We might one day be Martians.
Humans, not the bright green blobs with three eyes and shaky antennae, were born and raised on Mars.
NASA scientists are currently spending a year in a simulated Mars habitat in Texas in preparation for the space agency’s ambitious plan to land the first astronauts on Mars as early as the 2030s, while the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning the first round-trip from Earth to Mars at the end of the decade.
However, good terrain maps and local weather data are essential for securely landing spacecraft. With their Mars Atlas, researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) are bringing this fantasy closer to reality.
The scientists generated “a beautiful color mosaic of the entire planet” by carefully merging over 3,000 high-resolution photographs collected by the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, which has been orbiting Mars since 2021, says Dimitra Atri, head of the Mars Research Group at NYUAD.
“If you look at the history of Mars, so many probes have just crashed,” Atri says, adding that the thin atmosphere makes it impossible for rockets to slow down and that even light winds can change landing paths. “If a probe crashes, it represents a significant loss of science and resources.” However, while sending humans, you must exercise extreme caution.”
According to Atri, understanding daily and seasonal weather trends can assist researchers in determining the safest time and area to land.
Landing is only one of the challenges that accurate atlases may help to overcome; another is determining the ideal locations for human settlements in terms of terrain, temperature, and resources. “If there is ice available, we can convert it to water, which can be used for habitation,” Atri continues.
“It may sound silly, but maybe in the future, people will go to Mars and even live there,” Atri speculates.
Desertification and dust
For nearly two centuries, astronomers have been charting Mars. Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Mädler of Germany created the first map of Mars in 1840. But it was Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s 1877 map that originated the idea of a Martian civilisation, when the natural water channels he noted on the map were mislabeled as constructed rivers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, NASA’s Mariner missions offered a greater understanding of Mars’ topography, including the first photographs of volcanoes, lava flows, rocky gorges, and massive dust storms. NASA has generated a number of maps over the years, including those based on the planet’s mineralogy, and earlier this year, the US space agency released a thorough interactive 3D map of Mars.
According to Atri, NYUAD’s map is “the first to entirely use actual color photographs of the entire planet.”
NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences is currently incorporating NYUAD’s map into its Mars 24 program, which keeps exact timing on Mars. JMARS, a publicly accessible database used by NASA scientists for mission planning, has also included the atlas.
According to Scott Dickenshied, a JMARS spokesperson, NYUAD’s map is “created from more recently acquired data than some of the previous global maps” and provides a “additional perspective of what Mars looks like.”
While NASA and ESA’s instruments provide higher resolution data over longer time periods, the instrument used to collect data for the NYUAD atlas can “observe the entire disc of Mars at once,” according to Dickenshied, adding that this perspective “could be very useful to researchers looking to observe clouds or dust storm activity on a planetary scale.”
Mars and Earth
Mars was formerly thought to be a water-covered planet like Earth, capable of supporting life, but thinning in its atmosphere caused cooling and dryness, leading to its current arid state. According to Atri, it now endures regular worldwide dust storms, which have a significant impact on its climate by blocking radiation and trapping heat.
Desertification is a rising problem on Earth, particularly in countries such as the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, and Atri believes that climate scientists can apply the data acquired about Mars’ desertification to Earth “to understand what could happen to our own planet going forward.”
“My concern is that if we don’t do enough on Earth (to combat climate change), it will become Mars-like,” he continues.
Atri hopes to duplicate Martian conditions in the lab in the future to understand how plants behave. Mars’ environment is harsh and merciless, with little atmosphere, extremely low temperatures, and significant quantities of UV radiation.
Atri claims that the plants he will study, which grow naturally in dry, salty soil in desert regions such as the United Arab Emirates, will help us understand how plants can survive the harsh climate of Mars and will allow researchers to find better ways to grow food in space or optimize agriculture in arid regions on Earth.
This research is still in its early phases, and Atri aims to obtain his first genuine samples from Mars by 2033. Other researchers, meanwhile, are already investigating how advances used to generate food on Mars can effect Earth.
Food production accounts for around 34% of all human-made global greenhouse gas emissions, requiring vast amounts of land and water. However, systemic inefficiencies result in one-third of the world’s food going to waste, while over 345 million people face extreme food insecurity, growing hunger, and malnutrition. Due to the scarcity of resources in space, food production technology on Mars must be very efficient and closed-loop, with little to no waste.
Last month, researchers in the United Kingdom published an article in the journal Nature Food examining how controlled environment agriculture in space could be a “gateway” to developing similar technology for Earth, while two Canadian food scientists published a book arguing that growing food on Mars could transform agriculture on Earth.
Lessons learnt about Mars’ geology, climate, and atmosphere can also aid in determining whether any of the hundreds of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system are livable or capable of supporting an atmosphere, according to Atri.
Many scientists believe that life on Earth began billions of years ago on Mars, and Atri sees the Red Planet as the ideal laboratory to test this notion.
“We need to understand our neighbor,” Atri explains. “Perhaps it had life at some point, or perhaps there is some life below the surface that is still alive.” Perhaps we shared ancestors. “No one knows.”