Space has been making news recently. NASA’s Cassini probe recently plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, bringing its remarkable 20 year mission to a close. While Cassini has provided us with many spectacular photos and hugely advanced our understanding of Saturn and its moons, it’s the prospect of human exploration of the solar system that really captures the imagination. NASA has plans to land humans on Mars in the 2030s (and China hopes to do the same by the mid 21st century too). However, unimpressed by this timescale, entrepreneur Elon Musk recently announced an ambitious plan for his private spaceflight company, SpaceX, to get people to Mars by 2024. Whoever makes it first, you could be part of the team that gets them there.
You may be thinking ‘I’m not going to become a rocket scientist’, and that means you can’t be involved. However, in reality, there’s a huge range of jobs from different fields involved in preparing and conducting a successful mission to Mars, and this isn’t just limited to physical sciences. The Apollo missions involved some 50,000 people, and, as a more complex endeavour, it’s likely that landing on Mars would involve significantly more, from the private and the public sector, and potentially in countries around the world, not just the USA.
It almost goes without saying that a trip to Mars would involve the best and brightest professionals in their respective fields, and a degree from Oxbridge is a virtually unparalleled way to start a career. You can get a taste of Oxbridge undergraduate level tuition in subjects like physical sciences, biology and mathematics & engineering on a Varsity programme! Take a look at our subjects page here.
Read on to find out just some of the different professions that will be needed for a successful human mission to Mars and back.
A big part of the challenge of sending astronauts to Mars is how to keep them safe and healthy throughout the mission. One challenge to human health is due to the weightlessness of space. NASA has already been studying the effects of zero-gravity on astronauts as they circle the Earth in the International Space Station for months at a time, learning how to combat loss of muscle and bone density. But for a round trip to Mars, humans will be in zero or low gravity for much longer.
A mission would be expected to last at least two-and-a-half years, with six months to fly there, six months to fly back, and a year-and-a-half on the surface of Mars in between until the two planets’ orbits are aligned for the trip home. Asides from the zero gravity of the journey in deep space, the gravity on Mars is just 38 percent of the gravity which we evolved to deal with here on Earth. Researchers will have to develop special exercise regimes, and possibly even diets, to keep astronauts from suffering the effects.
The physical well-being of the astronauts isn’t the only concern either. Spending two-and-a-half years in cramped quarters with the same few people, no possibility of escape, a background of constant danger, and isolation from friends and family back home, is undoubtedly going to be a challenge. The first step is to find ways to screen candidates to ensure they have the right mental attributes to undertake the journey. Once they’ve started their mission, it’s likely there will need to be counsellors and psychiatrists back home to monitor the astronauts’ mental health and provide assistance and mediation where required. Studies to replicate the experience of a mission to Mars are already taking place on Earth and providing valuable insights into how such extreme isolation and close-cohabitation can affect mental health and how to mitigate the associated problems.
There’s plenty for those in the biological sciences to get their teeth into when it comes to a mission to Mars. What sort of diet is best suited to astronauts on a long-term mission in space? Can we grow crops in space or on Mars, and if so, what would these be? What sort of experiments should astronauts conduct to investigate the viability of establishing colonies in the future? How can we protect Mars from contamination from Earth bacteria, and if we discover alien biology on Mars, how do we do the opposite? Where should we look for evidence of past or present life, and how will we recognise it if we find it?
Understanding the geology of Mars is vital for a number of reasons. Robotic missions to the red planet have already revealed much about the composition of Martian soils, its volcanoes, and its geological history. But only humans can carry out the research needed to provide conclusive answers to many questions about Mars’s past, and explore parts of Mars that robotic rovers can’t reach, like subterranean lava tubes. Geologists will be vital for preparing experiments for the astronauts to undertake once they’re on the Martian surface, identifying key questions about Mars’s geological past and how to answer them. Geology is also a major consideration when it comes to picking a landing site for the mission, as the site will need to be smooth and solid enough for a successful touchdown and close to points of scientific interest.
While it may be obvious that a mission to Mars will require a lot of engineering, getting humans to Mars isn’t just about big rockets and spaceships. For example, to land on Mars, a human vehicle will need to land tonnes of equipment safely on the Martian surface by descending through its thin atmosphere. This means developing a powerful and extremely reliable landing system, most likely with retro-rockets. The Mars lander will, therefore, require the work of aeronautical engineers and aerodynamicists, among others.
The list of unprecedented engineering challenges in a mission to Mars is almost endless. Once on the surface, humans will need pressurized surface habitats capable of providing them with air, water, food and protection from radiation. Radiation shielding is even more important during the six-month voyage from space, where its feared cosmic rays that are blocked by the magnetosphere here on Earth could cause brain damage to unprotected astronauts. Everything for the mission will need to be as strong and durable as possible, whilst being as lightweight and compact as possible, and with fail-safes and backups should disaster strike. There will, after all, be no way for Martian astronauts to get help from Earth. Intelligent engineering will be required for every single aspect of the mission, which will no doubt be operating at the cutting-edge of our technology. This will require a huge variety of engineering specialists, from rocket scientists to material engineers and computer programmers.
Want to learn more about NASA’s plans for landing on Mars? Click here!
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