Some form of living Martians existed, a NASA discovery suggested Monday. As the Martian rover Curiosity drilled into a rock target called the Buckskin Rock, it found a vast underground water deposit. And with water, a vital life source, comes — yup, you guessed it — life. We're now more positive than ever that the Red Planet did and still can sustain living things — but that prospective life will likely be human. Just as Matt Damon's upcoming space film, The Martian, suggests, Mars is, in fact, habitable by human beings.
And today, there are thousands of people working towards this goal. Scientists are building rockets, billionaires are anxious to invest, and project leaders are seeking the next generation of astronauts and the first generation of Mars colonists. From botanists to physicists, 5th-graders to stay-at-home dads, everyone is invited in this global effort in manifesting humanity's next frontier. It'll be glorious, yeah, but also more or less necessary: Considering Earth's depleting resources, the upward expansion of humanity makes a lot of sense. Stephen Hawking would agree. So rejoice, fellow nerds. The Bourne series star Damon won't be the only Martian in the coming years, as soon as 2026. This is a sci-fi dream come true, and here are all the signs that it’s already happening.
1. We’ve been to Mars (kind of)
Since 1970, there have been eight separate rovers that successfully landed on Mars. Two are currently active — Curiosity, which landed in 2012, and Opportunity, in 2004. The latter, along with its now inactive twin Spirit (R.I.P.), was supposed to be in mission for 90 Martian days, but has lasted more than a decade.
The video of Curiosity landing, by the way, is one of the most gripping and fantastical things I’ve ever seen. The SUV-sized rover is the culmination of years of hard work — and a year in travel time — and cost more than $2 billion. And despite its tumultuous landing, it was all worth it. Less than a year after its arrival, the Curiosity achieved its primary mission: to see if Mars can, or could, be habitable. In early 2013, the rover detected in its drill samples fundamental elements that could sustain life — sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. On top of taking selfies, Curiosity also measures Mars' radiation, wind speeds, temperature, and humidity.
Also considering Opportunity's discovery of traces of water, our little Martian robots have successfully proved that life could exist in at least some parts of Mars.
2. Much of the necessary technology exists
As one can imagine, there are quite a few components to colonizing a foreign planet, the first and foremost being transit. Luckily, rocket scientists have a pretty good grasp on the rocket science that's going to get us to Mars. NASA, for instance, has designed a split-mission concept that utilizes four rockets, solar electric propulsion, and Mars' potato-shaped moon, Phobos. And because 3-D printing already exists at the International Space Station (ISS), rockets don't have to propel the mass of habitat structures, shielding, etc. from Earth. NASA's newest spacecraft, Orion, is designed to take humans into deep space. Combined with its soon-to-be finished "monster rocket" Space Launch System, NASA plans on setting a human foot on Mars by the 2030s.
Then there's the actual living on Mars part. As it turns out, Mars enthusiasts have been developing habitat prototypes since 2000. The international organization Mars Society currently operates two research units that simulate hypothetical living conditions in the early stages of habituating Mars. These units are called habs; one is in the Arctic Circle, the other in the southern deserts of Utah. The habs are cylindrical structures that measure eight meters in diameter. They have two stories and can house up to six researchers at a time. Other space architects are also developing their visions of a colonized Mars, such as this design of a connected three-unit inflation that includes a greenhouse. And speaking of which, NASA astronauts announced earlier this month that they will be able to harvest and eat the first crop of veggies grown in space. Vegetation is a very important component of sustenance on Mars, because rockets won’t have the capacity to carry a yearlong supply of astronaut ice cream to Mars.
3. There's a handful of projects in place
NASA isn’t the only agency that wants to go to Mars. In fact, it’s a contest right now among several private corporations and non-profits to see who can get to Mars first.
The frontrunner (in my opinion) is SpaceX, an aerospace company founded by really cool billionaire Elon Musk, whom you will read about soon. SpaceX has designed a few wildly successful rockets, and have earned a contract with NASA to make deliveries to the ISS. The firm is now developing the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a mission that would use recycled rocket engines and will cost a lot less than NASA. Full details will be released later this year.
A few other rich dudes are also interested in Mars, including Richard Branson and Dennis Tito, whose Inspiration Mars Foundation aims to launch an older, married couple to Mars without landing by 2021.
Finally, we have the Dutch Mars One, a not-for-profit project that aims to send crews of four to Mars every 26 months as part of a growing permanent colony. And because a return mission would cost a lot of money and pose many logistical hurdles, the Mars One pilgrim-astronauts will not return to Earth.
4. People are so into Mars that they're willing to give up life on Earth
Let that last kicker sink in. If successful, the astronauts chosen for Mars One’s journey will die on Mars. Crazy, right? Well, not to the 200,000 people around the world who applied to be part of the mission.
When Mars One began its astronaut selection process, the only concrete criterion was an age requirement of 18 and over. In February, the final 100 candidates were announced. Fifty women and 50 men — they are doctors, physicists, and students. Some are unemployed. Nineteen don't possess any degree in higher education. All of them are willing to die on Mars.
"Humanity's greatest strength is to dream of a better world, to imagine a future and to inspire a generation," 22-year-old Ryan McDonald, a finalist, says in his application video above. "Make no mistake, this is not a one-way mission. The dreams we [bring] back from that far off world will change everything and I want to help make that change happen."
You can meet the final 100 here.
5. Totally awesome billionaire and rumored-to-be Martian Elon Musk wants to go back home
Okay, so he’s probably not an actual alien. But the real-life Tony Stark and founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX is adamant about sending up to a million settlers to Mars — a prodigious ambition. But if his incredible success in so many different industries is any indication, I’m inclined to believe that it’ll happen.
6. The possibility of Real World: Mars
Don’t mean to dwell on Mars One, but just one more thing about this project: It will be broadcast as a reality TV show. Or at least the selection and training process, which will take up to seven years.
Why reality TV? Because it’s profitable (duh) and who wouldn't watch Keeping Up with the Martians?