The ultimate getaway — visiting the Red Planet | Science News for Students

The ultimate getaway — visiting the Red Planet

Adventure planners at NASA are investigating what it will take to get people to Mars
Jun 7, 2016 — 7:15 am EST
Mt sharp

NASA is building a rocket and testing technologies needed to bring a crew here — to Mars. This dune field on the edge of Mount Sharp was photographed September 25, 2015, by the Curiosity rover.


WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is a long-standing joke that NASA is always 20 years from putting astronauts on Mars. Mission details shared at a recent gathering of experts now show that the space agency is still hewing to a 20-year timetable. A to-do list from 2015 looks remarkably similar to one put together a quarter-century earlier. One difference: NASA is now building a rocket and test-driving technologies needed to land a crew on Mars — or at least very near to it.

Details for this longest cruise in human history — and what astronauts will do once they arrive — remain fuzzy at best.

A big question, notes Jim Bell: What will astronauts do on Mars that robotic equipment controlled from Earth can’t already do? Bell is a planetary scientist who works at Arizona State University in Tempe. He participated in the Humans to Mars summit, here, last month. “We need to make sure that what these folks are being asked to do is worthy of the risk to their lives,” he explains.

The three-day meeting, which ended May 19, was organized by Explore Mars Inc. It’s a nonprofit group dedicated to putting astronauts on Mars by the 2030s.

The summit didn’t break new scientific ground. But it did bring together planetary scientists, space enthusiasts and people from both NASA and the aerospace industry.

A DIGGING IN Watch as the Curiosity rover drilled for the first time to explore what was inside a rock on Mars. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Part of the appeal in sending people to Mars is the opportunity to speed the pace of discovery. NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring the Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012. Drilling just one hole currently takes the rover about a week. “It’s a laborious, frustrating, wonderful — frustrating — multiday process,” notes Bell.

People can react to new situations, make quick decisions and see things in a way that robotic eyes cannot. “A robot explorer is nowhere near as good as what a human geologist can do,” says Ramses Ramirez. “There’s just a lot more freedom,” explains the planetary scientist. He works at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Researchers witnessed this human advantage firsthand in 1997. That’s when they sent a rover called Nomad on a 45-day trek across the Atacama Desert in Chile. While the rover traveled across the South American desert, its operators controlled it from desks in the United States. This very remote control was intended to model what it might be like to operate from Earth some robot on a distant planet.

THE LITTLE ROBOT THAT COULD See what robotic explorations the Curiosity rover accomplished during its first three years on Mars. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

People at the rover site provided a reality check on the data that Nomad sent home. And they observed that geologists at the scene could do things faster than the robots.

But it wasn’t just that, says Edwin Kite. He’s a planetary scientist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “The robots were driving past evidence of life that humans were finding very obvious.” Clearly, their on-the-spot eyes and minds added value to the science underway.

Preparing for lift-off

To get astronauts ready to explore Mars, Apollo — NASA’s moon mission — is a good template, said Jim Head. He’s a geologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He also helped train the Apollo astronauts. NASA’s strategy, he said, focused on three T’s: “Train them. Trust them. And turn them loose.”

While each of the moon expeditions had a plan, the astronauts were trusted to use their judgment. Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott, for example, came across a chunk of deep lunar crust that researchers hoped to find. But it wasn’t at a planned stop. “He spotted it 3 meters away,” recalls Head. “He saw it shining and recognized it immediately.”

ORION'S JOB This 16-minute animation portrays how the Orion spacecraft would ferry astronauts into space, such as for a trip beyond the moon, including to Mars. It is narrated by Carol Meier. NASA/

Despite a lack of clear goals for a jaunt to Mars, NASA is pushing ahead. Its Orion spacecraft has been designed to take astronauts into space. The crew capsule for this system has been to space once already. In 2014, a Delta IV rocket sent this capsule — minus any astronauts — 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles) into space. (Later, it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.)

Construction of the Space Launch System, a rocket intended to hurl humans at the moon and Mars, is now under way. The first test flight is scheduled for October 2018. It will send Orion on a multiday trip around the moon — again without any crew. NASA hopes to put astronauts on board for a trip in 2021 into lunar orbit.

Meanwhile, the crew aboard the International Space Station is collecting data and testing technologies. The goal is to figure out what it will take to keep humans healthy and happy during an interplanetary cruise.

Assembly buildingAstronaut Scott Kelly, for instance, recently completed a nearly year-long visit to the space station. His mission was intended to reveal effects on the body of long-distance space travel. And on April 10, a prototype inflatable habitat — called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — arrived at the space station. Six days later, the crew attached it to a docking port. The station crew inflated the module for the first time on May 28. No one will live in it. But over the next two years, astronauts will collect data on how well this unit handles radiation, temperature extremes and run-ins with space debris.  

Beyond that, NASA’s plans get fuzzy.

The general idea is to build an outpost in orbit around the moon as a testing and staging ground. It could get underway in the late 2020s.

Upon arrival

The first crew to Mars might land on the planet. Or maybe not.

One idea is to set up camp in Mars orbit. From there, astronauts could operate robots on the surface without long communication delays. Another idea: Put people down on one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos or Deimos. When crews do land on the Martian surface, NASA plans to set up a base. Astronauts could plan expeditions from there.

With so few details, it’s difficult for the space agency to identify specific new technologies to develop.

inflatable roomAny mission to Mars has to support astronauts for roughly 500 to 1,000 days. The mission has to deal with round-trip communication delays of up to 42 minutes. It will need the ability to land roughly 40 tons of material — including equipment plus any crew — onto the Martian surface (current robotic missions drop about a ton).

Living off the land also will be key. People on Mars will have to make use of local water and minerals. (Remember those potatoes that Matt Damon’s character started to grow in The Martian?)

And astronauts need the ability not just to survive, but also to drive around and explore. “We want to land in a safe place,” says Bret Drake. He’s an engineer at Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, Calif. Such a spot would probably be “geologically boring,” he notes. But the goal would be to then move around and “go to exciting locations.”

Erebus craterAll of these technical and planning challenges might be the easiest part, Ramirez says. “We do know enough to pull this off,” he argues. “The biggest problem is political will.” By that he means that the public must be willing to pay for all the planning, research, materials and travel costs. So far, Congress has not yet signed off on funding this adventure. Indeed, the price tag remains unknown. But the cost is expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And any future President or legislators might decide to kill it.

Multiple speakers at the May meeting stressed the importance of using technology that already exists or is being developed. That means no exotic engines or rotating artificial-gravity habitats for now. And before committing to Mars, a series of small missions — baby steps to the moon and an asteroid — might make sense. They could show progress that might help keep activity (and public interest) alive.

“We thought going to the moon was impossible, but we got there,” says Ramirez. Now, even with Mars, “If we dedicate ourselves as a nation to do something crazy, we'll do it,” he says. “I have no doubt.”


Word Find (click here to enlarge for printing)

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

aerospace    A research field devoted to the study of Earth’s atmosphere and the space beyond or to aircraft that travel in the atmosphere and space.

Apollo missions   NASA’s third human spaceflight program. It sought to develop the technologies needed for long-distance space travel. It got a big kick-start after President John F. Kennedy proposed in 1961 creating the national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

astronauts    People trained to travel into space for research and exploration.

debris   Scattered fragments, typically of trash or of something that has been destroyed. Space debris, for instance, includes the wreckage of defunct satellites and spacecraft. 

engineer    A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

geology   The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

habitat   The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

hew       (as in “hew to”) To continue along a course or maintain a plan of action.

International Space Station   An artificial satellite that orbits Earth. Run by the United States and Russia, this station provides a research laboratory from which scientists can conduct experiments in biology, physics and astronomy — and make observations of Earth.  

interplanetary       An adjective to describe something that is, or will take place between, planets. One example might be interplanetary flight aboard a spacecraft.

lunar    Of or relating to Earth’s moon.

Mars   The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

mineral     The crystal-forming substances, such as quartz, apatite, or various carbonates, that make up rock. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in certain regular three-dimensional patterns).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA    Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It has also sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

planetary science     The science of other planets besides Earth. A person who works in this field is known as a planetary scientist.

prototype   A first or early model of some device, system or product that still needs to be perfected.

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.      

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

rocket     Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.)  Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.

simulate   (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

template        A pattern used to make copies of some physical part, or to use as the basis of a plan of action.


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The humans to Mars summit 2016. Washington, D.C. May 17 to 19, 2016.

N.A. Cabrol et al. Nomad rover field experiment, Atacama Desert, Chile: 1. Science results overviewJournal of Geophysical Research. Vol. 106, April 25, 2001, p. 7785. doi: 10.1029/1999JE001166.

Further Reading

S. Ornes. “Martian microbes, maybe.” Science News for Students. March 21, 2013.

S. Ornes. “Curiosity’s watery find.” Science News for Students. October 18, 2012.

J. Raloff. “Curiosity lands on Mars!Science News for Students. August 8, 2012.

S. Ornes. “Wanted: Garbage collectors in space.” Science News for Students. September 21, 2011.

S. Ornes. “The solar system’s biggest junkyard.” Science News for Students. September 23, 2008.

Questions for 'The ultimate getaway - visiting the Red Planet'