Mars One, the preposterously ambitious 2013 startup that aimed to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2033, is bankrupt.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The entire venture, which would cost tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars, was expected to be paid for by, among other things, a reality television show documenting the lives of its brave colonists.
Oh, and we haven’t really invented a lot of the technology that would make a manned trip to Mars — much less a permanent colony there — safe or practical.
Mars One’s demise shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for exploring space, however. Nor should it undermine more realistic and modest plans to send crews of astronauts to explore the red planet in the not so distant future.
But it’s instructive to consider the obstacles to setting up a permanent human civilization somewhere other than on Earth, because money is among the least of those challenges.
Mars is significantly smaller than earth, which means it has significantly less gravity, for example. That might stave off wrinkles for long-term residents, but it would also cause muscle and bone density loss. It’s possible that babies born on Mars might suffer birth defects and stunted growth as a result.
Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere either, which makes designing a permanent base a challenge. Living on Mars would be a lot like living in a submarine, and colonists might need to spend their lives underground to avoid potentially deadly cosmic radiation.
Earth’s magnetic field helps keep our protective atmosphere from being blown away by solar wind. Mars hardly has a magnetic field at all, so even if we could artificially create a more habitable atmosphere on a planetary scale — and that technology doesn’t yet exist — it would constantly escape back out to space.
There are also violent, months-long dust storms that would make surface-level solar power a nonstarter. And a one-way trip for any kind of communication to Earth takes up to about 20 minutes, so real-time conversations would be impossible.
It takes that long for light to travel between the two planets, which highlights just how far away Mars is — about 580 times farther away than the moon on average.
None of this is to say that living on Mars is impossible. It might not be in the future. But it’s going to be a lot more difficult than any other adventure in the history of human exploration.
The other planets and moons in our solar aren’t exactly hospitable to life either, at least without massive technological interventions that are still firmly in the realm of science fiction.
So while imagining a future for humanity beyond Earth is worthwhile — and perhaps essential to the long-term survival of our species — protecting our current home is the only viable option we have for the foreseeable future.
The more we study what it would be like to live on Mars, the more we learn to appreciate what we have here on Earth.