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Could we one day live on Mars? Reid Reimers explains Mars One could help colonize the red planet.

Hosted by: Reid Reimers
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We've talked a lot about what it would take to get humans to Mars, and even what a colony on Venus might look like. But soon we might give a few people one-way tickets to the Red Planet. So how are they gonna survive? Turns out, scientists and engineers have been thinking about colonizing space for a while. After we sent people to the Moon, it seemed like a Mars colony couldn't be too far off. But the 1970s came and went, and the 80s, and the 90s, and the 2000s. Still no people on Mars, and it looks like it isn't going to happen in the 2010s either. Well, you know what they say: the sixth decade's the charm, right?

Because now it's 2016, and the crew of the Mars One, a mission being planned by a nonprofit organization of the same name, could be the humans to colonize Mars. Right now, the mission is set to launch in 2026, though it's already been delayed twice. But what's so hard about setting up shop on Mars, anyway?

Well, pretty much everything, especially when it comes to the three basic human needs that we'll need to sort out before astronauts land; sleeping, eating, and breathing. There aren't any five-star Martian hotels, so when it comes to sleeping accommodations, it's one of those "bring-your-own-room" situations. Before they send people, Mars One is planning to send missions with rovers and supplies, including living units and life support units that robots will set up for the first group of humans.

The, after the first crew lands, they'll receive more supplies and set up the living space for the second crew. And that pattern will continue for all of the missions afterwards. Each astronaut will probably have around ten square meters of personal living area. But there are also going to be some common space like kitchens and hallways, so things shouldn't get too cramped. They're not luxury apartments, but they're not half bad for Martian real estate. Now that we've got out astronauts settled in their Martian condos, what are they gonna eat?

The idea is to grow lots of edible crops in special greenhouse sections of the habitat, kind of like what Mark Watney tried to do in The Martian, so there's always food to harvest. The settlers need to ensure their plants have artificial light, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and water to grow. And the Martian atmosphere might be very thin but it's almost entirely carbon dioxide, so that's an encouraging sign that we'll be able to use some of the Martian air in the greenhouses. 

Scientists also think that Martian soil might have the right nutrients for plants to grow, especially if astronauts supplement it with fertilizers and wash out some of the stuff that would be toxic to humans. But finding water on a desert planet like Mars is a little trickier. Fortunately, a lot of scientists think that there's plenty of water locked away in the surface soil and rocks. It'll be up those habitat-building robots to prove them right, extract some water, and get the initial crops growing. 

By the time the astronauts arrive, they'll have some food to harvest and will need to start planting their own. But with food comes poop. So, scientists are still trying to figure out how to deal with all of the waste that people and plants produce, especially as the colony grows. 

But who really cares about sleeping and eating if you can't survive outside of a spacesuit. Where would the breathable air come from? Mars's atmosphere is incredibly thin and has almost no oxygen. In fact, only about 0.13% of Mars's atmosphere is oxygen compared to 21% here on Earth. And humans don't tend to live very long without oxygen. 

So an Earth-like atmosphere inside of the habitats has to come from somewhere, and we have to make a lot of it to fill up all that living space. The plants will produce oxygen as they photosynthesize, but it would take a long time for that oxygen to build up to life-sustaining levels. The hope is that some oxygen gas can be extracted from the Martian air, by basically splitting up the carbon and oxygen in the carbon dioxide, or it can come from the soil with the help of microbes. It's going to take a little juggling to get all of the right gasses in the right proportions in the air, but scientists are pretty sure it can work with the right technologies.

So will these plans work? Are we finally gonna send some people to colonize Mars? Well, maybe.

In a paper published earlier this year, a group of scientists at MIT described a detailed simulation of the Mars One mission. In the paper, they write, and I quote,  "our analysis finds that the Mars One mission plan, as publicly describes is not feasible." But there are also a bunch of scientist who think that Mars One is progressing right on track, and that it's going to work.

So it's hard to say if we're really going to watch human beings colonize the Red Planet in 2027. But we do know that either way, NASA has plans to send astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s. So even if we don't have a colony set up by then, hopefully the astronauts will come back with data that helps us plan for one. 

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