In July 2018, Earth and Mars came closer to one another than at any point in the last 15 years. Such a planetary alignment is called perihelic opposition – which means that Earth passes through the gap between the sun and Mars while Mars is at the closest point to the sun in its orbit.
When this happens, the gap between the two planets is 35 million miles. That sounds incredibly far – and it is – but, theoretically, a spacecraft could make the journey in just over 200 days (i.e., less time than some worldwide cruises last for). Unfortunately, in July 2018, humanity did not have the technology in place to take advantage of this fortuitous alignment. But, while we may have missed the boat (or shuttle) in 2018, it is possible that we’ll be ready next time.
It will be 2033 when the next perihelic opposition occurs. And Nasa has already announced that it intends to take advantage of the situation by orbiting human beings around the red planet at that time – with the aim of landing a human being on the surface by 2039.
As great as this sounds, 2033 still feels like a really long time away. The good news is that Elon Musk’s private space company, SpaceX, has set an even more ambitious landing date of 2024. That’s only five years away! But is that really achievable?
Traditionally it has been government agencies which have paved the way in space exploration. Now, however, with real competition from private companies, we are in somewhat uncharted waters. And private companies have some significant advantages over governments when it comes to space exploration. For example, they can afford to take bigger risks, they focus on one priority project rather than juggle many different projects and they do not have to rely on the shifting whims of politicians to secure their budgets.
Already, SpaceX is making significant progress in commercial space travel. The company launched the first privately funded liquid-fuelled rocket to reach orbit in 2008. It became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft in 2010. It sent the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2012. As well as the first company to relaunch and land a used orbital rocket stage in 2016. And, just this month, became the first private company to send a manned ship to the International Space Station.
The company is certainly making huge strides. Even so, the 2024 deadline is incredibly optimistic. There are a series of significant obstacles that we will need to overcome for mankind’s second great step to occur in just five years’ time.
With current technology, a return mission to Mars would cost between £76-380 billion. That’s a lot of money – even for Elon Musk. In fact, it’s so much money that SpaceX is banking on being able to dramatically reduce this figure before 2024. The only way to do this is to build reusable rockets. And this is exactly what the company is focused on doing at the moment. Eventually, SpaceX want to have a one-size-fits-all rocket capable of carrying 100 people and a payload of 150,000 kilograms to Mars and back again…and again…and again.
Even if reusable rockets become a real thing, the 200 or more days it will take to travel to Mars will be boring, monotonous and even dangerous. Such a flight will be by far the longest space journey ever undertaken, and no one knows what being alone so far away from Earth for such a long time will do to a person’s psyche. That said, there’s certainly no shortage of volunteers – a one-way Mars colony project drew 200,000 applicants in 2013 – and human beings have survived some pretty gruelling exploratory experiences in the past.
A one-way trip to Mars would expose you to over 15 times the annual radiation limit for a worker in a nuclear powerplant. This solar radiation can cause impaired vision, cancer and dementia. Figuring out how to mitigate the risks of radiation is a huge priority for SpaceX, and one which doesn’t have any clear answers yet. That said, timing the journey during a period of good “space weather” – or a period with lower than average radiation levels – may help. As would simply getting to Mars faster to reduce exposure time. Though, of course, doing that ushers in a whole roster of additional problems.
As it stands, then, making it to Mars by 2024 would be a huge undertaking – though certainly not an impossible one. Getting there by 2039 is perhaps more realistic. But, for now, unfortunately no one really knows when we will land a human on Mars.
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