A manned mission to Mars is finally within sight. And while getting there will be an incredible leap for mankind, here’s why living on the Red Planet will be even tougher.
Mars has always been a subject of fascination, with plenty of books, movies, and conspiracy theories fantasizing about alien civilizations on the Red Planet. The upcoming film based on The Martian, a book by Mark Weir, has stirred this enthusiasm into a frenzy, especially because it will be the most realistic portrayal of life on Mars yet created. Indeed, NASA hopes to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, and is hard at work developing the necessary technologies.
So what can we expect from life on Mars when the time comes? Myths and misconceptions about the fourth planet from the sun abound throughout popular culture, but here are some lesser known facts and phenomena that the first humans to land on Mars will get to experience.
1) Crippling dust storms
The dust storms on Mars can whip up in a few hours and cover the entire planet within days. They form when solar heating causes air at the surface to rise, bringing dust with it. Many dust storms originate from Hellas Basin, which is the deepest impact crater in the entire solar system. These intense storms will pose a huge threat to the first colonies, as they can completely block out the sun for weeks at a time and rob the astronauts of solar energy. The dust storms also generate static electricity in the atmosphere, which could cause toxic hydrogen peroxide molecules to form.
2) Intense seasonal affective disorder
The planet’s highly elliptical orbit brings its southern hemisphere much further from the sun. Since the moons Phobos and Deimos are too wimpy to exert a large gravitational pull, the planet also periodically tilts more towards the sun. Both of these factors give the planet colder winters and warmer summers—and it doesn’t help that a Martian year is 687 days, making each season twice as long as they are on Earth. Before we move to Mars, we’ll have to invest in UV lights to get us through the winter.
3) A doomed moon
Phobos, the larger of Mars’s two moons, is tightening its orbit by 1.8 centimeters each year. Astronomers predict that it will either collide with Mars or disintegrate into rubble within 50 million years. In the meantime, it grows ever larger in the sky as its orbit decays.
4) Dry ice blizzards
Since the Martian atmosphere has no water in its atmosphere, clouds instead condense from frozen carbon dioxide. These dry ice flakes precipitate and accumulate on the surface, particularly at the south pole. This can only happen when it’s -193 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives an idea of just how bitterly cold the planet is. The north pole, on the other hand, has normal water snow.
5) Permanent, worsening jet lag
One thing that doesn’t occur to most people when they fantasize about life on Mars is that the astronauts will have to readjust to the length of a Martian day, called a “sol”. The sol lasts about 40 minutes longer than our terrestrial days, but that additional time adds up sol after sol. Human bodies are innately tuned to a strict 24 hour schedule, and our circadian rhythms will get increasingly out of sync with each passing sol. After a few weeks, astronauts will experience all the mental and physical defects that come from total exhaustion. NASA is currently devising possible solutions, such as light therapy.