Your life on Mars

Could you do with an extra 40 minutes each day? Find out what it would be like to live on Mars and how terraforming Mars could make it possible for you to live on the red planet and finally get all your chores done.

‘Mars has always fascinated us,’ says Dr Richard Zurek, Chief Scientist in the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). And of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars’ Earth-like qualities make it the number one candidate for exploration. ‘It’s the one you could imagine humans standing on one day,’ he adds.

Our Martian ambitions don’t stop there – many hope that we will establish a permanent base on the red planet, and possibly even a colony. So what would daily life on Mars look like?

Postcard from Mars

The Martian year is twice as long as Earth’s, but visitors would still experience winter and summer seasons thanks to the planet’s tilted axis. Mars rotates at almost exactly the same frequency as our planet, making its days just 40 minutes longer than our own.

Explorers would be treated to some mind-blowing sights, with vast canyons, giant mountains and sand dunes. The Martian air has a permanent veil of dust, giving the daytime sky an orange tinge although sunrise and sunset would be blue. Ice clouds similar to the cirrus clouds we see on Earth complete this otherworldly landscape.

But despite the sun and sand, Mars is no beach resort. ‘Mars is definitely a desert world,’ comments Zurek. Its atmosphere is very thin (only 1% as massive as our own), there is no liquid water and temperatures are distinctly chilly.

‘On a nice balmy day down near the equator the surface temperature could get above freezing,‘ says Zurek. But at night the planet’s sparse atmosphere barely retains any heat, with temperatures plunging by 100C. Mars has no magnetic field to protect it from space weather, meaning that you’d also have to contend with the full impact of the Sun’s radiation.

Setting up camp

Zurek estimates that the first humans will land on Mars in about 30 years and they’ll probably need to commit to staying on the red planet for a couple of years to make the several-month-long trip worthwhile.

The cold, coupled with a lack of oxygen, very low pressures and solar radiation would confine astronauts to their spacecraft or enclosed vehicles, with the occasional Mars-walk in their spacesuits.

The first priorities for long term visitors would therefore be building some kind of shelter (possibly underground in the first instance) and setting up a power source – ‘either a few acres of solar panels or maybe a nuclear power plant,’ comments Zurek.

This energy would allow explorers to separate oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and to extract water from hydrated minerals in the soil. Mars rovers have sent back evidence of frozen water reserves underground which the first Martian residents will no doubt tap into as well.

Making ourselves at home

If we’re serious about establishing a Martian colony, some scientists suggest that we could modify Mars’ climate to make it more accommodating to life – a science known as terraforming.

‘The atmosphere on Mars is cold enough and thin enough that if I were to pour a bucket of water on the surface it would either freeze, or boil away, or do both at the same time,’ explains Zurek. Adding carbon dioxide to the red planet’s atmosphere would increase air pressure and at the same time cause the planet to warm up through the greenhouse effect.

This would mean that liquid water could be sustained on the Martian surface, possibly allowing plants to be grown, which in turn would increase oxygen levels. ‘Over time maybe you’d have a very Earth-like atmosphere,’ adds Zurek.

The carbon dioxide needed to accomplish this feat might be right under the astronauts’ feet. The Martian surface bears tell-tale signs that liquid water once flowed across it, suggesting that the planet’s atmosphere used to be much thicker. ‘The question is, where did that atmosphere go?’ says Zurek.

Mars has a weak gravitational pull and no magnetic field, meaning its atmosphere may have been swept away into space. A more intriguing possibility is that some of the gases that made up this atmosphere are still on Mars, possibly frozen at its poles. The first stage of terraforming the planet could then be as simple as heating up frozen carbon dioxide to release it into the atmosphere.

For now however, the real challenges are in getting to Mars in the first place, landing large amounts of equipment and vehicles on its surface and overcoming the physiological impacts on astronauts of many months spent in microgravity.

‘In the meantime,’ adds Zurek, ‘we should take care of our own planet. It’s always nice to have good home base.’

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