Will humans soon be a multi-planetary species?

Late last month Elon Musk took to the stage, with his trademark nervous stammer, and blew away the astronautical community.He believes he can get humanity to Mars by 2024 and believes we can stay there for good. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress on 29 September, Musk announced his new plans to first colonise and then terraform Mars, slowly making it habitable to humans. More importantly, he says he can afford it.

You have probably seen the videos on the internet of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket flying down to earth backwards and landing, with amazing precision, on a platform in the middle of the ocean. Well, Musk thinks this technology, applied on Earth, can fund travel to Mars. Using the classily code-named ‘BFR’ (Big Fucking Rocket) Musk believes he can also get you from A to B anywhere on Earth in under an hour. With 48 engines and a 150-tonne payload, it seems that the BFR’s objectives are plausible.

Musk wants to use the money raised to fund the colonisation of Mars with BFRs. He plans to launch two cargo payloads carrying water and infrastructure by 2022. The second launch will contain two further cargo ships aiming to establish a fuel processing plant and a base to accompany a further two manned BFRs carrying the first humans to Mars. Current projections show that with consistent launches over the coming decades, humanity may terraform Mars and have a population of over a million within 40-50 years. So, it’s probably time to start thinking about viewing humans as a multi-planetary species.

A computer-generated graphic of what travel to Mars could look like Image: SpaceX

Life on Mars will not be easy. The atmosphere is completely unbreathable; made up of 96 percent carbon dioxide, 1.93 percent argon, 1.89 percent nitrogen, and small amounts of oxygen and water compared to Earth’s 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. Furthermore, atmospheric pressure is low (one-hundredth of Earth’s at sea level) and average surface temperatures are around -63°C. On top of this, Mars does not have a magnetosphere, so there is no protection from the sun’s radiation.

Experts believe Mars can be made more habitable by the process of terraforming, although which method will work best is still in question. Some suggest that pumping the atmosphere with strong greenhouse gases will help warm the surface while thickening the atmosphere to control atmospheric composition. Other scientists have suggested the use of orbital mirrors to reflect more energy from the sun onto carbon monoxide ice sheets on the surface of Mars which would fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases less directly. The most sensible suggestion at the moment and the one NASA plans to employ, is to produce bacteria which excrete oxygen and use them to create oxygen farms to supply us with what we need for the time being, while also employing them to terraform our new home.

Starting life on a new planet will enable us to look back at our mistakes on Earth and learn from them. With such new territory being looked at, all ranges of expertise will be invaluable. Of course, science and engineering will get us there initially, but once we’re there, how will law from Earth carry over and who will enforce it? What form of government will be established? Will any one country lay claim to Mars? As SpaceX is a private sector company these already difficult questions become even more complicated. None of these questions will be answered today, this year, or maybe even in this decade but it’s clear that the skills required to colonise Mars stretch far beyond STEM.

Furthermore, the earlier we start thinking about the aforementioned questions, the better the society we create on Mars will be. Looking forward to life as a multi-planetary species is intimidating; within the next decade, the first humans could be born that would refer to themselves as Martians, an overwhelming concept. However, looking beyond this we can see the opportunity for a new and better society, learning from our mistakes on Earth to create something great.