Can humans survive on Mars?
Get ready, we're going to Mars.
Not just a few astronauts - thousands of people will colonize Mars. And I tell you they will soon. Some of you will be working on projects on Mars, and I guarantee you that some of your children will live there.
That might sound absurd, so I'll show you how and when it happens. But first I want to discuss the obvious question: why the hell should we do this?
12 years ago I gave a TED talk about 10 ways the world could suddenly end. We are incredibly vulnerable to the whims of our own galaxy. A single, large asteroid cloud could wipe us out forever. To survive, we have to reach beyond our planet. Imagine what a tragedy it would be if all that we humans have achieved were suddenly wiped out.
And there's another reason we should go: exploration is in our genes. Humans evolved in Africa two million years ago, and slowly but surely they spread across the planet, moving into the wilderness beyond their horizon. It's inside of us. And in doing so they blossomed. Some of the greatest advances in civilization and technology came about because we did research.
Yes, we could do a lot of good with the money we need to build a growing colony on Mars. And yes, we should all be much more careful about our own home planet. And yes, I'm afraid we can screw up Mars like we did on Earth.
But remember for a moment what we had when John F. Kennedy told us we were going to land a human on the moon. He inspired a whole generation to dream. Just think how inspired we would be to see a landing on Mars. Maybe then we will look back to earth and see that we are one people instead of many and maybe then we will look back to earth as we struggle to survive on Mars and see how precious our home planet is.
Let me tell you about the extraordinary experience that we are about to start. But first, a few fascinating facts about where we are going. This image reflects the true size of Mars versus Earth. Mars is not our sister planet. It is far smaller than half the earth, but although it is smaller, the surface on Mars that you can stand on is the same size as the surface on earth that you can stand on because most of the earth is covered by water.
The atmosphere on Mars is really thin, 100 times thinner than on Earth, and we can't breathe it because it's 96% carbon dioxide.
It's really cold there. The average temperature is minus 61 degrees Celsius, but the temperature fluctuations are very large.
A day on Mars is about the same length as it is on Earth, plus about 39 minutes. The seasons and years on Mars are about twice as long as on Earth.
And for all of those who one day want to buckle up their wings and fly, Mars has a much weaker gravity than Earth and this is such a place to jump over your car instead of walking around it.
So, as you can see, Mars isn't exactly Earth-like, but it's by far the most livable other place in the entire solar system.
But here's the catch. Mars is very, very far away, a thousand times farther away than the moon. The moon is 400,000 kilometers away and it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get there. Mars is 400 million kilometers away and it takes us eight months to get there, 240 days. And only if we take off on a special day, at a very special time, once every two years, when Mars and Earth are set up in such a way that the distance that the rocket has to cover is the shortest. 240 days is a long time to spend locked in a tin can with colleagues.
And so far, our success rate at getting to Mars has looked really miserable. We and the Russians, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese and the Indians have so far sent 44 missiles, and the vast majority either missed their target or crashed. Only about a third of the missions to Mars were successful.
And right now we don't have a rocket big enough to get there. We once had such a rocket, the Saturn V. Some of the Saturn V would have brought us there. It was the most magnificent machine man-made and it was the rocket that took us to the moon. But the last Saturn V was used to launch the Skylab space station in 1973, and we decided to build the space shuttles instead of continuing to Mars after landing on the moon. The biggest rocket we have right now is only about half the size it takes to get anything to Mars.
So getting to Mars is not going to be easy and that brings us to a very interesting question ... When will the first humans land on Mars?
Some experts think this will happen by 2050, that would be quite a success.
NASA says they will bring humans to Mars by 2040. Maybe they can. By 2035, they can probably put humans into orbit around Mars. But frankly, I don't think they'll bother to send a rocket to Mars in 2035 because we'll be there by now.
We will land on Mars in 2027. And the reason for that is this man who is determined to make it happen. His name is Elon Musk, he is the head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Actually, he told me he would land on Mars as early as 2025, but Elon Musk is more optimistic than me, which isn't surprising, so I'm giving him a few more years. Still, we have to ask ourselves, can he really do that by 2025 or 2027?
Let's take a closer look at a decade with Elon Musk. Where was that 10 years ago? This is the Tesla electric car. In 2005, a lot of people in the auto industry said we wouldn't have a decent electric car in the next 50 years.
And where was that here? This is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that brought a six ton shipment to the International Space Station. 10 years ago SpaceX hadn't launched anything, nor had a rocket shot anywhere. So I believe we can confidently trust that the person who revolutionized the automotive industry in less than 10 years, built an entire space company, will bring us to Mars by 2027.
The only thing you need to know is that governments and robots no longer control this game. Private companies are moving out into space and they will be delighted to take you to Mars.
And that begs a really big question. Can we really survive there? NASA may not get us there any earlier than 2040, or we may get there long before NASA, but NASA has taken on the great responsibility of figuring out how to survive there.
Let's look at the problems from this side. Here are the things we need to survive on earth: food, water, shelter, and clothing. We need all of the above to survive on Mars, plus oxygen.
So let's look at the most important things on this list first. Water is the basis of all life as we know it, and it is far too heavy to be transported from Earth to Mars. So we have to find water there if we are to survive on Mars. And when you look at Mars, it looks really dry there, it looks like the entire planet is one desert. But it turns out that's not the case. The soil on Mars alone contains up to 60% water. And some of the probes in its atmosphere have shown us - by the way, this is a real photo - that many of the craters on Mars contain a layer of water ice. This is not a bad place to start a colony.
Here is a picture of small digs made by the Phoenix probe in 2008 that show us that there is ice just below the Martian surface. The white stuff is ice. In the second picture, taken four days later, you can see that some of it has evaporated.
Space probes also tell us that there is both huge amounts of water beneath the surface of Mars and ice glaciers. In fact, most of the planet would be covered by 10 meters of water if the ice on its polar caps melted. So there is enough water there, but most of it is ice, most of which is underground. It would take a lot of energy and manpower to get there.
This is a device that was developed at Washington University in 1998. It's basically a simple dehumidifier. It turns out that the Martian atmosphere often has 100% humidity. So this device can easily filter out all the water that humans will need from the atmosphere of Mars.
The next thing we need to worry about is what we're going to breathe. In all honesty, I was very shocked to find out that NASA has already solved this problem. This is a scientist at MIT, his name is Michael Hecht. He developed this machine: Moxie. I love this thing. It's basically an inverted fuel cell that sucks in the Martian atmosphere and lets out oxygen. And remember, CO2, carbon dioxide, which is 96% of the Martian atmosphere, is basically 78% oxygen.
The next big rover NASA sends to Mars in 2020 will have one of these devices on board and it will be able to generate enough oxygen to keep a person alive indefinitely. But the secret is, and that's just for testing purposes, this thing was designed from the start to be scalable by a factor of 100.
What are we going to eat next? We will use hydroponics to grow food, but we will not be able to grow more than 15-20% of our food there, at least not until there is running water on the surface of Mars and we are able to grow crops on the surface of Mars . In the meantime, most of our food will come from the earth in a dried form.
We will continue to need accommodation. Initially we can use inflatable pressurized buildings and the landers themselves.But that really only works during the day. Solar radiation and cosmic rays are too strong. So we would have to go underground.
It turns out that Martian soil is extremely good for making bricks. NASA found this out too. They'll put plastic polymers on the bricks, put them in microwave ovens, and then we can build really thick walls. Or we decide to live underground in caves and lava grottoes that abound there.
After all, we need clothes. On earth we have kilometers of atmosphere stratified above us that constantly exert 7 kg of pressure on our bodies and we fight against it all the time. There is hardly any atmospheric pressure on Mars. So Dava Newman, a researcher at MIT, created this simple spacesuit. It will hold us together, shield us from dangerous radiation, and keep us warm.
So let's think for a moment. Food, shelter, clothing, water, oxygen, ... we can manage that. We really can. But it's still a little complicated and difficult.
That leads us to the next big step, a really big step towards living a good life on Mars. This is terraforming the planet: making it more like the earth in order to reconstruct an entire planet.
That sounds very presumptuous, but the truth is that the technology needed to make the following happen already exists.
First we have to warm everything up. Mars is extremely cold because it has a thin atmosphere. The answer to this lies in the South Pole and North Pole of Mars, both of which are covered in a huge amount of frozen carbon dioxide: dry ice. When we warm this up, it sublimes directly into the atmosphere and it thickens it in the same way that it does on Earth.
And as we know, CO2 is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. I prefer to set up a very large solar sail and align it - it basically functions as a mirror - first of all towards the south pole of Mars. As the planet rotates, it heats up all the ice, it sublimates, and it rises into the atmosphere. It wouldn't actually take long for temperatures to begin to rise on Mars, probably less than 20 years.
Right now, on a perfect day at the equator, in the middle of summer on Mars, temperatures can reach 21 degrees,
but then they drop back to minus 70 degrees at night.
What we're after is a frenzied greenhouse effect: a temperature increase big enough to melt a lot of ice on Mars, especially that underground. After that we see a real miracle.
As the atmosphere gets thicker, everything gets better. We get better protection from harmful radiation, a thicker atmosphere warms up the entire planet so that we get running water and it enables plant cultivation. Then even more water vapor gets into the air, so that another effective greenhouse gas is formed. It will rain and snow on Mars. A thicker atmosphere will create enough pressure that we can get rid of the spacesuits. We only need about 8 pounds of pressure to survive. After all, Mars will feel a lot like British Columbia.
We would still have the complicated problem of making the atmosphere breathable and that could take 1000 years. But people are incredibly smart and adaptable.
One cannot foresee what our future technology can achieve with our bodies. Right now in biology we are very close to controlling our own genes, what those genes do in our bodies, and certainly, at some point, our own evolution. At some point we might have a human species on earth that is slightly different from the human species that lives on Mars.
But what would you do there? How would you live It will be the same as on earth. Someone is going to open a restaurant, someone is going to build an iron foundry. Someone is going to make documentaries about Mars and sell them to Earth. Some idiot is going to start a reality TV show.
There will be software companies, we will have hotels and bars.
One thing is certain: it will be the most disruptive moment in our lives and I believe it will be the most inspiring moment.
Ask any 14 year old girl if she wants to go to Mars. Children who are now in elementary school will choose to live there.
Do you remember when we saw humans land on the moon? When that happened, people looked at each other and said, "If we can do this, we can do anything." What will they think if we really do form a colony on Mars?
Most importantly, it makes us a space species. This means that no matter what happens on earth, people will survive. We will never be the last of our kind.
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