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Western Slope Skies - Making Mars Habitable

90903-222142 - Grace Thompson- Dec 10, 2021 428 PM - Cover_Photo_Making_Mars_Habitable.jpeg
NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Black-and-white photo of NASA's Curiosity rover and Martian landscape, taken 2021-11-16

What will it take to make Mars habitable? For human life to survive on another planet, either the environment needs to be naturally similar to Earth, or be modifiable.

This leads to the question: How does Mars differ from Earth? There are countless ways, but let’s focus solely on some atmospheric deviations.

Oxygen and Nitrogen make up almost all of Earth’s atmosphere, but on Mars, Nitrogen makes up less than 2 percent, and oxygen is so scarce it is considered only a trace gas. In fact, 96 percent of Mar’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide. Studies have shown that air containing just 10 percent can cause coma and death, while concentrations over 30 percent result in almost instantaneous loss of consciousness.

The sun’s ultraviolet and x-ray radiation is known to cause cancer. We can thank Earth’s atmosphere for absorbing most of these high-energy photons. However, not as many are absorbed on Mars, thus, setting visitors up for increased exposure. Also, astronauts would need to spend many months traveling through deep space with only the aluminum walls of their spacecraft as a radiation barrier.

Atmosphere and surface temperature are interrelated. This is due to the greenhouse gas effect — where certain atmospheric gases trap the sun’s heat. This effect is responsible for warming Earth’s surface from 3.2° to 59° Fahrenheit. But on Mars, the greenhouse gas effect is much weaker, and surface temperature is only increased from -68.8° to -58° Fahrenheit. This is over 100° colder than Earth’s average global temperature during the last ice age.

These are only a few of the problems that would need to be resolved to make Mars survivable — problems such as the planet’s lack of surface water, soil toxicity, and low gravity. It is an overwhelming task to try to first predict and then address every potential problem faced by future Martian astronauts. Yet, many brilliant minds continue toward doing so. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, is confident that his company will take humans to Mars by 2026, and other scientists have recently proposed using a material called silica aerogel to establish habitable regions on Mars.

The next few decades are sure to hold unprecedented developments as we seek to become an interplanetary species.

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This feature was written and voiced by Grace Thompson, an astronomy student of Dr. Catherine Whiting of Colorado Mesa University.