Mission to Mars Looms on Space Horizon

It’s an exciting time for astronomers. In the last week of February, NASA announced that they found a star system with seven earth-like planets, three of which might be able to sustain life. The star system, Trappist-1, contains seven planets (that we know of) that orbit around the red giant star.

But don’t pack your bags just yet. There are several hurdles the planets need to get over before we can consider them habitable. First, there’s the fact that red giants aren’t the best suns for supporting life. Flares and spots are severe, causing drastic changes in temperature and light that can last for months at a time. A lot of these planets don’t rotate like the earth does, meaning that one side will always be day and one will always be night. And we’re still not sure if any of these planets have atmospheres, let alone water.

So for now, Trappist-1 is out. But if you’re set on leaving earth, there’s always the fallback option. Turns out that despite recent discoveries, the best shot we have on extra-planetary emigration still falls on our closest neighbor: Mars.

Mars, the fourth planet from our sun, has a lot going for it. The most obvious advantage is that Mars is close. We don’t have to travel light years to get to it. With today’s technology, it would take about seven months. Mars and Earth are similar in size, meaning that our physiology on the planet won’t be affected too much. And Mars, like Earth, has a day and night cycle that lasts roughly 24 hours.

Obviously Mars isn’t perfect. Like the planets of Trappist-1, Mars doesn’t really have a strong atmosphere, which is kind of important when we consider what planets we want to live on. Atmospheres serve many purposes, one of the most important being that they block out space radiation that would otherwise kill everything. Atmospheres also help keep a planet’s temperature well regulated, and would make Mars in particular more Earth-friendly.

Earlier this week, scientists from NASA proposed an idea suitable for “Looney Tunes” to solve this problem. Essentially, NASA proposed using giant magnets to block the dangerous solar rays from hitting the planet. The idea is that by artificially blocking the sun’s radiation, the Martian atmosphere will thicken naturally until it is strong enough to do it by itself.

This plan has the added benefit of warming the planet up, freeing the carbon dioxide frozen at the poles, and if we’re really lucky, seed the planet for liquid water. Since water is the basis of all life on Earth, having it available on Mars would be a huge boon to colonization.

There are already plans in place to step foot on the red planet. NASA has been looking for a while, and technology guru Elon Musk is running a lot of the research and development. As recently as a month ago, the United Arab Emirates announced their dedication to settling Mars by 2117.

Colonizing Mars may sound like a far fetched idea, but it wasn’t so long ago when we thought traveling to the moon was impossible. As long as mankind has been on this planet, we’ve had a need to explore, to travel, and to expand our horizons to new frontiers. Mars may be the next new world, and our new Columbus is probably walking among us right now.