MARS OR BUST
2017 Was a Garbage Year, But It Showed Us We Can Viably Escape to Mars
From newborn earthworms to poop removal technology, the year laid the groundwork for the future space travelers among us.
At the end of 2016, film buffs and astronomers alike were cackling at Passengers, whose storyline of a group of Earthlings barreling into another galaxy while “hibernating” in pods for 90 years seemed wacky at the very least.
But beneath the derision at the Stockholm syndrome-like love story and the absurdity of the starship Avalon’s poor emergency procedures, there was some envy. Wouldn’t it be nice to escape the hellhole of Earth into a new frontier, one where people got along and didn't have to deal with natural disasters, climate change, and nuclear warfare?
Perhaps the push of existential crises made the desire for understanding how we’d live in space that much more urgent. The question is no longer whether we would, and suggesting that humans will have formed colonies on some distant floating rock while farming and creating peaceful communes amid the desolate silence of our galaxy isn’t considered eccentric by any stretch. Living on another planet, whether that’s Mars or an exoplanet boasting the unique life-affirming characteristics that make Earth so unique, is in our reachable future.
2017 proved, indeed, that heading to a brave new world makes the utmost sense. And while we’re not quite at the level of hibernating pods and the plush spacecraft furnishings of the Avalon, we’re making impressive headway into establishing our next home in space.
We’re figuring out conflict resolution out before we land on Mars.
Paradise might seem like a strange location to test how the first round of Mars voyagers will adapt to and live on the Red Planet, but Mauna Loa’s lack of temperature variability and geological attributes make it as close to a Martian environment as can be found on this planet.
The third campaign for the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS project, has spent the past year focusing on “psychosocial adaptation within a team,” or how the first Martian settlers will cooperate and work with each other in an isolated environment.
Social interactions with the tiny group of people who live on the planet and terraform it (more on that in a bit) will be the biggest obstacle for success; backstabbing and communication issues and outright mutiny against the group, while human, can be lethal for the first colony to land on Mars. And let’s face it: Dealing with anyone for long stretches of time, even if you love them, can be trying. Being alone with them with no realistic hope of escaping makes that difficult.
The HI-SEAS teams—composed of specially selected individuals who are isolated for months at a time on Mauna Loa without contact with the world outside of their teammates—are making progress on this endeavor. By the end of the campaigns, researchers hope not only to understand how to develop the ultimate #squad but foresee the inevitable psychological issues that will confront the first Mars mission.
Baby earthworms thrive on Martian soil—which means we can farm on Mars.
So what if we can farm? Being able to terraform, or the process of transforming an alien climate into one that is more Earth-like, changes the survivability factors for humans landing on Mars. It means agriculture and a means by which to work to support a person’s days is possible, food will be on the table, and opportunities to collaborate and push science into new, unforeseen ways are in our future.
Just this month, a Dutch biology lab announced the birth of two healthy earthworms in simulated Martian soil. The researchers tossed in a couple adult earthworms in material that mocks Martian soil composition, a combination of NASA-produced soil “simulants” made up of volcanic terrestrial and a sprinkling of pig manure.
That the baby earthworms not only survived but thrived within the Martian “soil” spells a bright future for Martian agriculture. Earthworm livelihood is crucial for both aerating soil by squirming through it and breaking organic material and releasing it into the soil so that plants can suck in essential nutrients. They might be slimy, but they’re a welcome advancement to figuring out our Martian future.
We don’t even have to go to Mars if we don’t want to.
Mars has captured imaginations for its short, months-long distance from Earth, its relatively temperate (though still frigid) climate, and the possibility of water on its surface. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution—MAVEN—spacecraft analyzed the Red Planet’s rocky composition to understand how the gradual loss of its atmosphere to space occurred, and what this means for our future residence on other potentially habitable, rocky exoplanets.
MAVEN’s arsenal of instruments analyzed the physical and chemical properties of the Martian air to figure out the degradation process. Scientists then worked backward to figure out what type of rocky planet could exist near a red dwarf star, the most common form of star in our galaxy.
But the ideal planet’s dimensions and distance mean that it would get up to 10 times more UV radiation than Mars, losing as much as 10 times the particles Mars is losing at this rate from photochemical escape. Seem like bad news? Not quite: The information shows gives us measurable parameters by which to figure out if the dozens of exoplanets we’ve found thus far have any promise, and prioritizing research toward the regions of the galaxy that offer the most hope for our home away from home. If Mars doesn’t work out, we have an opportunity to still go interstellar—perhaps to a even better planet.
The human body is resilient and can adapt to space’s harsh environment.
When the Kelly twins—Scott and Mark—volunteered themselves to NASA for the agency to understand how the human body adapts to the otherworldly conditions of outer space, it was deemed a perfect experiment. The two had worked with NASA and been astronauts, understood the scientific impact, and were, well, twins, which meant that scientists could uniquely study two genetically identical humans and isolate that factor in an effort to understand the effect of space on the human body.
Scott went to space, Mark stayed here on Earth, and for one year, the two were poked, prodded, and studied by researchers in a way that no other pair of twins has thus far been studied. The published results, set to come out soon, have already trickled in bits and pieces: Scott showed altered levels of lipids in his blood that suggested he was experiencing inflammation; longer telomeres on his chromosomes (aging usually leads to shorter telomeres) that began to shrink when he returned; and the possibility of a “space gene” that kicked in to allow Scott to adapt to the pressures of being in space for an extended time. The effects of space on Scott are still being studied, but one thing is for sure: It’s humanly possible to survive in space.
We can poop in space.
It might seem silly to bookend a year of remarkable scientific achievement with excrement, but hear me out. Sure, figuring out how to resolve conflicts in space and improve agricultural outcomes and Stretch Armstrong our telomeres are cool things to know, but space is an environment whose lack of gravity and sheer foreignness challenge the very basic of our human activities. And while poop jokes will never cease to make anyone snicker, not being able to get rid of toxins is a health hazard.
When NASA launched its Space Poop challenge, it garnered several clicks and elicited suspicion: Shouldn’t NASA be exploring the moon or shooting a complicated probe into the cosmos to measure something minute yet important? Those are great endeavors, but so is figuring out how to create space suits that perfect the clean and comfortable exit of human waste without the usual standby (they use diapers in space) for six days.
Three winners were announced, splitting the $30,000 grand prize, ranging from a system powered by air to move waste out to a totally new space suit that allows a person to go number two without sitting on it. Figuring out how to collect and transport our solid waste will be important in our future extraplanetary habitat so we can focus on the bigger, more important tasks at hand, like possible alien communication devices and what we’ll do when we finally make contact.