Could We Live on Mars?

Scientists have been studying the red planet since the 1960s. How much is Mars really like Earth? Could our solar system neighbor become a travel destination in the future? Could we live there? Everyday Einstein investigates the Martian habitat.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #320
Image of Mars

Martian Air Is Thin and Unbreathable

Mars lacks the thick protective blanket our atmosphere provides us here on Earth. This lack of an insulating layer leads to large swings in temperature: the difference from one day to the next can be as much as 170 degrees. While it makes for a stunningly clear view, the lack of atmosphere also means no protection against harmful radiation like UV and cosmic rays.

What little atmosphere exists is also not made up of the stuff we like to breathe. Martian air is mostly made up of carbon dioxide along with some argon, nitrogen, and trace amounts of oxygen and water vapor.

Martian life would pose some other problems for us. Dust storms, like the one that eventually crippled Opportunity after 15 long years, can last months and fill the air so much as to block sunlight. The surface gravity on Mars is only 40% of what it is on Earth and we are not sure what prolonged exposure to those conditions would do to our bodies. The soil is also likely toxic given the mix of UV radiation and the chemical compounds called perchlorates that litter the Martian surface.

So humans on Mars would require some sort of heated and pressurized housing along with oxygen to breathe. And we wouldn’t be able to go out on the surface without space suits that protect against solar radiation. The soil would also require a major reworking to more resemble that on Earth and thus be able to provide any food, a process called terraforming. So far terraforming only exists in science fiction, but given unlimited funds, current technology makes it at least possible.

The surface gravity on Mars is only 40% of what it is on Earth and the soil is also likely toxic given the mix of UV radiation and the chemical compounds called perchlorates.

But it’s not all bad news as far as the habitability of Mars. The red planet’s host star, the Sun, is obviously known to support life on at least one of its other planets. Planets similar in size and surface gravity to Earth have been found but their host stars are known to be prone to violent outbursts of radiation making life there unlikely. Mars also has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which can offer possible protection from any rogue asteroids by acting as interplanetary shields.

The logistics of landing people and supplies on Mars still have a long way to go. Private companies like SpaceX are making great strides toward launching and relaunching spacecraft that could make the trip. On the flip side, Mars One, the company set to put humans on Mars in the near future, declared bankruptcy. NASA can land rovers successfully, but the kind of craft that would be required to take people would be on the order of ten times as heavy.

Our plans to explore the science of the red planet are still going strong. NASA’s InSight lander arrived in November of 2018 to begin investigating what lies beneath the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover still roams the surface, sending back new discoveries. In July 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover will head to the red planet to look for signs of microbial life. Mars may not be an ideal Plan B, and taking care of our own planet should remain our top priority, but let’s not give up on our solar system neighbor just yet.

Until next time, this is Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of NASA.gov.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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