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Mars is back in the news. In July, three countries launched missions to Mars. The first was the United Arab Emirates, which sent its Hope orbiter on board a Japanese rocket on July 19; China’s Tianwen-1 mission followed on July 23; and, finally, the United States launched NASA’s Perseverance rover on July 30. A fourth mission, by the European Space Agency and Russia, was postponed to 2022.
It might seem like a race is on to reach the Red Planet, akin to the race to the Moon in the 1960s. But the explanation is a bit more mundane: every 26 months, the Earth and Mars are closest together. This offers a brief window for a quick journey to Mars. If you miss the window, you have to wait another 26 months – which is what happened to the ESA/ Russia mission.
Mars has always loomed large in our imagination, and science fiction writers have been depicting voyages to the red planet for centuries. In 1887, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli undertook detailed telescopic observations of Mars and observed a dense network of features on the surface. He called them “canali” which stands for channels in Italian, implying narrow and long depressions. However, that got mistranslated into English as canals, giving rise to immense speculation – and an entire corpus of science fiction, the most famous of which is HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
There’s reason to be fascinated by Mars. The planet has numerous features in common with Earth. Although smaller than Earth, it has a similar rocky composition and marked seasons. NASA missions over the decades have made it clear that an environment different from the cold, dry world we see today once existed on Mars. Liquid water flowed on the Martian surface in the past: there are vast dry gorges and canyons etched by water and ice (Schiaparelli’s channels). Some scientists think Mars might have harboured life – not the advanced aliens of science fiction, but more mundane bacterial life that might today be extinct.
In 2007, when the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, I’d asked Arthur C Clarke, famous science fiction writer and visionary, about whether human beings would set foot on Mars soon. “During my lifetime, I’ve been lucky enough to see our knowledge of Mars advance from almost complete ignorance – worse than that, misleading fantasy – to a real understanding of its geography and climate,” he had replied. He had even gone on to talk about what would make Mars habitable for humans since “now we have fairly accurate maps of the Red Planet, and can imagine how it might be modified – terraformed – to make it nearer to our heart’s desire.”
In fact, terraforming Mars has been advocated in recent years by Mars enthusiasts and would-be colonisers such as Elon Musk, who has publicly said he wants to die on Mars (although not just on impact). Terraforming – or earthforming – is a Herculean feat of planet-wide engineering that will change the Martian atmosphere and allow humans to make uninhabitable Mars into a planet fit for natural life. While terraforming has a lot of followers, some recent studies have said it might actually not be possible on the scale humans would need to survive on Mars.
But first humans have to get there. And, hopefully, return. To do that, we would need large, reusable rockets – and a plan for humans to be able to survive the entire duration of the roundtrip, which is going to be a few years. In 2010, US President Barack Obama predicted that a crewed mission will orbit Mars by 2030, followed by a landing soon after. President Trump signed an order directing NASA to send astronauts to Mars in 2033.
Russia has also publicly announced intentions to send humans to Mars in the 2040-2045 time frame, and the ESA wants to do so as well. Nations like India, China and Japan have already attempted uncrewed Mars orbiters. India’s Mangalyaan mission was successful, and started orbiting Mars in 2014, but China and Japan have both failed to get their missions into Mars orbit. China is now trying again, and the UAE has become the first Arab country to attempt an interplanetary mission.
It’s well documented by now that missions to space are a great catalyst for a nation’s advance in science and engineering. Many technologies we now take for granted – wireless headsets, electrolytic water purification systems, camera phones, CAT scans, to name a few – owe a lot to the Apollo missions to the Moon. In fact, some argue that the investment by the US government in the Moon race led to its current science leadership.
Whether geopolitics and rivalries between different nations will speed up the timeline to Mars remains to be seen. Competition can only be healthy, and the world is likely to benefit from the fallout. Like the Moon missions, missions to Mars will probably produce technologies that will benefit humans on Earth as well.
In fact, the question is not if we humans will reach Mars but when. Clarke, who more than most 20th century visionaries had the knack of being proved right, had quipped back in 2007, “I have sometimes wondered if there might be a committee to protect the Martian wilderness in the 22nd century!”
Meanwhile, the Red Planet continues to yield new surprises. Just this week, NASA announced that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took pictures of baffling ridges on the surface of the planet. Some of us will probably witness a Mars landing in our lifetimes. We will certainly know by then if life ever existed on Mars, even if it were a primitive, bacterial kind. Should the answer be yes, it would be another profound milestone in our evolving understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, the scientific revolution that started with Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei.
World news – GB – Destination Red Planet: For space buffs, this summer has brought multiple Mars bound space launches