In a report released on Thursday, NASA has detailed plans for humankind’s journey to Mars, saying, “we are closer to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history”.
Mars has long captured the imagination of the world’s populations. We have sought life, and signs of life; we have sent robot emissaries to explore the Red Planet; but, most of all, we have dreamt of setting foot on the surface. With NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration, NASA sets out a plan to get us there.
“There are challenges to pioneering Mars,” reads the report, “but we know they are solvable. We are developing the capabilities necessary to get there, land there, and live there.”
The journey to Mars will cross three thresholds, and challenges will increase the further any mission gets from Earth. To mitigate these challenges, NASA is developing and demonstrating capabilities in incremental steps.
Earth reliant exploration will focus on research aboard the International Space Station (ISS), advancing knowledge of the effects on human health of long periods in space, and testing technologies that will enable deep space, long-duration missions.
NASA will utilise a proving ground – most likely in cislunar space, i.e., the space around the moon – where capabilities will be tested that would allow humans to live and work at distances far from Earth.
Finally, Earth independent activities will build on what the space agency learns on the ISS and in the proving ground, enabling missions to the vicinity of Mars.
“NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA.
A long way from launch
The journey to Mars will be a long one, with a lot of research and testing required between now and the launch of any mission.
According to the report, “Technology drives exploration, and many of the technologies we need are in various stages of conceptualisation, development or testing. Consequently, NASA will continue to make key decisions and further define steps on this journey as technology and knowledge mature.
“This is a good thing, as it allows new ideas, new technologies and new partnerships to be developed during the next two decades of this journey.”
Key challenges will need to be addressed, from issues of transportation to staying healthy in space.
Arching above all other concerns, though, are the myriad challenges facing “crewed missions lasting up to 1,100 days, and exploration campaigns that span decades”.
To combat these challenges, NASA is investing in numerous capabilities and state-of-the-art technologies, as well as utilising and advancing information gleaned from, and technology created for, existing space missions.
Projects on the ISS ranging from life support systems to the printing of 3D parts will come into play, as will launch systems, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – which will demonstrate an advanced solar electric propulsion capability – and deep space communications systems.
Crucially, the development of technology that will be familiar to those who have read or seen The Martian will be essential.
“The revolutionary Curiosity sky crane placed nearly one metric ton – about the size of a small car – safely on the surface of Mars,” reads the NASA press release accompanying the report, “but we need to be able to land at least 10 times that weight with humans – and then be able to get them off the surface.”
A global effort as humankind looks to the stars
In spite of the typically US-centric slant to the report, NASA acknowledges that missions to Mars will be a worldwide endeavour.
“Future Mars missions will represent a collaborative effort between NASA and its partners – a global achievement that marks a transition in humanity’s expansion as we go to Mars to seek the potential for sustainable life beyond Earth,” reads the press release.
NASA is excited about the work to be undertaken over the coming years, and the space agency is clearly hoping to capture the public’s interest in the endeavour.
“We are on a journey to Mars. We have already taken the first steps. We are excited by the challenges that remain, knowing they will only push us further. Come join us on the journey.”
Somehow, I don’t think they’ll have to ask twice.
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