The vast plains of Mars may be the most promising place beyond Earth for human colonization, but is it enough for a one-way trip to the red planet? Two researchers seem to think so.
In an article published this month in the Journal of Cosmology, Earth scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and physicist Paul Davies argue that a manned one-way mission to Mars would not only make economical sense, but would also mark the beginning of long-term human colonization of the planet.
The researchers contend that while a manned flight to Mars and back is technically feasible now, the steep financial and political costs make such a mission unlikely to launch anytime soon.
And since the greatest portion of expenses will be incurred by the safe return of the crew and spacecraft to Earth, the authors conclude that a manned one-way mission to Mars would both cut costs and help initiate Martian colonization. [POLL: Would You Join a One-Way Trip to Mars?]
"We envision that Mars exploration would begin and proceed for a long time on the basis of outbound journeys only," said Schulze-Makuch, who is associate professor in the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences Washington State University in Pullman. "One approach could be to send four astronauts initially, two on each of two spacecraft, each with a lander and sufficient supplies, to stake a single outpost on Mars. A one-way human mission to Mars would be the first step in establishing a permanent human presence on the planet."
On Oct. 11, President Barack Obama signed a major NASA act into law that outlines the agency's future in space exploration. The signing paves the way for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, with an expedition to Mars to follow sometime in the 2030s.
Next stop: Mars
A manned trip to Mars would take roughly six months using available launch options and current chemical rocket technology, according to the new study. The Red Planet has atmosphere, moderate surface gravity, abundant water and carbon dioxide, and range of essential minerals – making it an attractive target for potential human colonization.
But a one-way mission to Mars would be accompanied by obvious and undeniable risks. However, danger is often an inherent part of exploration, and has been throughout history, the researchers said.
"It would really be little different from the first white settlers of the North American continent, who left Europe with little expectation of return," said Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "Explorers such as Columbus, Frobisher, Scott and Amundsen, while not embarking on their voyages with the intention of staying at their destination, nevertheless took huge personal risks to explore new lands, in the knowledge that there was a significant likelihood that they would perish in the attempt."
The scientists stress that such an expedition would not amount to a suicide mission, but would instead culminate in a series of missions over time, with an eye toward suffiently supporting long-term colonization.
The proposed project would begin with selecting an appropriate site for the Martian colony, ideally associated with a cave or other natural shelter, as well as other nearby resources, such as water, minerals and nutrients.
"Mars has natural and quite large lava caves, and some of them are located at a low elevation in close proximity to the former northern ocean, which means that they could harbor ice deposits inside similar to many ice-containing caves on Earth," Schulze-Makuch said. "Ice caves would go a long way to solving the needs of a settlement for water and oxygen. Mars has no ozone shield and no magnetospheric shielding, and ice caves would also provide shelter from ionizing and ultraviolet radiation."
Schulze-Makuch and Davies propose that the astronauts would periodically be supplied with basic necessities from Earth, but would otherwise be expected to become increasingly proficient at harvesting and utilizing the resources available on the foreign planet. The researchers envision that the settlement would eventually reach self-sufficiency, and could then serve as a hub for expanding human colonization.
A lab away from home
Schulze-Makuch and Davies suggest that by building a human presence on Mars, it not only provides humanity with a "lifeboat" in the event of a mega-catastrophe on Earth, but would also be a unique platform for further scientific research.
Astrobiologists agree that there is a fair probability that Mars hosts, or once hosted, microbial life, perhaps deep beneath the surface, and Davies and Schulze-Makuch suggest that a scientific facility on Mars might therefore be a rare opportunity to study an alien life form and a second evolutionary record.
"Mars also conceals a wealth of geological and astronomical data that is almost impossible to access from Earth using robotic probes," the researchers said in their report. "A permanent human presence on Mars would open the way to comparative planetology on a scale unimagined by any former generation... A Mars base would offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt. And establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity."
"Informal surveys conducted after lectures and conference presentations on our proposal, have repeatedly shown that many people are willing to volunteer for a one-way mission, both for reasons of scientific curiosity and in a spirit of adventure and human destiny," the researchers said.
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