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Mars: humanity’s next frontier?

SFU engineering professor Dr. John Jones explains the possibility of creating a human colony on Mars


Over 44 years ago, astronaut Gene Cernan became the last person to ever set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. Ever since he departed the moon and the Apollo program ended, humanity has not gone beyond low Earth orbit.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to change that within the next two decades. On September 27, Musk held a press conference outlining SpaceX’s intentions of creating a human colony on Mars.

Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No. As SFU engineering professor Dr. John Jones explained, “I think we have all the necessary technology right now. [. . .] Although we haven’t designed a Mars ship, we don’t need any particular breakthrough to do so.”  

Musk’s hour-long presentation outlined exactly how SpaceX intended to reach and ultimately create a colony on a planet which at times lies 401 million km away from Earth. One major idea put forward was the need for “full reusability,” as a way of combatting the hurdle of expense.

To achieve this full reusability, SpaceX would build a launch system that was capable of taking off vertically, placing a spaceship into orbit, then returning to Earth, landing vertically on the same launch pad from which it had taken off earlier.

Once landed, the rocket has only completed a fraction of the job. From there, once loaded with a tanker filled with fuel for the spacecraft that is now in orbit around Earth, the rocket would once again take off to refuel the orbiting spacecraft. The tanker and rocket would then finally return to Earth, only to repeat this refuelling process three to five times until the spacecraft has been completely fuelled.

Once completed, the launch system and tanker would return to Earth, while the spacecraft embarks to the red planet at a coasting speed of 100,800 km/h.

All this achieved with a rocket capable of over 28 million pounds of thrust. Now, having completed the first leg of the journey, those on board the spacecraft would have only just begun facing the dangers of their one-way trip to Mars, knowing they will never step foot on their home planet again.

Dr. Jones noted that “the trickiest technological challenge” in planning a mission to Mars “is probably protecting the colonists from radiation during the six months that they’d be in transit.” Without proper shielding, the colonists would be exposed to extremely hazardous amounts of radiation, a challenge that SpaceX will undoubtedly need to solve before anyone heads off to their new home.

With the goal of manned missions to Mars set for 2026, one important question remains: what would you pay to call Mars home?

  • Joseph Brown

    I really think a lunar colony will come first. The Mars plan calls for four to six BFR launches to be fully paid for by 100 passengers paying just US $200k — a total price tag of only US $20m. Each BFR launch reusably lofts 300 metric tons to LEO, five such launches makes the price to put a kilogram in orbit about US $14.

    The BFR will need to fly before the rest of the ITS, and Mars transits can only happen every 26 months — but the BFR needs to fly many, many times to reduce costs per flight. Expect to see extensive ride-sharing, and hundreds of businesses and organizations trying all sorts of new enterprises in space — inevitably, someone (Bigelow Aerospace?) will want to establish a lunar (or space) colony. Such a colony will not need to wait for a biannual window, and will be able to grow much more quickly than the Martian equivalent.