Quickly becoming more than science fiction, the initiative to colonize Mars is an initiative that many intelligent and powerful people are pushing. It’s not an idea everyone supports, and it’s certainly not without its own challenges, leading many to be highly skeptical at best.
The truth is that living on Mars would be very different from living on Earth. And yet it could also be surprisingly similar. The major differences you find can be surprising, especially in their details, and there will also be similarities that many of us wouldn’t expect at all.
Surprisingly, the red planet is not as habitable as it seems? Or will something small and unexpected make our efforts impossible?
Related: The 10 deadliest planets in the universe
10 different atmosphere
The part that shouldn’t surprise most of us is that oxygen wouldn’t be as easy to come by on Mars. We take the ability to breathe our planet’s air for granted, unsurprisingly, considering we’ve evolved to do just that.
However, a possibly more surprising fact is that Mars does have a real atmosphere. Thinner, significantly thinner about a hundred times, and also much less hospitable compared to Earth’s, but one that exists nonetheless.
Composed of more than 95% carbon dioxide, we couldn’t breathe naturally. Even so, the atmosphere of Mars actually contains oxygen, a whopping 0.13%. Not much, but fascinating compared to the emptiness of outer space. On top of that, if we could convert that massive amount of carbon dioxide into oxygen using, say, plants, well, things might start to look a lot less hopeless.
9 Similar but different time scales
A day on Earth is 24 hours. A very basic fact, but one that also shapes our lives in significant ways. Human beings, and indeed all animals, are used to this evenly spaced cycle of day and night. Our sleep schedules are made to accommodate it, and our cultures are based on it.
Surely Mars would differ significantly from the day length we are so used to, right? It turns out, surprisingly, only a little. Days on Mars are approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes long. Only 40 minutes more than we have. Different enough to notice, perhaps, but not so different to cause much of a disturbance.
The only important thing that would be very different is how long a year is. Since Mars is not as close to the sun as we are, a Martian year lasts 687 days, almost double our 365. The length of the days is similar, but the seasons are twice as long.
8 horrible radiation
An atmosphere that exists, however thin, a potential for oxygen, and fairly normal days with the slight disadvantage of long seasons, Mars may even begin to look easy to adapt to, a place we will inevitably colonize. That is, until the first big problem: ionizing radiation.
Mars, unlike Earth, does not have a magnetosphere to shield it from radiation. This was not always the case; until about 4.2 billion years ago, it had one like the one our planet has now. For some reason that scientists are still debating, this magnetosphere disappeared, which is actually why the atmosphere is so thin, as well as why we would have a hard time settling on the red planet.
Lacking protection from radiation, as well as terrifying solar flares and cosmic rays, the amount of radiation can reach around 2,000 millirads per day, much, much more than the 22 millirads experienced by astronauts on the Space Station. International. Prolonged exposure could lead to radiation poisoning, as well as very high rates of cancer, which means we have to deal with this difference if we want to live on Mars.
7 Smaller area, equal amount of land
Mars is significantly smaller than Earth, raising potential concerns about not having enough space for large colonies. This only becomes more concerning if the plan eventually turns to humanity as a whole needing to move or if the population of Mars becomes as large as ours here.
Mars, however, in addition to being smaller, is also a desert planet. Something that Earth is the complete opposite. It turns out that since most of our planet is covered with oceans, the amount of land turns out to be about the same.
Of course, it would be necessary to place some water through terraforming. Still, our massive oceans, which contain salty water, aren’t exactly useful to us right now, anyway. While we have many, many things to worry about, being too tight probably isn’t one of them.
6 Native life?
Mars, as we know it, is lifeless and always has been. Some conspiracy theories and outdated ideas about Martians don’t do much to subvert this, either. If you ask the average person, they will most likely answer that our solar system is completely devoid of life, apart from Earth of course.
Scientists, surprisingly, aren’t so sure. However, the answer is still uncertain and also depends to a large extent on what exactly we mean by “life”. Mars doesn’t have anything resembling animals or plants, and that’s one thing we’re pretty sure of. The planet was probably more hospitable in the past. Still, even then, there is no evidence that sci-fi creatures inhabit the sandy surface.
What Mars could have are microorganisms like bacteria. Scientists discovered clear signs of methane on the planet, a gas that could be produced by primitive life, although other groups found no such thing. Samples have been collected to further investigate the situation, but they likely won’t be tested for another decade or so.
However, how does this affect us and our potential colonies? Simply put, if potentially harmful space bacteria are a thing, we really should know about it before we come into contact with it.
5 variable temperatures
Mars, being further from the sun, is cold. Again, that fact is not so surprising. It is also cooled even more than it would be by the very thin atmosphere which is not so good at conducting heat. Still, it’s not exactly a surprise. However, we may not take into account that Mars, being a desert planet, actually mimics deserts on Earth in some key ways.
Temperatures vary greatly on the surface, in fact it is very cold for much of the year, and especially at night, temperatures can go well, well below freezing. The average temperature, in fact, is -85°F or -65°C.
And yet, during the summer and near the equator, temperatures can reach a pleasant 68°F or 20°C. More than habitable and capable of holding liquid water, much higher than one would expect. If we could somehow create an atmosphere, well, imagine how much more livable it could become.
4 Lower gravity makes life harder
Gravity is lower on Mars, only 38% of what it is on Earth, which means you would effectively weigh only 38% of your current weight (so where do I sign up to travel there?). Living in low gravity might seem like fun at first glance, but it starts to look more and more difficult, even considering things like high winds. And it only gets more worrisome when you examine its effect on our bodies and, even surprisingly, the roadblocks it could present.
The human body evolved to withstand the gravitational force of the Earth. Our bones, muscles, heart and veins. After just eight days during the Apollo space flights, the astronauts were so weak and lost so much muscle and bone that they had to be removed from their landing capsules. The lower gravity also makes it harder for our cardiovascular system to function properly, increasing the risk of heart attacks later in life.
What’s more, it can even make giving birth difficult or impossible, since, again, it’s a mechanism that evolved to accommodate Earth’s gravity. However, the bottom line is that we don’t know. Gravity on Mars could be strong enough to get around these problems. Or maybe not. A terrifying stranger, and one we will have to find out about.
3 frozen salt water
The good news is that Mars has had water and probably still has water on its surface at this time. However, the bad news is that it is frozen and very salty. Like our oceans, salt water is not as useful as, say, a river or lake full of water that you can drink. However, on a different planet that isn’t exactly the most hospitable to life, it can be a lifesaver.
There is a growing amount of evidence that Mars once had liquid salty water flowing near its equator as recently as 400,000 years ago. That may seem like a long time, but it gets much shorter on a cosmic time scale, plus consider the fact that our planet was already teeming with life by then.
Currently, if Mars still has water, and scientists definitely seem to think it does, it’s probably near the poles, still salty and frozen. Overall, this is still great news. One thing is certain, ice that can be melted and salt extracted is much, much better for us than no water at all.
2 Plants could still grow
Growing plants on Mars is challenging, and it’s also essential for our long-term survival there. As it turns out, however, it may not be as difficult as it seems at first. There are definitely a lot of hurdles to overcome, but what might surprise you is that the current evidence and research is looking surprisingly good. In fact, the first plant we would grow has already been selected.
Alfalfa, a plant growing on our planet right now, can apparently grow in volcanic soil very, very similar to the soil on Mars. This plant is not edible, but it could be the key to producing a sustainable fertilizer that would allow other plants to grow, as well as convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
We would need water and have to deal with radiation and other conditions, but simulated tests have already been successful in growing plants here on Earth in conditions similar to those on Mars. There are challenges ahead, but all of this may be quite possible.
1 Differences could be overcome
The most important point is perhaps the fact that living on Mars may be more realistic than we think. How it compares to Earth isn’t always favorable, but the differences can be overcome, and our amazing scientists are getting closer to making that a reality.
NASA’s Perseverance rover produced oxygen on Mars by itself. It was expensive, it took a lot of energy to make, but it was a successful first attempt that will only get better, leading scientists to say that water could be next. There are plans to terraform the red planet, quite possibly making it Earth-like and habitable. And even gruesome obstacles, like the massive amount of radiation, are finding solutions, with suggested “hobbit hole”-type structures that colonists could hide in.
Human ingenuity is incredible, and our ability to find solutions and survive is unmatched on our own planet. Whether you think Mars should be colonized or not, the question is not whether it is possible. If the planet compares badly, advances will make it not.
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