When will people see sky-blue sunrises on Mars?

It is 50 years since the first successful landing of spacecraft on the Red Planet

Mars, the fourth planet of the solar system, has always drawn the attention of humankind. Both ancient astronomers and fantasy writers have been interested in it. While 50 years ago the world witnessed a real Martian race between the USSR and USA — it was when the first spacecraft reached the surface of the Red Planet. Read in Realnoe Vremya’s report what we have learnt about Mars during these 50 years and the meaning of this data.

Half a century of studying Mars surface

On 27 November 1971, a milestone took place in the history of Soviet and global astronautics. On the one hand, it became a new accomplishment and record. On the other hand, it was just a partial success. Artificial spacecraft reached the surface of Mars for the first time in history on this day. Mars-2 Soviet descent module became this object. However, due to miscalculations when trying to land, the spacecraft crashed. However, on 2 December 1971, Mars-3 performed a soft landing on the Red Planet but operated for just 14 seconds. A bit earlier, on 14 November, the American spacecraft Mariner 9 had become the first object to get to the orbit of Mars. Unlike the Soviet station, Mariner didn’t have a descent module. The Americans managed to land spacecraft on Mars only in 1976. Nevertheless, the Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions managed to work on the Red Planet through 1980.

Docent of the Department of Astronomy and Spatial Geodesy of Kazan Federal University Roman Zhuchkov notes that the latest Mars research has become the most significant. In the early 21st century, technologies have allowed seriously modernising Mars rovers and the quality of data sent to the Earth.

“I think the whole complex of research that has been done at least in the last 15-20 years is important. First of all, because of automatic Mars rovers that were used in Spirit and Opportunity missions in 2004, and the research that still goes on. The equipment that can move on the surface and automatically do some research can explain in detail what they see, chemical, physical, biological characteristics of those places they are in,” Roman Zhuchkov told Realnoe Vremya.

If the Martian race in the early 70s was between the Soviet Union and the United States, today China and the European Space Agency study the Red Planet together with the USA. Roman Zhuchkov pays attention to the fact that technically Russia could do research on Mars, but this will require big investments:

“Unfortunately, it is not the successes of Roscosmos, it is the success of mainly NASA and — to a lesser extent — the European Space Agency. The Chinese Mars rover has been on the Red Plant since May. It is necessary to catch up. Technically, Russia can also join the race. It is difficult to say if it will be a political will and if there will be given enough resources. It is impossible without technical and financial support.”

Why Mars is called this way

Ancient civilisations often associated a red spot in the sky with wars and bloodshed. This is why it is no surprise that the planet was named after the ancient Roman god of war Mars. In the 19th century, astronomers found two satellites of the Red Planet and named them Phobos and Deimos. In ancient Greek mythology, these are the names of the war god’s sons.

Why the planet is red

The superficial deposit — regolith — is the case. It contains a huge amount of iron oxide, this compound makes our blood and rust look this way. It is considered that during the formation of the solar system, all planets got a lot of iron. The Earth got its portion to the core, while Mars simply was covered with this element due to weak gravity and small size. While iron becomes reddish when it is exposed to oxygen. According to one of the hypotheses, it might rain on ancient Mars, water oxidised iron, so the surface of the planet became red.

If there is life on Mars

It is the most popular question about the Red Planet. Although Mars research has been done for more than 50 years, it hasn’t yet been possible to find signs of life there. However, many scientists believe that the fourth planet of the solar system did have life in the past. It required a big amount of oxygen for the planet to get red. And if the atmosphere had oxygen, there might be life in the past too. An interesting finding was detected by scientists in Antarctica, it is a meteorite from Mars inside which there were seen petrified microscopic structures. According to theory, a stone was blasted away from the surface of Mars as a result of a clash between the planet with a big cosmic body some 4 billion years ago, after that, it remained on the planet. About 15 million years ago, it turned out to be in space as a result of a new clash, it appeared in the gravity field of the Earth just 13,000 years ago and fell on it. Scientists developed a hypothesis that the future meteorite on Mars was formed when the planet had liquid water on its surface.

What was the planet like in the past?

It is assumed that there was a lot of water on Mars. Photos of a braided river network, grandiose river valleys and canyons taken by spacecraft confirm this. Some scientists believe that frozen seas and lakes were covered with red sand. The average temperature on today’s Mars is 63 degrees Celsius. There are polar caps of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide in the areas around the poles. It is supposed that Mars could have an atmosphere that was identical to the terrestrial. Researchers argue why the temperature on the surface of Mars in the past could be much higher so that water existed as liquid. There is no clear answer to this question.

How did it lose the atmosphere?

The Red Planet likely immersed in the current state after a clash of asteroids. A huge number of craters and maghemite are evidence of the bombing. A mineral with the same composition was found in the Popgai crater in Yakutia. Scientists say the surface of Mars has a lot of “star wounds” because of being close to the asteroid belt. But there is a hypothesis of a third satellite that gradually approached the planet and finally clashed with it. The strongest clash might damage the crust of the plant and hurt the liquid core. Because of the damaged core, the planet lost its magnetic field. After such a clash, life on Mars might die, while the solar weather blew the remains of the atmosphere.

Mars is the main candidate for colonisation

Even though the modern Red Planet looks like a lifeless desert, scientists assume that it is possible to resuscitate and colonise Mars. However, we are so far from it. The atmospheric density of the planet is now just 1% of the Earth’s. The absence of the ozone layer means a high radiation level on the surface. Gravity is 2,5 times weaker than on Earth. A human cannot live on the surface of Mars without protective equipment. Nevertheless, compared to the conditions on hot Mercury and Venus, cold outer planets and atmosphere-free Moon and asteroids, the conditions on Mars are much more suitable for colonisation. It is offered to warm Mars in different ways — from manageable spread of comets and small cosmic bodies from the asteroid belt, bomb explosions on polar caps, thermonuclear explosions under the surface to the “launch” of the core, colonisation of the planet’s surface with archebacteria to emit the necessary amount of oxygen to breathe and greenhouse gases or get big amounts of the necessary substances from those existing on the planet.

Why is Mars similar to Earth?

  • Martian days, which are named sol, consist of 24 hours 39 minutes 35,244 seconds, which is very close to the Earth.
  • The tilt of the rotational axis relative to the ecliptic plane is 25,19°, that of the Earth is 23,44°. As a result of this, Mars has seasons like the Earth, though it is almost twice longer because the Martian year is 687 days, or 668,6 sols (more than 1,88 times longer than the Earth year).
  • The Earth has places whose natural conditions are similar to those on Mars, deserts that look like a Martian landscape. The equator temperature on Mars during the summer months can reach +20 °C like on Earth.

What’s the difference from the Earth?

  • The weather changes on Mars, tornadoes, storms and even sandstorms that can last for several months are registered.
  • The temperature on Mars in winter can reach -153 degrees Celsius.
  • Martian sunrises and sunsets are blue because of the dust dispersed in the atmosphere of the planet.
  • Though there is water on Mars, it doesn’t become liquid even at a temperature above zero, it immediately turns into gas because of low pressure.

When will humankind colonise Mars?

Docent of the Department of Astronomy and Spatial Geodesy of Kazan Federal University Roman Zhuchkov doesn’t rule out that in the future the creation of colonies on Mars will become a goal of humanity. However, it would be more logical today to train on the Moon:

“As for the long term, technically, it will be possible. Another thing is that I am very sceptical about the attempts of going immediately to Mars and setting up some colony there. Without doubt, such technologies can be tested, they will come in handy in different cases for humankind. But it seems unreasonable for me to test them on remote and quite dangerous Mars when this can be done with smaller costs on the relatively close Moon. I think if an autonomous colony base is built, it will be a Moon base, and only then the experience will spread to Mars.”

Perhaps, the enthusiasm of such people as Elon Musk will really take spacecraft directly to the Red Planet despite any logic and ignorance of the Earth’s satellite.

“One of the main drivers of the Martian programme — Elon Musk — is an ardent supporter of going to Mars and building a colony there. Such an approach isn’t maybe reasonable. But given the huge enthusiasm and resources of this man, he can skip a step, and a colony can appear on Mars earlier than on the Moon,” Roman Zhuchkov assumes.

The main edge of Mars over the Moon is a greater similarity to our planet, while the presence of a big amount of water gives a lot of possibilities for terraformation. But this prospect, Roman Zhuchkov thinks, is too remote at the moment:

“The tendency of Mars for terraformation is much bigger, but even if we brush off ethics, terraformation on the planet is beyond our technologies now. We can prepare for this, can keep this in mind, but it is too early to deal with terraformation on Mars in a year or five years. Even if we want to terraform on Mars, it is anyway necessary to start with the Moon.”

So we are in the early days to look for a flat on Mars, though humanity has done a huge job of studying the fourth planet of the solar system in the last 50 years. Who knows, perhaps in half a century, the Martian colony will become a reality.

Emil Ziyangirov