The Red Planet has fascinated us humans since it was observed by the ancient Sumerians in the riverlands of southern Mesopotamia almost 2000 BCE. They thought it was Nergal, the god of war and plague looking down on them. Even though the planet gained notoriety with its crimson red colour, it wasn’t until 1534 BCE the Egyptian astronomers understood the retrograde motion of the planet. Mars was well documented by both ancient Egyptians and Neo-Babylonian Empire, but it was Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who noticed the planet disappearing behind the Moon during an occultation and realized it was further away.

Curiosity Awakened

In the 17th century, an Italian astronomer by the name of Galileo Galilei observed Mars through the telescope for the very first time. This made it possible to try and map the surface of the planet, but it wasn’t until the 19th century before we had the means to map it accurately. The first detailed map was done with a 22 cm telescope. It seems very small compared to the biggest telescope in the world, The Gran Telescopio Canarias, which spans over 10 meters. The ‘canali’ observed by different astronomers around the world led us to believe that there might be life on Mars. It was actually a very common belief that Mars had vegetation and vast seas due to the seasonal changes and observed ‘canali’.

This belief led to a rising curiosity towards Mars and multiple explanations for the seasonal changes in the 1960’s. All these beliefs were shattered once NASA’s Mariner 9 entered the Martian orbit in 1971, becoming the first artificial satellite orbiting Mars. Finally, the theory of a dead, cold planet was accepted and we started to humour ourselves with the idea of colonizing Mars.

What if we humans could become an interplanetary species? Surely there will be a person who is passionate enough to lead such a risky mission?

X marks the Spot

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, who is also the lead designer of the company. Elon Musk has multiple different companies like Tesla, The Boring Company, Neuralink and he is also the co-founder of PayPal. He has stated that the goal of all these different companies is to slow down global warming and stop the human extinction by establishing a human colony on Mars.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great … I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars”.
Elon Musk

SpaceX wants to send a cargo ship to Mars by 2022 and follow it with more cargo and crew in 2024. The mission certainly is problematic from the get-go to say the least. It’s a leap of faith for the people going to Mars, since the flight to Mars would take up to eight months and living in a spaceship is extremely challenging, both mentally and physically, not to mention the lack of a round-ticket back to Earth. The hardship of establishing a colony on Mars is not over once we reach the surface of the red planet. Mars has no protective magnetosphere like Earth does. As a result, the surface of Mars is subjected to much higher levels of radiation, solar winds and cosmic rays.

No Boundaries

Solutions to this problem have been researched by NASA, ESA and private companies like SpaceX and MarsOne. These proposals include a 3D printing technique called ‘sintering’, which means melting sand using x-rays to build homes for the human settlers. Habitats built directly in the ground, mobile habitation modules which are in hollow water tanks and even more bold solutions like jump-starting the planet’s core to restore its magnetosphere are being discussed.

SpaceX has an ambitious goal. When the ITS, capable of carrying 100 people, was presented by Elon Musk, he said: “What I really want to do here is to make Mars seem possible and make it seem as it’s something that we can do in our lifetime”. He believes the ITS would be making the trip to Mars in 30 to 80 days instead of 6 months. ITS has since been split into 2 different configurations – ‘the Spaceship’ for human passengers and ‘Falcon Super Heavy’ for heavy lift launches. The reusable rocket also gives hope to the ones who want to make their way back to Earth using the carbon dioxide and water in the Martian soil to create methane and oxygen for the Raptor engine to burn. The Raptor engine has been in development since 2009 and was redesigned multiple times since its initial concept. About 40% of the test engine in 2018 were manufactured by 3D printing.

However, SpaceX has around 7000 people working all over the US and only 300 people work on the ITS. SpaceX aims to use 10 billion dollars on the project and they have envisioned other organizations contributing to the colonization of Mars, making it a huge partnership between the public and private sector.

An ITS could be used for other useful things, like the exploration of the icy world of Jupiter’s moon Europa or transporting cargo from Tokyo to New York in just 25 minutes. Despite all these ideas, for now the main goal for the ITS and SpaceX is colonizing Mars to become a multiplanetary species and avoid the inevitable – extinction of humans.

Illustrations by Unna Takalo