One day, we could be Martians.
Not the luminous green blobs with three eyes and wobbly antennae, but humans, born and raised on the Red Planet.
NASA researchers 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 preparing for the first round-trip from Earth to Mars at the end of the decade.
But accurate land maps and local weather data are critical for landing spacecraft safely. Researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) are bringing this dream closer to reality with their Mars Atlas.
Carefully combining over 3,000 high-resolution images gathered by the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe – which has been orbiting Mars since 2021 – the team created “a beautiful color mosaic of the whole planet,” 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,” says Atri, adding that the thin atmosphere makes it difficult for rockets to slow down and even low winds can alter landing trajectories. “If a probe crashes, it is a big loss of science and resources. But when you’re sending humans you need to be very careful.”
Understanding daily and seasonal weather patterns can help researchers identify the safest time and location to land, says Atri.
Landing is just one challenge that accurate atlases can help to overcome: identifying the best locations for human settlements in terms of landscape, temperature and resources is another. “If there is ice available, we can convert it to water which can be used for habitation,” explains Atri.
“It might sound silly, but maybe in the future it will be very common for people to go to Mars and even live there,” says Atri.
Dust and desertification
Astronomers have been mapping Mars for nearly two centuries. The first map of Mars was produced in 1840 by Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Mädler in Germany. But it was Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s 1877 map that sparked an enduring fascination with the idea of a Martian civilization, when the natural water channels he marked on the map were mislabeled as artificial waterways.
NASA’s Mariner missions in the 1960s and ‘70s provided a better understanding of Mars’ topography, including the first images of volcanoes, lava flow, rocky canyons and huge dust storms. In the decades since, NASA has created a number of maps, including ones based on the planet’s mineralogy, and earlier this year, the US space agency released a detailed interactive 3D map of Mars.
NYUAD’s map is “the first one to entirely use actual color photographs of the entire planet,” says Atri.
NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences is now using NYUAD’s map in its Mars 24 software, which maintains precise timings on Mars. JMARS, a publicly available database used by NASA scientists for mission planning, has also incorporated the atlas into its database.
Scott Dickenshied, a representative of JMARS, told CNN in an email that NYUAD’s map is “created from more recently acquired data than some of the previous global maps” and provides an “additional perspective of what Mars looks like.”
While NASA and ESA’s instruments offer higher resolution data over a longer period of time, the instrument used to collect the data for the NYUAD atlas is able to “observe the entire disc of Mars at once,” says Dickenshied, adding that this perspective “could be very useful to researchers looking to observe clouds or dust storm activity at a planetary scale.”
Mars and Earth
It’s theorized that Mars was once a water-covered planet like Earth that could have hosted life, but thinning in its atmosphere caused cooling and dryness that led to its current arid state. Now, it experiences regular global dust storms, which have a huge impact on its climate, including blocking radiation and trapping heat, says Atri.
Desertification is a growing problem on Earth, particularly in regions such as the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, and Atri believes that climate scientists can apply the data gathered about Mars’ desertification to Earth, “to understand what could happen to our own planet going forward.”
“My worry is that if we don’t do enough on Earth (to tackle climate change), then it might become Mars-like,” he adds.
In the future, Atri plans to recreate Martian conditions in the lab to study how plants behave. Mars has an unforgiving, harsh environment: very little atmosphere, extremely low temperatures, and high levels of UV radiation.
Atri says the plants he will study, which grow naturally in dry, salty soil in desert regions, like the United Arab Emirates, could help us understand how plants could survive the Red Planet’s harsh climate, and allow researchers to find better ways to grow food in space, or optimize agriculture in arid regions on Earth.
This research is in the early planning stages and Atri hopes to have his first real samples from Mars around 2033. But elsewhere, other researchers are already examining how innovations being developed to grow food on Mars could impact Earth.
About 34% of all human-made global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, which uses enormous quantities of land and water. But inefficiencies in the system mean that one-third of the world’s food goes to waste, while over 345 million people experience extreme food insecurity, and rising hunger and malnutrition. Limited resources in space mean that food production technology on Mars must be highly efficient and closed-loop, with little to no waste.
Researchers in the UK last month published an article in the journal Nature Food exploring how controlled environment agriculture in space could be a “gateway” to developing similar technology for Earth, while two food scientists in Canada have published a book arguing that growing food on Mars could transform agriculture on Earth.
Lessons learned about Mars’ geology, its climate and atmosphere can also help us discover whether any of the thousands of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system may be habitable, or able to sustain an atmosphere, says Atri.
Many scientists believe life on Earth originated on Mars billions of years ago, and Atri sees the Red Planet as the perfect laboratory to research the theory.
“We need to understand our neighbor,” says Atri. “Maybe it had life at some point, or maybe there is some life below the surface that still survives. Maybe we had common origins. Who knows?”
“This is our best bet to understand ourselves, and where we came from.”
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