By the end of the century, mankind will either in all likelihood be extinct, or living on other planets besides Earth. Mars holds some of the most exciting potential for us to develop as a species, as well as revolutionising infrastructure, communications, and aerospace technology. NASA intends to send humans to Mars in the next few decades, so we may soon see huge investment and development in the aerospace sector.
First of all, obviously we’ll need more efficient and powerful rockets to make it to Mars. At the very least Mars is six months away, and currently there are a host of problems between us and our first small step on the red planet. The technology to make this happen is expensive, and many different private and government funded groups are racing to make it a reality.
While we already have reliable propulsion for spaceflight, we need to be able to go further and faster, while using less fuel. Aerojet Rocketdyne is just company working on new technology to allow for faster flight, currently they’re building 5-kilowatt Hall-effect thrusters. These are ion engines, which creates electric propulsion by accelerating ions with electricity. Spacecraft powered by these engines could in theory move up to 200,000mph. This technology is around 90% fuel efficient, compared to standard chemical fuel, which has an efficiency of around 35%.
The International Space Station is crucial for testing new technology, both in terms of viability and long-term functionality for the Mars project. Machinery sometimes works on Earth, yet when it gets to space begins to break down. This would be catastrophic in the case of life support systems, recyclers, or food storage facilities, so thorough testing is vital.
Surprisingly, not all this technology will come from NASA or other government space agencies. In 2017, 120 venture capital firms invested $4 billion into small scale startups. In the future there may be far more logos in space than previously imagined, thanks to a healthy and scalable aerospace industry expanding beyond the confines of Earth.
The next step beyond testing things on the space station is to use it on the moon. Once we colonise the moon, it will become a testing site for new technology, and a loading point for any supplies on the way to Mars.
Lockheed Martin has already started designed a Mars base, which could keep a six-person team in orbit above the planet around 2028. Then from there a ground base could be established.
One of the main problems with establishing a colony on Mars is communications. Being so far from Earth, real-time communication with our home planet would be impossible. To make matters worse, the satellites and probes currently in orbit around Mars are aging, becoming less reliable, until eventually they’ll fall to the planet’s surface. Currently there are no plans or funding to replace them, so the cost of this vital infrastructure will need to be factored into any plans for the future.