On ‘The Race to the Red Planet’

The SunbornMarsRed MarsThe MartiansThe Stone Canal (Fall Revolutions Series)MarsboundApollo 13 (2 Disc Special Edition) Moonrush: Improving Life on Earth with the Moon's Resources

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

The panelists discussed what they thought was a need to move from sending orbiters and rovers to Mars to sending manned expeditions and possibly building settlements on Mars.

What follows is a range of topics raised in the discussion. These topics are all elements which could inform fictional stories about Mars and human activities relating to Mars.

Problems relating to human life and human activity on Mars

The Martian soil is a fine dust which can get into orifices, equipment (including equipment with joint lubricants) and lungs. This is a major factor which would need to be solved in order for human luife and activities on Mars to function well.

Someone suggested that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy worked through solutions to problems of living on Mars but, as Kim Stanley Robinson pointed out, his Mars trilogy was an allegory; not a plan.

The reason to go to Mars

For the benefits of human vs solely robotic exploration (controlled remotely by humans), including the greater co-ordination and control of movement that a human has compared to Mars rovers with equipment like robotic arms. Humans can also have greater responsiveness to the Martian environment due not having the twenty minute delay required for sending instructions from Earth to Mars. The next NASA rover, named Curiosity, will be powered by atomic energy via a radio-isotope battery and will have a laser  that can vapourise rock – but it still lacks the benefits a human would bring to simple tasks on the surface of Mars.

To make discoveries which will provide ‘a continuing addition to the human family’. While programs like the Apollo moon missions achieved manned expeditions, there was arguably relatively little in terms of scientific discovery and ongoing benefit to humanity that came from it.

To achieve human habitation of Mars

As a life insurance policy for humanity, in case something were to happen to Earth.

David Levine said that, as Mars was more habitable in the past than it is now, learning how this happened and avoiding Mars’s fate is the most compelling reason to go Mars.

Life on Mars

The panelists discussed that discovery of life on Mars as arguably the biggest scientific discovery ever. If life were to be discovered on Mars, it could be studied and the following questions (among others) could potentially be answered:

Did Mars life develop independently of Earth life?

Did Mars life come from Earth?

Did Earth life come from Mars?

Methane in the Mars equatorial belt

James Benford brought up the discovery of methane on parts of the Martian equatorial belt and the possibility that the methane is:

–          Caused by volcanic activity

–          Left over from a crashed comet

–          A by-product of microbial life

The detected methane is not evenly dispersed in the Martian atmosphere, but is highly localised in a number of spots along the Martian equator.

A potential upcoming orbiter to examine the methane hot spots on Mars

The launch of Martian orbiters like this can be launched every 26 months or so, due to the relative positions of Earth and Mars, and such an orbiter would require development time and funding.

Such an orbiter would be able to direct instruments at the parts of the Mars of specific interest and provide greater details for determining the source of the methane.

One theory is that microbial life has been driven underground on Mars (for up to several billion years) due to the hostile environment on the surface of Mars. It has been calculated (that is, an educated guess has been made based on available evidence) that around 2 billion years have passed since tectonic activity, or at least large scale tectonic activity, stopped on Mars. A consequence of this is that gases are not being replenished into the Martian atmosphere. The comparatively static environment means evolutionary change is likely to be much less than for the much more changing environments of Earth.

The frontier of human activity

In any frontier situation, such as travelling to Mars, people are required to make do with the resources at hand. This can be split into:

–          What you brought; and

–          What you can find

An example of this in storytelling is the movie Apollo 13, in which astronauts have to find a solution to a technical problem using the resources available aboard their shuttle in space.

Mars is the most hospitable place in the solar system beyond Earth

Some Earth plants would grow (slowly) on Mars. Major factors which would constrain growth of Earth plants on Mars include:

–          Limited carbon dioxide

–          Limited sunlight

–          Limited atmospheric pressure

–          High Radiation

Solar flares

Manned missions to Mars face a range of potential hazards. While getting to the relatively hospitable environment of Mars, a major potential hazard is solar flares, large ejections of electromagnetic radiation from the sun, which people are more susceptible to in space than they would be within a planet’s electromagnetic field.

–          Water can be used as an effective radiation shield

–          An interplanetary ship can have a ‘refuge room’ which is surrounded by a radiation shield, for when there is a solar flare

Nuclear propulsion

The panelists discussed nuclear propulsion for space craft, making the following major points:

–          Nuclear propulsion was tested successfully in the 1960s (however the technology is currently subject to a multi-national treaty relating to the use of nuclear technologies in space)

–          Nuclear propulsion can be used to travel from Earth to Mars in about 80 days

–          A faster trip means the astronauts would be exposed to less radiation and less food and water would need to be stored onboard

–          Nuclear power would be an effective way to provide power while on Mars

–          Nuclear-powered rockets would be heavy but they could be launched in a series of smaller payloads and then be assembled in orbit


The panelists discussed a range of other topics, including:

The possibility of an X Prize for directed energy propulsion to low Earth orbit

That some sort of ‘space elevator’ could theoretically be viable but there are challenges to be overcome if that were ever to happen

The medical effects of low gravity and the use of rotational gravity during space travel

Technological limits and that the weakest aspect of a technological solution is what determines the upper limit of what you can achieve with it.

Kim Stanley Robinson also discussed that he believes he became the first to eat part of Mars when he ate a piece of a Martian rock given to him after a friend suggested that the physical make-up of his body would then be ‘partly extraterrestrial’.

NEXT: On ‘Anachronistic Attitudes: Writing thought and belief in historical fiction’

The SunbornMarsRed MarsThe MartiansThe Stone Canal (Fall Revolutions Series)MarsboundApollo 13 (2 Disc Special Edition) Moonrush: Improving Life on Earth with the Moon's Resources

The Australian Literature Review

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