The Future Is Now: Let’s Go To Mars!

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Whether we consider stories, video games, movies, TV shows, comics, songs, RPGs, or symphonies – No one could debate that we Earthlings have a planet crush on our next door neighbor, Mars.

Science fiction authors have been weaving tales on and about Mars since the inception of the genre. These stories tend to fall into two buckets: invasion stories such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and adventure or exploration stories such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars stories. Sometimes the two even blend, as in Garrett P. Serviss’s bizarro Edison’s Conquest of Mars, in which Thomas Edison leads an expedition to the red planet to obliterate the Martians once and for all to claim Mars as the new American frontier! ‘Murica!

Prior to the 20th century, interest in Mars had been stimulated by the planet’s dramatic blood orange color, by early scientific speculations that its surface conditions might be capable of supporting life, and by the notion that it might be colonized by humans in the future. In the 20th century, actual spaceflights to the planet Mars, such as the landing of the Viking on Mars in 1976, inspired a great deal of interest in Mars-related fiction. And, more recently, in our century, with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers’ diligent Martian scrapbooking, and the growing popularity of the hard science fiction genre, we’ve revisited the red planet in Andy Weir’s The Martian. What set that story apart from any other Mars story was its plausibility. For the first time a fictional story set on Mars felt almost like a documentary rather than a far-fetched tale.

The fact is, if you’re from Gen-X or a younger generation, there’s a real possibility that you could be seeing a human on Mars within your lifetime. There are several projects “competing” for the privilege of being the first to set a human foot on the surface of Mars:

Elon Musk wants to get us to Mars in the next nine years. Yes, earlier this month, Musk’s company, SpaceX, has announced they will unveil a series of planned missions to Mars. According to Stark Musk, “The basic game plan is that we’re going to send a mission to Mars with every Mars opportunity from 2018 onwards. We’re establishing cargo flights that people can count on. I think if things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024, with arrival in 2025.”

Another project, the venture-backed Mars One, also has their eyes on reaching Mars in a similar timeframe. Their goal is a bit loftier than Musk’s, Mars One wants to start a human colony on Mars by 2026.

That’s right, Mars One is proposing a one way ticket to live, and die, on Mars. There have been no shortage of applications and they are now in the process of narrowing down their astronaut pool to around 40 (they started with 202,000 suicidal intrepid volunteers).

You might now be wondering what NASA’s Mars plans are. Well, they’ve definitely been talking up a big Mars game with their new Orion class craft. Currently NASA’s Congressional budgeting dependent plans are to put human feet on red planet street in the next 15-20 years. Those slowpokes! And that’s not even counting traveling time.

The consensus is that a one-way commute to Mars will take somewhere between six to eight months, depending on traffic. Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent a year in space which concluded in March of this year, so we know that it’s possible to do the time. NASA’s assumption is that the Martian astronauts would be plenty busy keeping the spacecraft operational and performing science experiments during that time. However, they’ve also investigated whether they could just put the crew into hibernation. While Sleeper spacecraft with crews in torpor (aka suspended animation) have been flying through futuristic science fiction movies like Avatar, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey for decades, therapeutic hypothermia (aka hibernation) is now actually a thing that we’ve managed to accomplish for up to 14 days.

But, if you’re in a rush to get to Mars, Russian billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner and superstar cosmologist Stephen Hawking have got your back with their Breakthrough Starshot project, which, if successful, could get a spacecraft on Mars in, get this: 30 minutes! Of all the Mars exploits in this post, this ambitious project is the furthest from our reach, as it faces numerous challenges.

Starshot will have to sync up many lasers in a kilometer-scale “phased array” that can act like a single, unprecedentedly large 100-gigawatt laser. These beams will have to fire in perfect unison, focusing on tiny targets thousands of miles away, pushing the laser sails for minutes, swiveling to keep track of the probes as they arc through space, and relying on deformable mirrors known as adaptive optics to help them compensate for atmospheric distortion. There’s also the question of how to stop a spacecraft going at a quarter of the speed of light without destroying it.

Still, “Once you get this technology, it will allow you to fly missions any place in the solar system at remarkably fast speeds,” says science fiction author, NASA physicist, and Breakthrough Starshot advisor Geoffrey Landis. “Right now we’ve gotten pretty good at getting elsewhere in the inner solar system, like Mars and Venus, but when it comes to the outer solar system, especially Uranus and beyond, it can take an awful long time to get there, and sending probes with very high velocities that can get there in days would be quite an amazing thing.”

So, pack your stuff, kids, we’re going to Mars. (In, like, 10 – 30 years.)

What’s next on your sci-fi wish list? Put it in a comment, and I’ll research it. Your dream tech may be closer to reality than you imagine!

Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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