NASA estimates that it will take around 20 years to develop the right technologies and accumulate enough experience before it will send a manned mission to Mars. It is taking the long road given the serious challenges ahead.
The average temperature on Mars would not be out of place in the freezing wastes of Antarctica. Furthermore, the planet's atmosphere is so thin that it only exerts less than one percent of the air pressure found at sea level on Earth. The summit of Mount Everest is a more hospitable place for humans than the surface of Mars.
If humans wish to live on Mars as it is, they will need pressurized habitats. If they want to venture outside their landers, enclosed vehicles, or planetary habitats, they must wear pressurized space suits. (Related: Space travel to Mars could kill astronauts by zapping their gut bacteria.)
There are those who believe it is possible to make Mars habitable for humans through the process of terraforming. Proponents suggest looking for carbon dioxide and other similar gases that are trapped on the surface of the planet.
If these gases were all released into the air, they were theorized to be able to make the planet more livable for human beings. The atmospheric conditions would never match that of Earth, but it might be enough for humans to move around Mars without the need to maintain pressurized conditions.
A NASA-sponsored study took a long, hard look at the requirements for a successful terraforming operation on Mars. The study took stock of the total amount of carbon dioxide on the planet that had been discovered during 20 years of observations via spacecraft.
First, it considered the ice caps that covered the polar regions. Next was the carbon dioxide that clung to the soil particles. The third source was comprised of mineral deposits of carbon that were hidden underground.
Based on their analysis of carbon dioxide inventories, the NAU researchers came to two conclusions. First, the current level of technology prevented any serious attempt at terraforming Mars.
Unlocking any of the three sources of carbon would be daunting projects even if they were conducted on Earth. Massive amounts of the Martian polar ice caps would have to be vaporized, the entire surface of Mars would require significant heating in order to separate the carbon dioxide from the dusty soil, and the underground carbon deposits would have to be extensively mined.
These efforts require specialized, heavy-duty equipment and large numbers of trained personnel that are not available on Mars due to the massive distances between it and Earth.
Second, even if it were possible to access and release all of these resources, they would not be able to produce enough carbon dioxide to create a habitable atmosphere on Mars. Massive amounts of carbon will have to be found elsewhere and brought to the planet.
"As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology," said Bruce Jakosky, a researcher from the University of Colorado, Boulder who served as the lead author of the report.
For more stories about future visits to the Red Planet, visit Cosmic.news.