Stephen Petranek’s TED talk ‘Your kids might live on Mars. Here’s how they’ll survive’ details how humankind will one day become a spacefaring species. Petranek is a writer and technologist who focuses on how emerging technologies could benefit our future lives. Petranek’s talk can be found on ted.com under the ‘science’ section.
Journalist Stephen Petranek begins his TEDtalk with good reason for us to continue exploring the possibility of living on Mars. Given the vulnerability of our kind, and our planet, we must colonise beyond Earth if we want humankind to survive.
But how will we do this? Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than on Earth, and 96% of it is made up by carbon dioxide. It’s gravity is weaker than ours, and its average temperature is -81 degrees – hardly conducive to human life thriving on the Red planet.
We have also failed in many of our attempts to investigate Mars. Out of the 44 rockets sent by the Russians, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Indians, only a third of missions to Mars have been successful. We certainly don’t have the capability to get there yet.
So how long will it be until we reach Mars? Petranek estimates we’ll be there by 2027. This surprising estimate comes from the determination of tech billionaire Elon Musk, who himself recently announced his company SpaceX’s plans to colonise Mars. Elon Musk has achieved a lot in ten years – the electric car, the falcon 9 rocket – it certainly seems possible he could go one better and put boots on Martian ground by 2027.
But as Petranek points out, there are a lot of things we need to live just on Earth – if we want to live on Mars, we need to find a way to do all this, plus produce oxygen.
Mars however has potential. The planet has water, which is too heavy for us to bring from Earth. Water can be found in the soil, ice, and underground. The University of Washington has already worked out that Mars atmosphere, which is 100% humid, makes it possible to use dehumidifiers to extract all the water we need.
Perhaps most surprisingly, NASA has also found a way for us to breathe on the planet, using a reverse fuel cell designed by scientist Michael Hecht. Essentially, this device can take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. This device has already been tested on the Mars Rover, which is capable of keeping one person alive indefinitely – and this technology is scalable by a factor of 100 if needed.
Food is perhaps the most difficult. While we will be able to grow 15-20% of our food through hydroponics, the rest of our food will need to be brought from Earth. The need for shelter will also likely force us underground, as there is too much solar and cosmic radiation on the planets surface. However, it turns out Mars’ soil is able to make bricks, so it may also be possible for us to live in buildings with thick walls to block out this radiation. Finally, scientist Dava Newman has designed a space suit that will keep pressure on our bodies, block radiation and keep us warm.
So we have all the basic necessities for human life. It may well be possible to live on Mars for a short time. However, if we really want to achieve some semblance of quality of life, we will ultimately need to terraform the planet to make it more like Earth.
‘Ironically, we would be trying to achieve on Mars what we are trying to prevent on Earth – a runaway greenhouse effect that would heat the planets overall temperature…’
Warming the planet will require large effort. Mars is cold because it has a thin atmosphere, but it has a large amount of carbon dioxide stored in its polar ice caps, which we can heat up. Patronek proposes a solar sail which will act as a mirror and direct the suns energy on the poles. Ironically, we would be trying to achieve on Mars what we are trying to prevent on Earth – a runaway greenhouse effect that would heat the planets overall temperature in as little as 20 years.
As Mars warms, the atmosphere will thicken, providing more protection from radiation, running water and the capability to start growing crops. Water vapour will rise and it will rain and snow. Eventually, a thicker atmosphere will also create more pressure allowing us to throw away our adapted space suits.
All that will be left is to make the planet breathable. It may be warm, but given that we will need to release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to warm the planet, it may take up to 1000 years before we can achieve this.
Nevertheless, the future looks promising for colonising the Red Planet. We don’t know what our future technology will be able to accomplish, and we may well find a solution to this final hurdle. And if we can make it to Mars, humans will be able to survive no matter what happens to Earth. As Patronek concludes, when we landed on the moon, humankind was inspired to believe. ”We will never be the last of our kind.”
Want to read more about other TED talks? Try this on for size Holy Belcher discusses a talk by Paula Hammond on a nanoparticle that could help cure cancer!!
Or maybe you want to read more about our perhaps inevitable journey to Mars, Online Science Editor Rhys Davies discusses the technology being developed for the possible manned mission to Mars
Still reading? Then try reading more about space and the laws that are in part being developed here in Exeter to safeguard our adventures in space. The Exepose’s own Graham Moore looks into the paper work guarding the galaxy.