In September, I discovered the most exciting news article I’ve read this year. Private spaceflight company SpaceX announced their long-term goal is to colonise Mars – within our lifetimes! Fuelled by Hollywood’s obsession with sci-fi it is hardly surprising that the human race dreams of interplanetary civilisation, but is this really possible in the next 50 years? SpaceX founder, business tycoon, inventor and all-round Tony-Stark-esque billionaire Elon Musk believes that it is.
“I think there are really two fundamental paths”, he said in his speech on 27th September.
“One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planet species, which I hope you’ll agree that is the right way to go. Yes?”.
Musk’s speech exploded online as he laid out the company’s plan to put people on the Red Planet. The idea hinges on the ability to reduce the cost of a flight per person to Mars and Musk claims that this can be brought down to from $10bn to only $200,000 with the right plan. The key cornerstones of the plan are creating a re-usable transport system, re-fuelling in orbit, using the right propellant and making this propellant on Mars.
First, the interplanetary transport system must be able to make multiple trips; roughly 12-15 flights will be possible, given that the trip can only be made once every 2 years when the planets are closest. He draws the analogy with commercial aeroplanes; if it can only be used for one flight then the cost per trip is many orders of magnitude larger. Return trips would also be possible with this strategy, which would surely be an added motivator for people to make the journey.
Re-fuelling in orbit would also help bring down costs since the large rocket can be launched, then topped up with fuel by many smaller launches. In fact, SpaceX is already well on the way to this goal with its recent success of CRS-8 Dragon in April, a rocket that delivered supplies to the International Space Station before landing again. However, there have been other set-backs, such as the Falcon 9 explosion on September 1st.
It’s also very important that a suitable propellant is found, one that can be made using raw materials found on Mars, to send the rockets back to Earth. SpaceX thinks that deep-cryo methalox, a type of methane that is cooled to near freezing point, would be the most appropriate candidate. It could be produced from Mars’ atmospheric CO2 and water ice in the soil. Exactly how long it would take to develop this infrastructure is still unclear though.
Current designs for this interplanetary spaceship claim there’ll be space for 100 people on each of these trips. That means from the first landing, “it’s probably somewhere between 40 and 100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilisation on Mars”, Musk estimates. However, many people think this is a highly ambitious timeline and there are questions as to where this huge amount of funding is going to come from.
There’s other work to be done too. There’s as yet no solution to the extreme levels of radiation that travellers would be exposed to, nor the long-term effects of muscle wasting caused by a low gravity environment. And even if all these issues could be overcome, there is the huge challenge of founding a whole new civilisation.
So if all this really is possible, the question that remains is: would you go?