Emergency escape into space

By Claas Olthoff
Will humans eventually be forced to colonize Mars? When problems like climate change, overpopulation and diseases make life on Earth impossible? “tomorrow” talked to a NASA expert about extraterrestrial life and its hurdles. A cosmic mix of facts on the current state of research.
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1877 – the beginning of the Mars hype
Emergency escape into space

That countless authors have been writing about extraterrestrial life for more than a century has a lot to do with a stargazer from Turin – and a major misunderstanding. Giovanni Schiaparelli (pictured left), a teacher-turned-astronomer, drew a more detailed map of the Mars surface than anyone else before him. It included huge depressions of up to 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) in length. Schiaparelli thought they were of natural origin and used the Italian word canali for them. Translated into English, they became channels, thus referring to artificial waterways. Logically, these waterways must have been created by extraterrestrials, a piece of sensational news that spread around the globe like wildfire. Obviously enjoying the fame, Schiaparelli didn’t show much interest in resolving the misinterpretation. Critical voices were ignored until the Mariner 4 NASA mission in 1965 provided certainty. Schiaparelli’s “canali” were optical illusions, but that did not mar the fascination with “life on Mars,” especially since the Red Planet does lend itself to human “invasion.”

Emergency escape into space© privat

Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system and our direct neighbor. We know that Mars used to have a dense atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. This makes it a very interesting target in our quest for life. It’s the next logical step for humanity in space exploration.

NASA expert Claas Olthoff
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To Mars and back in 1,000 days

Since both Earth and Mars move in elliptical orbits, the distances between the two planets are not always the same, varying between 56 and 401 million kilometers (35 and 250 million miles). That’s why Mars missions are always launched when Earth and Mars are closest to each other. Such a window of opportunity only opens up every 26 months, like this summer, when several organizations sent robots on a journey to Mars. Besides the United States, they included space agencies from China and the United Arab Emirates for the first time. None of the spaceships had an astronaut of flesh and blood on board. The flight to Mars and back in a crewed spaceship takes between 450 and 490 days, while the whole journey takes about 1,000 days, depending on a favorable constellation for the return flight. Sounds like a physical ordeal and an extremely costly proposition estimated to amount to 500 billion to one trillion dollars, according to Claas Olthoff. A sum, though, he says, that’s not impossible to finance: “Several countries could share the costs like in the case of the International Space Station. But there must be a larger group of countries where the political and social will to bear these costs exists at the same time. And that’s precisely where I see the biggest hurdle.”

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About searching or creating a second Earth

A Mars colony as an extraterrestrial backup for the human species. For NASA expert Claas Olthoff, that’s an exciting idea: “I believe that colonizing Mars is desirable in the long run. Chances are that the Earth will eventually become uninhabitable, be it due to our own (in)action in combating climate change or due to natural disasters. I think we’re going to see the first crewed Mars mission within this century.”

Emergency escape into space
Also on board the Perseverance Rover: The MOXIE module with which NASA wants to test the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen.© NASA

But how should life on a desolate, very cold planet without an atmosphere be possible? One possibility is so-called terraforming, which is supposed to enable human life on other planets by means of technological interventions. The imagination this concept inspires is as boundless as space. The range of ideas extends from using tiny microbes and bacteria to space mirrors with a burning lens effect to artificially induced asteroid impacts. Another idea is to coat the icy surfaces on Mars with carbon black which would cause them to become hot and melt. All of these scenarios are inspired by the objective of releasing the carbon dioxide that’s bound in the surface of Mars into the atmosphere in order to warm up the planet so that water will flow again allowing plants to be grown that inhale CO2 and exhale oxygen. In a nutshell: An adequate greenhouse effect must be created because that’s exactly what makes life possible for humans. Although a greenhouse effect already exists on Mars, it’s minimal in spite of its high CO2 content of about 95 percent. The reason is that the planet’s lower gravity binds less gas, which makes the atmosphere lighter and thinner compared to Earth. The lower air pressure makes it easier for thermal energy to escape into the universe. Some research scientists have doubts about the methods of terraforming. Mars more than likely does not even have enough CO2 for this plan. The situation on Venus is even more complicated. The average temperature there is around 450 degrees centigrade (842 °F). Any form of life would immediately be carbonized.

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Space simulation in the desert
Emergency escape into space

In the desert, under water or in caves: around the globe, astronauts are in the process of intensively preparing the departure for Mars in various training camps, like in Oman: For three weeks, away from any type of civilization, six so-called analog astronauts of the Austrian Space Forum simulated the conditions on Mars there – with a tracked vehicle, igloo-like tents, helmets with solar energy, 3D printers for spare parts production and by growing their own vegetables. NASA, on the other hand, practices in the ocean as well, at a depth of 20 meters (65 feet) off the Florida coast, where the astronauts spend one to two weeks in a 37-square- meter (400 square-feet) capsule, simulating gravity conditions under water like those in outer space. Space training in cave systems in Slovenia or Sardinia looks a little different. In an ESA project, astronauts have to perform a variety of tasks in unusual surroundings, completely autonomously and in an extremely confined space. Participants report that this is how living on another planet must feel.

Actually, that’s how all astronauts training for a self-sufficient life in space feel, be it in detritus-covered terrain in Hawaii or in the Gobi Desert in China (pictured right). Claas Olthoff: “It takes at least 100 to 200 persons to establish a self- sufficient colony on Mars, according to relevant studies.” Technically, he says, that’s possible, if there were enough people to pay for this. How many people could actually live on Mars, Osthoff can’t say: “The human body has adapted to the environment on the Earth’s surface due to evolution. Exactly the same conditions do not exist anywhere else in the solar system, so there’d always have to be some kind of life support system for humans on other planets.” At this juncture, he adds, a prediction of whether such technologies could be scaled up to supporting several billion people is not possible.

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Facts and figures

50,000 km/h (31,000 mph) would be the speed of a space capsule on its return to Earth. A huge stress test for humans and hardware.

  • 5 Mars robots
    have been deployed to Mars by NASA – three of them with Schaeffler technology on board. The current Perseverance rover is the first to take pictures with a zoomable camera. In addition, it’s equipped with a super-lightweight helicopter – the first ever extraterrestrial flying object.
  • 95 % of the atmosphere on Mars
    consists of carbon dioxide.
  • 36 intelligent civilizations
    might exist in our home galaxy of the Milky Way.
  • –55 °C (–67 °F)
    is the average temperature on Mars.
  • Up to $ 10 trillion
    is the purported cost of Elon Musk’s planned futuristic city on Mars. By 2050, the SpaceX CEO intends to build a colony on the Red Planet accommodating up to 1 million people
  • 100 times higher
    That’s how much higher the radiation exposure on Mars is compared to Earth. In space, it’s even 300 times higher. At least 70 percent of the galactic cosmic radiation penetrates the typical outer walls of a spaceship.
Duration of a planetary day in minutes (days)
Emergency escape into space
Claas Olthoff
Author Claas Olthoff
Mit fünf Jahren besuchte Claas Olthoff mit seinem Vater das Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seitdem lässt ihn die Raumfahrt nicht mehr los. Nach Studium und Promotion an der Technischen Universität München zieht es ihn als Post-Doc in die USA. Ans Johnson Space Center der NASA in Houston. Für ein paar Jahre würde er gerne auf dem Mars wohnen. Aber dauerhaft in einem klimatisierten Habitat leben? Nein, danke! Womöglich noch in einer Höhle zum Schutz vor der Weltraumstrahlung. Schon jetzt vermisst er in Texas die deutschen Jahreszeiten.