Life on Mars (on Earth)

Life on Mars (on Earth)
Life on Mars (on Earth)

Geologist Dr Jon Clarke believes we could put people on Mars in just ten years if we wanted to, and says it's been that way for 40 years.

"It's really a question of human will - we could be on Mars in 10 years," Dr Clarke told CyberShack. "It would take that long to build the hardware. It's been that way for the last 40 years. [Mars is] in our grasp. Even if we waited 20 years, the time needed to get everything together would still be the same."

"Political and social will hold us back. We can afford to spend trillions of dollars fighting wars, we can afford major social events like the Olympics, For the cost of one Olympics, we could be putting people on Mars. It's a question of saying let's do it."

If the cards fell in the right place, Dr Clarke says he'd love to go to Mars (although he'd prefer a return trip, he says his wife wouldn't be too happy with him if he died there). For now, he's doing the next best thing. As part of his work as president of the Mars Society Australia - a non-profit organisation that works towards the goal of human presence on Mars - he'll be partaking in an 80 day long analogue mission in the Utah desert later this year, and a second on Canada's Devon Island in 2017.

The idea behind these missions is they provide scientists with an opportunity to see how they go with tasks just as repair work, research, or driving a quad-bike while wearing a spacesuit. The missions also provide an opportunity to local at social factors, such as how people interact while living in close confinement for an extended period of time.

As a geologist, Dr Clarke will be spending his time on the missions looking for Mars analogue features.

"An analogue is something that resembles something else," said Dr Clarke. "For example, we look at rocks that are volcanic on Earth, and then compare them to volcanic rocks on Mars. We see the degree to which they're similar to our volcanic rocks, and thereby get an understanding of how Mars volcanism works.

As part of the Devon Island portion of the missions, the team will be stationed at Earth's only polar impact crater.

"We know there's a lot of impact craters, we know there's a lot of frozen ground on Mars, so by looking at that impact crater, we can understand how impact craters work in permafrost environments, and how life can form in these craters."

While 80 days might seem like a long time, it pales in comparison to the length of a proper mission to Mars. Dr Clarke says you'd spend six months getting to the red planet, 18 months working on the surface, and another six months on the trip home. During this time, a crew would be working towards two sets of objectives: looking for life on Mars, and looking for resources for that would allow them to live off the land.

Even though the first manned Mars mission might still be a while off, Dr Clarke thinks science fiction video games, books and movies - such as the upcoming Doom reboot, The Martian, and Star Trek - are critical in fostering interest in space exploration.

"People like Robert Goddard, like Carl Sagan, were inspired by stories (such as Edgar Rice Burroughs'John Carter) as adolescents to dream about going to Mars. That's what Goddard did, he started building rockets in his backyard, and built the first liquid rocket propelled rocket, anticipating a lot of the rockets that first got us in the moon. Carl Sagan, of course, ended up as an astronomer and a scientist."

"More recent people, people building the Mars rover now, were excited by Star Trek in the sixties. And the people who go to Mars, they may be the teenagers who play Doom or watch The Martian today. Through that, they're inspired to say, 'yes, that's something I want to be involved in'."

"There's a wonderful saying about imagination, it comes from thousands of years ago from a Roman guy called Plutarch. It goes 'the mind is not a vessel to filled, but a fire to ignited'. This is why all this creative talk is in someone ways more important in getting people to catch the vision of going to Mars than the mere facts. It stimulates people's minds, it lights people's fires, it gets the passions going that will take us there."

But why Mars?

"When we look at Mars, we can see it's a place that's a little bit like here."

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