Dutch Project ‘Mars One’ has gained media attention recently for its ambitious plans to colonise Mars in just under a decade’s time.

(Please note that this is an abridged version of an article I wrote in January 2014, titled 'Permission to Land' - shorter, (hopefully) more artful, it's better adapted to sharing. For beautiful visualisations of imagined space habitation, including concept art for the Mars One Project, I highly recommend meandering towards Spacehabs.com for a browse.)

"And here in Florida, Virginia, New-England, and Cannada, is more land than all the people in Christendome can manure, and yet more to spare than all the natives of those Countries can use and cultivate." (Captain John Smith, on settling on American land)

Training for Dutch Project 'Mars One' is due to begin in 2015, the next step in the ambitious plan to colonise Mars in just under a decade's time. The seven-year training course is designed to help the twenty-four chosen applicants adapt to the psychological and social aspects of living in the small, isolated community. This course is based on current knowledge of the conditions on Mars, though many would argue that many problems encountered by the crew will be largely unpredictable. Low levels of oxygen, a thin atmosphere and radiation are just some of the dangers astronauts can expect. If there is worse still to come, Mars seems an unlikely site for a human colony, certainly not a place we may one day call 'home'.

Mars is not unlike Earth in some respects. The solar day on Mars is only 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth and comparable axial tilts mean that seasons on Mars and Earth are quite similar. The Martian year lasts nearly two Earth years, so seasons also last twice as long on Earth.

Yet Mars remains inhospitable to life. The atmosphere is dense with 95% carbon dioxide, and oxygen totals less than 0.4%, making the air toxic to plants and animals. Unlike Earth, Mars is not protected by a strong magnetic field, so the solar wind has stripped the Martian atmosphere away. Atmospheric pressure on Mars is considerably lower than the Armstrong limit, below which level human beings are not able to survive without pressure suits. This thin atmosphere can't stop heat from the Sun escaping into Space. This, along with being further from the Sun than Earth, results in a very cold planet, with a mean surface temperature of between -87°C and -5°C.

With Martian gravity around a third of that on Earth, colonisers would lose bone and muscle mass. Travellers would be unable to return to Earth after such an ordeal, as their bodies would be unable to readjust to Earth's much stronger force of gravity. A journey to Mars would be a one-way trip.

Another high risk factor for colonisers is radiation, which can result in compromised immune systems, infertility and cancer. Once again, the thin atmosphere is the problem, as there's nothing to stop the Sun's high energy particles from reaching the surface of Mars. The insubstantial atmosphere on Mars is probably the one great way in which the Red Planet differs from Earth, crucially making it far less hospitable to human life.

A process known as terraforming could be the key to making the Martian environment more welcoming to its colonisers. Theoretically, a new atmosphere could be built, richer in oxygen and less thin, so the planet surface would be kept warm and radiation levels lowered. Living quarters would need to be pressurised, simulate gravity and be built underground to reduce radiation exposure.

Further terraforming on Mars could offer money-making opportunities, including the mining of rare materials and the chance to exploit large spaces for manufacturing. Mars may prove a vital base for exploration of other parts of space and to produce equipment, fuel and resources for miners in the asteroid belt. These opportunities raise questions about how far we will go to exploit this new environment and how activities on Mars will be governed and regulated. Should the colonisers of Mars be subject to Earth's authority, culture and traditions, or develop independent of their home planet? Colonisers should be aware that terraforming activities may have an adverse effect and should be careful not to do permanent damage to the Martian landscape and climate.

This desire to colonise new planets could partly be driven by a fear that Earth may become uninhabitable. Damage to the environment, effect on climate and reductions in biodiversity could be the result of human activity. Therefore we should not subject the Martian environment to activities we know to be damaging, learning from mistakes of the past to ensure we treat new areas of human colonisation with due respect.

Planet Earth can also benefit from such contemplation. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of 'The Mars Trilogy' of novels, suggested that "space science is an earth science, where studying Mars is part of understanding Earth as a planet, with scientific, philosophical or psychological value." Even is the 'Mars One' project is declared unfeasible or is postponed until Earth's technology is better prepared, the study into the conditions on Mars and its habitability can only serve to help us understand better our own planet, and appreciate better its rare ability to host life.

References & Further Reading

Listing image: Bryan Versteeg