Beyond the Moon, Mars is the next easiest world for humans to visit and explore. Not only that, but it may be an ideal place to set up a permanent base for scientific studies and for further investigation of the solar system.
Slowed by three giant parachutes, each as wide as a football field, the first manned craft to Mars descents through the planet’s thin atmosphere. A few hundred metres above the ground, its retro – rockets fire, kicking up some of the rust coloured dust that covers the surface. Seconds later, the capsule, with its eight - member crew, gently touches down on the mysterious ‘Red Planet’.
Sometime in the 21st century, this historic event really is going to happen, Even now, scientists in the United States and CIS are urging their governments to co-operate in a manned mission.
Apart from the earth, Mars is the friendliest world we know. Its thin carbon dioxide atmosphere is harmless (though not life-supporting), and, with an average surface temperature of minus 23 degrees, Mars is generally no cooler than the Antarctic in winter. Even so, the first explorers will need plenty of protection from Martian conditions. Spacesuits will be vital because the atmosphere is so thin that, by Earth standards, it is a near vacuum.
There is no chance that Mars explorers could survive in it. Even if it consisted of pure oxygen, no-one could breathe Mars’ air. Our bodies require a much greater pressure of gas to breathe. One problem is that, as the atmospheric pressure goes down, so does the boiling point of a liquid. On a high mountain on Earth, water boils at only 70 degrees. On mars, blood at body temperature would begin to boil almost immediately.
But even in their cumbersome spacesuits, the explorers will find that they can move around just as easily as they can on Earth. This is because Mars’ surface gravity is much lower. You would weight only 38 per cent of what you do on Earth. A future Mars Olympics would quickly set its own records for athletics. On Mars’ surface, everything is red. Even the sky is tinged pink, especially low down, near the horizon. This is because Mars is covered with fine red dust, so light that it hangs in the air. The red colour is caused by iron, Just as rust is red, so the soils of Mars, with significant iron content, are red. This same soil covers the entire planet.
A windy wasteland
Mars explorers will have to become used to the red wasteland. The surface is boulder strewn, but across this blows a thin wind, which is capable, over the centuries, of wearing down the rocks. And because the air is thin, the wind can blow much faster. So particles of sand can be picked up and whisked high into the air. Even from Earth, observers with backyard telescopes can gaze at huge dust storms, sometimes covering the whole planet for weeks at a time.
Dust could be a major irritation for Martian explorers as it could get everywhere. Things will have to be dust proofed, because the dust will undoubtedly find its way into the living quarters on people’s boots, just as lunar soil did on the Apollo mission.
There are volcanoes, including the largest know in the solar system, Olympus Mons. No one knows if they are still active. There are chasms, the largest of which, the Valles Marineris, would dwarf the Grand Canyon. These chasms seem likely to hold Mars’ most fantastic secret – for they were apparently cut by vast rivers of floodwater. Yet Mars is now drier than any Earth desert. One of the prime tasks of the early explorers will be to discover if reserves of frozen water still exist deep below the Martian surface, as most experts believe. One thing that the explorers won’t find, however, is the famous canals. The long, straight features seem by astronomers from Earth are now thought to have been an illusion. No real features on Mats tie in with their supposed positions, so the idea of intelligent Martians is now regarded as science fiction.
A trip to one of the poles would take you to the polar caps. There is any icy cap at each pole, but they are different from each other. The northern cap is probably water ice, like Earth’s, but the southern one is most likely to be frozen carbon dioxide – dry ice. Both increase in size in winter, they shrink as summer returns. This constant freezing and melting has created weird ice cliffs. They may become one of the sights of the solar system.
Mars has seasons just like Earth, but the year is about twice as long as ours. One thing that explorers will find familiar on Mars is the length of the day. It is very similar to our own, 24 hours and 37 minutes long, providing an almost ideal cycle of light and dark for both humans and plants growing food. But before people go to Mars, we must first learn more about the planet.