With films like The Mars Generation
hyping up human exploration of the Red Planet and Elon Musk planning the new SpaceX
Martian Palace Complex and Hotel (not really), the sci-fi dream of humans colonizing other planets is almost a reality. This panel at Silicon Valley Comic-Con, titled Journey to Mars,
brought together a group of NASA
experts, including an astrobiologist and terraforming specialist, to give an idea of what settling Mars will look like.
Life on Mars?
The first question, however, is whether there's already life on Mars, in the form of microbes (or other flora/fauna). The search for life on Mars, however, actually starts on Earth: to understand the conditions of Mars and what kind of life might survive there, astrobiologists study environments on Earth
that mimic the Martian landscape, including the Atacama Desert and other extreme environments. Mars is extremely cold and dry, so studying extremophilic microbes are going to be the closest to what Martian life could look like.
An interesting topic that was brought up during the panel was the fact that instead of engineering new microbes or lifeforms (like algae or moss) to help terraform Mars, it might actually be easier to change Mars' atmosphere so that we can transplant extremophile life from Earth, especially the kinds that thrive in mountainous environments. Either way, UV radiation is one of the biggest issues for surface-level life.
The Biggest Challenges for Exploring Mars
One of the biggest challenges facing Mars exploration and colonization by humans (rather than Valkyrie robots or Terminators) is just communication. As the panelists explained, the distance between Earth and other planets change as they move through their orbits, meaning that keeping the signal strong is a problem. The other issue with communication is comm delay—by the panelists' estimation, there's about a 22-minute delay both ways when transmissions are sent to and from Mars. When humans are on the surface, asking Mission Control to advise, that delay just isn't feasible, leaving NASA with a choice: give their explorers more freedom to act on their own, without direction, or find a faster way to communicate.
What it Would Take to Terraform Mars
Whether or not we discover life on Mars, NASA says, we should aim to bring it there: according to the terraforming expert on the panel, "We should try to make [Mars] a planet that is rich and diverse in life." This actually brought up a question that lived at the heart of Star Trek: the Prime Directive, which restricted the Enterprise crew from interfering with alien life. According to NASA, their agenda is the opposite: they want to help life flourish in any way they can, even if it means interfering. Granted, the 'life' we're expecting to find on Mars is microbial, but the "pro-life" (no pun intended) NASA Directive stands.
With that, discussion moved to Elon Musk, who recently advocated for (potentially) nuking the Martian atmosphere in order to start warming it up and making it more habitable. One panelist admitted that Musk "has moved us closer to Mars psychologically than anything in the past 20 years," but says nuking the Martian atmosphere is a bad idea: according to NASA's estimation, detonating the combined nuclear arsenal of the U.S., former Soviet Union, and (jokingly) North Korea, it would add up to about 4 hours of Martian sunlight.
NASA's goal when it comes to Mars (and ostensibly other planets) is to make sure life can flourish in whatever form it takes. As humans begin exploring other planets and start discovering alien life, we're going to have to think about how we use our influence—and whether that means terraforming planets so we can settle there alongside the natives.