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Mars Q&A: Is now the time to explore the Red Planet?

Here are answers to some common questions about the state of Mars exploration.

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Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep-space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. The first SLS mission – Exploration Mission 1 – will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the moon and bring it back to Earth to demonstrate the integrated system performance of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft’s re-entry and landing prior to a crewed flight.

NASA/MSFC

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Mars, our neighboring planet, has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. In the last 50 years, orbiters and rovers have been exploring its environment, its atmosphere, and its geology, sending back a wealth of information. The more we learn about the Red Planet, the more we want to send human explorers there. Is now the time to go?

Q: Will a trip to Mars be America’s next human mission in space?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s priority is Mars, but there are conflicting opinions among US decision makers about the country’s space-travel priorities. Some think that the agency should aim for the moon again before embarking on a dangerous and expensive journey farther into the solar system.

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But the Obama administration argues that moon exploration should stay in the past. President Obama has called on NASA to begin crewed missions beyond the moon by 2025. And he has charged NASA with sending humans to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s. Congress, however, approves NASA’s budget, and it’s pressuring the agency to go to the moon first to test the technologies and logistics needed for future deep-space missions. Others have suggested that NASA send astronauts to explore Mars from the surface of one of its two moons, Phobos and Deimos, before landing on the planet itself.

Defense and aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin, also a longtime NASA contractor, in May announced a proposal to build a science lab that would orbit Mars starting in 2028. It would house six astronauts for up to 11 months. They would remotely drive robots, fly drones, and study samples from the Red Planet in real time in anticipation of landing humans on its surface in the following decade.

Q: How soon could a crewed trip to the surface of Mars reasonably happen?

Such a trip could take place in the next decade, but it might not be led by NASA. Aerospace company SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, has plans to get humans to Mars by 2025, starting with uncrewed missions to the planet in 2018. Although it hasn’t released details about costs yet, its plans don’t seem outlandish: SpaceX has already built its own rockets and spacecraft, and it’s been delivering cargo to the International Space Station since 2012. The company is expected to begin ferrying astronauts to the space station next year. SpaceX is also inching closer to solving the industry’s biggest cost hurdle by developing a reusable rocket.

NASA says it’ll have boots on the ground on Mars in the 2030s. But it doesn’t have a specific plan for getting to the planet, so timing and cost estimates are not fully reliable. Some cost estimates come in around $100 billion over 30 years, while others predict a $500 billion price tag for the trip. NASA’s current $19.3 billion annual budget, which covers myriad planetary- and Earth-science programs, won’t cover it. Still, some estimates show that if NASA’s funding at the very least grows with inflation, and if it partners with other space agencies, it could get humans to the planet's orbit in 2033 and to its surface in 2039. The agency is working along these lines. In June, it announced a Mars exploration partnership with the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

“Together, we can bring humanity to the face of Mars and reach new heights for the benefit of all humankind ... and we will,” wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a blog post on June 3 that described his efforts to recruit international partners for the Mars mission.

Q: Of all the planets, why are people so set on Mars?

It’s relatively close, it reminds them of home – with its seasons and similar geology – and they have simply been fascinated with the Red Planet and with finding life there. If people can learn how to use the natural resources on Mars to grow food and build structures, and if the water that scientists suspect is below the Martian surface can be found, Earthlings could conceivably settle there.

Q: What have we learned about Mars lately?

Since NASA’s robotic detective Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 with its arsenal of sensors, drills, and cameras, it has traversed the planet in search of life. Though it hasn’t found it, it has found life-sustaining elements, including oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, hydrogen, and carbon. Scientists on Earth are mining the volumes of data coming back from rovers, orbiters, and telescopes studying Mars. They’ve found an abundance of the compound silica in the rocks of one region of Mars. On Earth, silica is usually deposited by water, which is necessary for microbial life. Other scientists recently reported that, just like Earth, Mars experiences seasons and climate changes. In fact, it appears to be coming out of an ice age now, according to a recent paper. There’s also evidence, say other Mars experts, that two mega-tsunamis formed on the Red Planet billions of years ago, which helps support the theory that Mars had oceans back then.

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Q: So, is there life on Mars?

This is the big question. So far, there doesn’t appear to be life, at least not as we know it, and not on the planet’s surface. But since Mars is known to have been warmer and wetter than it is today, there could have been life billions of years ago. A coming robotic mission will for the first time dig deep below the surface of Mars.