As more news about Mars enters our scientific community each day, the importance of making survival on Mars a priority is thrown into sharp relief. No longer remote, science-fiction the goal of transforming Mars for ourselves with technology is at the core of our next endeavor in space.
In January came the news of a SpaceX Mars One Headquarters planned for the Seattle area. In the meantime the non-profit organization has shifted its attention away from robotic missions and toward human survival of the trip. The US government plans to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030.
In April NASA announced that the Curiosity rover has discovered evidence of liquid water on the Red Planet. It is trapped beneath the surface, at extremely cold temperatures, and hyper-salty. However, this breakthrough confirmed that Mars has all three elements necessary for supporting life as we know it: liquid water, a carbon monoxide energy source for microbes, and nutrients in the soil.
Recently scientists have indicated that the trip to Mars itself might be fraught with so much cosmic radiation that astronauts would arrive with brain damage. This is just one of many hurdles that any manned mission will need to clear in the coming years.
Scientists are already working on plans for terraforming the surface of Mars. This kind of plan would start with the introduction of microbes from Earth in specific places, particularly those with the most plentiful stores of water. The success of terraforming also hinges on the ability of scientists to identify the right combination of microbes since very few could survive there.
Naturally, even the most successful terraforming leaves us with several major problems. First, the pull of gravity on Mars is far lower than it is on Earth-about 62 percent lower. This does not preclude the survival of complex life forms, but it is something that must be accounted for. Second, Mars lacks the protective magnetic field we have on Earth because its core is different than ours. This means no protection from cosmic radiation which, as recent reports have highlighted, has the potential to cause brain damage at a minimum.
In the meantime, continued study on the surface of Mars is essential. The research the scientific community conducts in an attempt to discern whether Mars was ever capable of supporting life and how the planet became the way it is today helps us understand ways we might be able to transform it again, at least enough to make it habitable.
As this research progresses it is possible that we may face yet another important question: what will we do if we find existing life on the Red Planet? Gary King, a Louisiana State University microbiologist who specializes in the survival of life in extreme environments, spoke to Popular Mechanics about this possibility. "Yes, that would raise a very tough discussion of ethics," King says. "It's much easier to think about introducing life if you know you're not destroying anything."
Hopefully the planned 2016 ESA mission will provide answers about whether there is life on Mars today. And, in the meantime, members of the space research community will continue to propel us closer to our next endeavor: staying alive on the Red Planet.