Space X founder Elon Musk recently announced his ambitious plans to send humans to Mars in 2024. Christine Coffey takes a look at these plans, and the background to the mission.
Not even the sky is the limit for entrepreneur, physicist, and visionary Elon Musk, as he reveals his plans for settling down on Mars for as early as 2024. The CEO of Tesla Inc., Neuralink, and co-chairman of OpenAI, somehow finds time in his day to organise the colonisation of Mars at his own commercial space agency, Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX as it is more commonly known). That is when he’s not designing underground highways in Los Angeles, building electronic driverless smart cars, and launching projects to try and stop artificial intelligence from taking over the world and/or starting World War Three.
In 2001, Musk revealed a viable project to transport a miniature greenhouse, which was known as Mars Oasis, to grow plants on Mars. He travelled with a group to Russia on two separate occasions in an attempt to secure affordable rockets for the project but returned home empty-handed. However, his disappointment was short-lived. Like Newton getting clocked on the back of his head by a falling apple, it only took Musk the plane journey back from Moscow to come to a profound realisation. He could design and build rockets for this project for a fraction of the cost that governments were producing them by manufacturing the components privately. He also decided that he could develop the software, and could lower the costs substantially if the rockets were made re-useable.
“If Musk could overcome this problem, then interplanetary travel would become like driving a car or getting on an aeroplane in terms of reusability.”
National space agencies had been operating on the principle of having a finite number of launches and landings that each involved losing a lot of valuable and expensive components. If Musk could overcome this problem, then interplanetary travel would become like driving a car or getting on an aeroplane in terms of reusability. Musk received a substantial sum of money from the sale of PayPal to eBay in 2001, so he decided to set up a private space company (as one does with their millions at the age of thirty).
More recently, Musk announced an update on the project, revealing that two cargo ships would be ready to launch by 2022, which would be enough to set up base on the planet. Mars and Earth come closest to each other roughly every two years, so by 2024 Musk hopes to be ready to launch the cargo ships along with two ‘crew’ ships. A conservative estimate of the total capacity of each crew ship is 100 passengers, but they are purported to have capacities of almost double this. There could potentially be 200-400 people living over in mars in 7 years.
“There could potentially be 200-400 people living over in mars in seven years.”
The pioneering and innovative group working on the project have been successful in substantially reducing the cost of producing the rockets, and they have made significant progress in developing technology required for this project. They successfully sent the first privately-funded space rocket into orbit in 2008. In 2015 they achieved the first propulsive landing of an orbital rocket. Most recently, in 2017, they accomplished the first re-flight of an orbital booster.
Currently the company is receiving funding from NASA for transporting cargo to the International Space Station, and it plans to be transporting astronauts there in the coming years. This serves as a good opportunity for SpaceX to increase the number of launches and landings they complete with their rockets, proving their reliability and honing their technology. The Falcon Heavy rocket is set for its first launch this November and if it is successful, it will be the world’s most powerful rocket. This is the rocket that Musk envisions will carry humans to Mars in seven years.
Mars seems uninhabitable right now, with its extremely thin atmosphere, cosmic radiation, an average temperature of -60oC. As writer and technologist Stephen Pertranek discussed, however, the polar caps of Mars contain mostly dry ice, and if that is heated enough it will sublime, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. This will thicken Mars’ atmosphere, giving the planet more protection from cosmic radiation. This effect could also be used to induce global warming on Mars, which would melt some of the ice under its surface.
“Mars seems uninhabitable right now, with its extremely thin atmosphere, cosmic radiation, an average temperature of -60oC.”
This would solve a lot of problems for any future long term plans, as water is very expensive to transport into space. All of these issues must be dealt with for any sustainable growth to be achieved, but for the moment we can just focus on getting a lot of heavy equipment and a few people to operate it to Mars. After this, we could turn our attention to making it more habitable for humans.
To most people, interplanetary travel seems farfetched. The thought that seemingly reasonable plans exist for living on the red planet by 2024 is a startling one. Elon Musk seems pretty confident that this feat can be pulled off. This is the man who revolutionised the automobile industry, and built a space company in ten years, and he’s determined to meet the 2024 deadline he’s set himself. Who knows, we could be planting our very own Martian-grown potatoes with Matt Damon in Acidalia Planitia on Mars someday very soon.