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The conquest of Mars – Where are we at?

Artistic interpretation of NASA's rover in March 2020
Credit: NASAJPL-Caltech
Artistic interpretation of NASA's rover in March 2020
The conquest of Mars – Where are we at?

NASA is promising to send humans to Mars in the early 2030s. Billionaire Elon Musk, who founded the Tesla and SpaceX companies, hopes to establish a colony on the red planet consisting of no fewer than a million people within a hundred years. Are these just dreams, or achievable goals? It seems, in any case, that a number of breakthroughs are paving the way for our interplanetary migration.

A new rover

The prospecting of Mars by machine continues. NASA recently revealed its next explorer robot, currently called rover, which should be found on the surface of Mars at some point in 2020. Its design closely resembles that of Curiosity, which has been surveying the planet since 2015. The principal mission of this new robot will be to recover samples from Martian soil so that one day NASA can ship them to Earth for analysis.

A new nuclear reactor

The mission of the “Kilopower project” is to design the new generation of nuclear reactors for space exploration. Since its inception, NASA has used that technology for generating electricity, but those old generators left something to be desired in terms of productivity. And whereas solar energy has its uses, the dust storms on Mars, coupled with the fact that the planet receives the equivalent of only one-third the sunshine that the Earth gets, makes using it there risky.

For now, most exploration projects require about 200 watts for mission systems to be able to operate. In the event of a human base on Mars, needs for that are estimated at between 40,000 and 50,000 watts (40 to 50 kilowatts). NASA has succeeded in creating a generator capable of producing one kilowatt continuously, with the intention of designing new ones with a capacity of 10 kilowatts in the coming years.

Ice in sufficient quantities

A major discovery: we now know that there’s ice on Mars. Even better, it recently came to light that that ice is available in large quantities and is highly accessible – sometimes only a meter or two deep in the ground.

Water is an essential resource for any human settlement in space. Using a power source, it’s possible to separate its atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, making it possible to generate breathable air, and when that’s combined with carbon and methane, a rocket fuel. Close to 96 percent of the Martian atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide.

A colossal challenge, regardless

Nevertheless, guaranteeing a human presence on the oxidized sands of Mars is far from being a done deal. The technical challenges involved in that journey remain enormous, and the investments, gigantic. Developments in the years ahead will be crucial for assessing the realism of colonizing other planets in the short term.

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