sent to the space station to be tested in this environment. The ISS is also an important place to study ways to mitigate health risks associated with being in space, like radiation exposure and decreased bone density due to microgravity. The information gained from these studies will prepare astronauts to travel deeper into space and be used to transition to missions back to the Moon.

In phase two, Proving Ground, astronauts will go back to the Moon to conduct short-term missions in preparation for longer missions to Mars. The new Moon program is called Artemis, and three missions are in the planning phases. Artemis missions will serve as a springboard on the path to Mars. Astronauts will experience conditions more similar to those expected on the way to Mars, but they can still return to Earth within a few days. During this phase, NASA will test a new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. The first crewed launch of the SLS is planned for 2022. The first planned Moon landing of one woman and one man is set for 2024.

NASA also plans to build a spaceship called the Gateway that will exist in the Moon’s orbit. The Gateway will serve as a base for astronauts to work and a possible refueling station for SLS on the way to Mars. Artemis missions will help build the Gateway and provide support for repeated trips to the surface of the Moon.

The final phase is Earth Independent. NASA will build upon the technology and information gathered during the first two phases to send humans to Mars. This phase will have crewed missions to both the moons of Mars and the surface of the planet. NASA has a long-term goal of building habitable structures and research outposts. At this phase, all missions must be self-sustaining with little to no reliance on Earth. Astronauts will study Mars geology, search for clues of life, and use resources on Mars to create fuel, water, oxygen, and building materials.

NASA is currently in phase one and actively working on aspects of phase two. Despite the many hurdles scientists need to overcome, progress towards the red planet is steady. In the next year, we will see the first spacecraft sent to the Moon since 1972. Artemis I represents the new age of exploration in which humans will travel into space beyond the Moon. Humanity has its eyes set on Mars, and you may be lucky enough to see a human set foot on that distant planet in your lifetime.

If you want to learn more about the plan for Mars, check out NASA’s Moon to Mars page.

Previous Columns

April: Earth Day 50th Anniversary
March: Ghost Trees
February: Fire
January 2020: Biodiversity of the Cape Fear
December: Snowflakes
November: Carolina Bays
October: The Longleaf Pine
September: Jellyfish
August: What’s in Your Childhood Chemistry Set?
July: What Happened to the Dinosaurs?
June: Hurricane Season
April: Quantum Levitation
March: Venus Flytrap
February: A Shifting Magnetic Field
January 2019: Giant Ground Sloth


Mars, the red planet.

NASA developed a three-phase plan to get to Mars.
Source: NASA

A timeline highlighting the planned missions for Artemis.
Source: NASA

A schematic of the Gateway, the outpost that will serve as a base orbiting around the Moon.
Source: NASA

An artist’s concept illustration of the Orion module approaching the Gateway to dock.
Source: NASA

Artist’s concept illustration of astronauts and habitats on Mars.
Source: NASA
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