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12 April 2017

How politicians are preparing for life on Mars

Scientists are scouring the Earth's deserts for life that might thrive on Mars. But is the Red Planet a distraction?

By Anjuli R. K. shere

In March, Donald Trump authorised $19.5bn of funding for Nasa in a bill that directs the space exploration agency to keep focusing on a human mission to Mars in the 2030s – although whether this means orbiting Mars or actually landing on the surface remains unclear. The bill is in line with the recommendations outlined in a Planetary Society report, which stressed that Nasa cannot afford to maintain a broad focus and “should instead limit development of new hardware and execute only the missions deemed essential to the Mars goal”.

Ever since we discovered our dusty neighbour, Mars has been an object of fascination and awe. Despite being the second smallest planet in our solar system, we named it after the Roman god of war and masculinity and, in much the same way that men desperately strive to meet those ideals, humans have dedicated large swathes of history to reaching the Red Planet.

Planet of politics

Trump is not the first US President to focus on Mars; when Barack Obama took office he requested that Nasa pivot from George W. Bush’s more modest Constellation programme to what he called “the next chapter” – safely sending humans to Mars. But this is not just an American dream. China has set a goal of reaching Mars by the end of 2020. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, no stranger to building in hostile climates, has imagined the United Arab Emirates creating a human settlement there in a hundred years’ time.

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As this suggests, politicians are not merely engaged in prestige games, but have more imperial ambitions at stake. The maverick French presidential candidate Jacques Cheminade has openly expressed a desire to build a settlement on Mars, calling it the “promised land”.

Once relegated to the fringes of pop culture, the idea of a populated Red Planet is increasingly becoming mainstream. So convinced are we that our neighbour will be our next home that two papers on the merits and risks of adapting Mars to support human life were presented at this year’s “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop”. Even Cheminade’s website extensively documents his belief that conquering a hostile environment such as the dusty wilderness of Mars would lead to innovations allowing us to make deserts on Earth habitable.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Trump’s heart could be set on the idea that Mars will be “Earth 2.0”. We may need one, given his deprioritisation of funding for other scientific endeavours, particularly Nasa’s own Earth Sciences Division, which monitors the impact of climate on the mother-planet. We live in an age when Earth is facing a number of great threats – from accelerated anthropogenic climate change to potential nuclear war – and many suspect that the US President’s pro-fossil fuel and post-factual agenda mean that life on Earth might not be possible for much longer. 

Turning the Red Planet green

As political interest in the blood-red dot increases, so does the speculation that Mars is capable of sustaining life. Of the other seven planets in our solar system, Mars is the closest in structure to Earth – the surface of our other neighbour, Venus, is too hot for exploration, as is Mercury; and the remaining four are gas planets. If we are going to colonise anywhere close to us, Mars is the logical choice. In fact, evidence has long suggested that, before it became a desiccated wasteland, young Mars very closely resembled our humid, habitable home – including a molten iron core and magnetic field. In March a paper was published that referenced findings from the Maven space probe to explain these changes.

Mars is smaller than Earth, so its core froze long ago and is now incapable of convection, which in turn has caused its magnetic field to disappear and leaving the planet vulnerable to “sputtering” (a deceptively cute name for bombardment by a magnetically-charged “solar wind” of subatomic particles ejected from the sun). As a result, much of the gas that comprised Mars’ atmosphere has been eroded, making it too cold and thin to support liquid water, which had previously flown on the surface for long enough periods to have left residual channels.

Undeterred, Earth’s scientific community has been combing Earth’s most deserted deserts, in a hunt for algae and bacteria that have evolved to survive in bleak circumstances. There are also attempts to adapt agricultural practices to this desolate environment. The International Potato Center has managed to grow a potato plant under near-Martian conditions, with future stages of the simulator planned to more closely mirror the Red Planet’s surface. It has also experimented with the possibility of CO2-rich greenhouses. Researchers hope to eventually find the right plants to be deployed to drastically raise the output of oxygen into the Martian atmosphere, as well as provide sustenance for the Earthling Diaspora.

Draining the planet

The idea of humankind hopping from planet to planet, selfishly exhausting resources and ignoring the effects of our actions (as with Trump’s climate denial), is reminiscent of the Marvel super-villain Galactus. According to the Marvel Universe Wiki, he “initially went centuries between feedings, seeking out uninhabited worlds that could support life; but he gradually […] began consuming inhabited worlds if he could find no others”.

Our mission to Mars may begin with humankind as interplanetary refugees, but it could evolve into something far more sinister. It’s all very well to be fascinated by the Red Planet, but when the obsession with salvation by a red dot eclipses our interest in climate change, it might be a sign that we should focus our efforts on saving our own rocky globe, rather than consuming another one.

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