Ares, Sol IV, Mars… It goes by many names (much like Earth, Gaia, Terra, or Sol III) but it has remained one of the main focuses when we look to the stars. Why has Mars been on our minds for so long? Will we ever be able to follow Hollywood and actually visit Mars in our lifetimes? Can we seriously see a future and clear distinction between Terrans and Martians? Mars is the fourth planet in our solar system and the only other planet that comes within the habitability zone. The other planets and moons are potentially to dangerous and extreme for us to visit let alone settle. Earth’s Moon, Jupiter’s moon Titan, and a few others could one day be home for humans but the logical choice is Mars.
Since the early 1900’s science-fiction has thought of Mars as holding alien life and Hollywood has helped push that along with movies such as “Mars Attacks” and “The Red Planet.” I personally love space, astronomy, and always love a good space movie. The Martian is a wonderful movie that came out a few weeks ago about Mars and really helped normal people to regain focus on space and Mars itself. Now in the last few years there have been a few good space movies such as Gravity and Interstellar. These movies did hold a great amount of science to them but in my opinion I would have to say the Martian did it better. There is far more of survival science in this movie than the others and has a more positive outcome for everyone within the movie. Those two aspects of the movie alone helped make it a pure pleasure to watch.
Now lets talk about some of the science that the Martian brought to the silver screen and how much of it we could actually use on Mars if and when we colonize it. Mars soil is different from soil on Earth, Earth soil has fine rock but also chemicals and bio-matter from dead plants and animals. Mars soil mainly contains fine rock dust along with chemicals usable for growing food however it does contain salt perchlorate and other toxic chemicals over most of the surface which could be a challenge. I would consider this an issue but there are ways one could combat this such as replacing the soil, adding calcium, creating a good irrigation system which can flush the soil, and/or planting certain plants that can withstand a high salinity. Good thing human waste can be great fertilizer and help combat the toxic soil for plants. Even looking back at Earth we are starting to see farms within shipping containers where space is better utilized and plants are growing from the walls. We also see this type of farming on the International Space Station for experiments.
NASA announced shortly after the movie’s release that they have found signs of water flows during certain seasons on Mars. This would allow easier and a more substantial source of water than having to ship water over to Mars from Earth. Now since the Martian soil has a high salt content I would suspect that the water would be as salty and be pretty acidic. There are ways this could be combated as well with the right equipment. To bad this announcement came after the movie was in post production because I am sure this would have made for an interesting part of the movie. I did personally love how the main character utilizes the hydrazine from the ships fuel to extract the hydrogen and allow for water to form. It is a far stretch and I am sure there are other ways it could be done. Mars does have two polar ice caps but those would have been too far for the character to travel to collect water from. This however could be a source for a permanent habitat on the planets surface.
The history of Mars is still left to many questions and theories however we have good idea that there were not lush massive forests covering the surface. Mars’ planetary orbit around the sun takes it in and out of the habitable zone. The habitable zone is a distance from a star which is determined to be close enough for the heat and warmth of the star but not to close to over radiate the surface of the planet. Pretty much this is the zone where liquid water can exist on the surface. Since Mars’ floats in and out of this zone, it would be difficult for any plant and animal life to thrive.
Mars also has a very weak gravity, only 11% of that of Earth’s gravity. Unfortunately the movie the Martian showed a more stable gravity which bugged me at first but I understand why they chose to mess with this fact a bit. The gravity on Mars would have made the movie difficult to produce showing everyone bouncing around. A weak gravity field also means a weak atmosphere. An atmosphere is maintained when there is a strong enough gravity field to hold gasses such as oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. With a weak gravity field these and other gasses have the ability to escape the atmosphere the further they are from the core. Since there is such a weak atmosphere, there are not powerful storms like the movie suggested. In all fairness the storm does add intensity to the movie as well give cause to leave the surface hence leaving someone behind.
One thing this movie didn’t showcase which I thought I could have used was the fact that with such a thin atmosphere, radiation is a real concern. One good x-ray wave and you are cooked. The atmosphere on Earth protects us from such radiation waves and our space craft use several layers of materials to act as shields from the radiation. While the hab pods on Mars in the movie could be outfitted with such shields, the spacesuits would not be.
So with all this being said can we live on Mars, short answer is YES and boy I hope soon. Any colony on Mars would ofcourse have to start small and then send additional pods an equipment over the years to increase functionality similar to how the ISS was built. After a while a larger more permanent structure would have to be build. Personally I like to think of a football stadium sized building constructed. The large dome would increase the size and allow for a more structurally sound building. Large farms would be house here along with the ability to mine and produce water and oxygen. Also having the ability to launch missions from here either by ground or back to Earth would also me necessary. There is currently a smaller scale habitat similar to that in the movie being tested by NASA that will give us more details on what would be required to have a manned mission. NASA is currently targeting a manned mission to Mars in the 2030’s which would be amazing.
Overall we could see a permanent colony on Mars hopefully by the 2050s. Shortly after people would spend their entire lives there and creating families. Life on Mars would be very different always living in a series of building and maybe even underground but it is a strong possibility it will be soon. I look forward to this next big leap for the human race because we are pushing the bounds of our existence and place in the universe.
As for the movie, it is a movie but it was very well done with an amazing story. The story line along with all of the beautiful scenes made me want to be there. It is hard to imagine how to through some life into a red desert scene but it pulls it off. I also loved how witty and sarcastic the main character is and the humor at times reminds me of my own at times. The nods to NASA’s and JPL’s previous missions to Mars was wonderful and helped it tie into today’s timeline. Now I know if I ever want to “science the shit out of this” I need to make sure I have plenty of rolls of duct tape.
PS. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” has got to be the greatest movie line of the decade.