Forging Ahead to the Red Planet!

mars landscape
A view of Marathon Valley on Mars as seen by the Mars Opportunity Rover in June 2016. NASA

ExoMars To The Red Planet

The European Space Agency's ExoMars mission's arrival at Mars is just the latest in a long line of missions humans are sending to study the Red Planet. Whether or not humans eventually GO to Mars, these precursor trips are designed to give us a very good feel for what the planet is like. 

In particular, ExoMars will study the Martian atmosphere with an orbiter that will also act as a relay station for messages from the surface.

Unfortunately, its Schiaparelli lander, which was to study the surface, suffered a mishap during descent and was destroyed instead of safely landing. 

Of particular interest to scientists are the tantalizing detections of methane and other trace atmospheric gases in the Martian atmosphere, and test other technologies that will help us better understand the planet. 

The interest in methane stems from the fact that this gas could be evidence of active biological or geological processes on Mars. If they are biological (and remember, life on our planet emits methane as a by-product), then its existence on Mars could well be evidence that life exists (or DID exist) there. Of course, it could also be evidence of geological processes that have nothing to do with life. Either way, measuring the methane at Mars is a big step toward understanding more about it. 

Why the Interest in Mars? 

As you read through many of the articles about Mars exploration here on, you'll notice a common thread: that of great interest and fascination with the Red Planet.

That has been true throughout much of human history, but most strongly in the past five or six decades. The first missions left to study Mars in the early 1960s, and we've been at it since then with orbiters, mappers, landers, sampling machines, and more. 

When you look at images of Mars taken by Curiosity or the Mars Exploration Rovers, for example, you see a planet that looks a LOT like Earth.

And, you could be forgiven for assuming that it IS like Earth, based on those pictures. But, the truth lies not just in images; you also have to study the climate and Martian atmosphere (which the Mars MAVEN mission is doing), weather, surface conditions, and other aspects of the planet to understand what it's really like. 

In truth, it's just like Mars: a cold, dry, dusty, desert planet with ice frozen into and under its surface, and an incredibly thin atmosphere. Yet, it also has evidence that something — probably water — flowed across its surface at some point in the past. Since water is one of the main ingredients in the recipe of life, finding evidence of it, and whether it existed in the past, how much there was, and where it went, is a major driver for Mars exploration.

People to Mars?

The big question everyone asks is "Will people go to Mars?" We are closer to sending humans back to space — and specifically to Mars — than at any other point in history, but to be honest, the technology is not quite ready to support such an audacious and complex mission.  Getting to Mars itself is hard. It's not just a matter of converting (or building) a Mars-bound spaceship, loading up some people and food and sending them on their way.

Understanding the conditions they will face ON Mars once they get there is a huge reason why we are sending so many precursor missions.

Like the pioneers who struck out across the continents and oceans of Earth throughout human history, it's helpful to send out scouts in advance to give information on the terrain and conditions. The more we know, the better we can prepare the missions — and the people — going to Mars. After all, if they get in trouble, it's best if they can handle it themselves with good training and equipment. Help would be a LONG ways away. 

Probably one of the best things we can do is return to the Moon. It's a low-gravity environment (lower than Mars's), it is nearby, and it is a good place to train to learn to live on Mars. If something goes wrong, help is just a few days away, not many months.

Many mission scenario discussions begin with a suggestion that we learn to live on the Moon first, and use it as a springboard for human missions to leap off to Mars — and beyond.

When Will They Go? 

The second big question is "When will they go to Mars?" It really depends on who is planning the missions. NASA and the European Space Agencies are looking at missions that might go to the Red Planet perhaps 15-20 years from now. Others want to start sending supplies to Mars really soon (like by 2018 or 2020) and the follow up with Mars crews a few years later. That mission scenario has been heavily criticized, since it appears that the planners want to send people to Mars on a one-way trip, which might not be politically feasible. Or perhaps not even technologically achievable just yet. The truth is, while we know a lot about Mars, there's more to learn about what it might be like to actually live there. It's the difference between knowing (for example) what the weather is like in Fiji, but not really knowing what it's like to live there til you get there.

Regardless of when people go, missions such as ExoMars, Mars Curiosity, Mars InSight (which will launch in just over two years), and the many other spacecraft we have sent, are giving us the knowledge of the planet we need to develop the hardware and crew training to ensure successful missions. Eventually, our children (or grandchildren) WILL land on the Red Planet, extending the spirit of exploration that has always driven people to find out what's happening over the next hill (or on the next planet).