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Section of the Canadarm at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

Destination Mars has been a science fiction staple since at least the 1950s, but it’s only recently become technologically feasible to have humans not only travel to the red planet, but potentially colonize it.

“Humanity’s on a very slow climb, upwards toward a permanent spacefaring species,” says Jesse Rogerson, science advisor to Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Exterior of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

Rogerson has been fielding space questions due to the excitement caused by SpaceX’s Starman, a human-sized dummy, and his red Tesla Roadster, which were launched on an interplanetary mission on Feb. 6.

Celebrity entrepreneur, Elon Musk has been a vocal supporter of human missions to Mars. As CEO of aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, Musk oversaw last week’s launch of Falcon Heavy, a powerful and largely reusable rocket. The rocket carried the car and dummy into space as a demonstration of the rocket’s capability, and very successful publicity campaign. For several hours after the launch people could watch Starman in his Tesla, orbiting Earth, via livestream. The stream got more than six million hits over that period.

Musk has said that he intends to get people to Mars by 2024, though other space organizations are somewhat more conservative with their estimates. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group projects the 2030s as a more likely timeline for getting boots on the ground of the red planet.

“It’s inevitable. Humans will be on Mars, and they’ll be there in the next 10 to 20 years,” says Rogerson.

Why Mars?

Arguments for humanity becoming interplanetary range from pushing the boundaries of human capability in engineering, science and even medicine, to ensuring the survival of our species. Practically speaking, Mars is one of our best candidates for success and survival.

Mars is our second closest planetary neighbour. At its closest approach, the planet is 54.6 million kilometers away, meaning a one-way trip, with current technology, is possible in seven months. Proximity is important as initial supplies and help need to be available from Earth. While there has been recent interest in exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system), our current technology is incapable of bringing live humans to those places.

As well, Mars might already have a history with life. According to NASA, Mars once had an atmosphere, much like Earth’s, but solar winds and radiation stripped the planet of its shield. Without an atmosphere, water, as far as we know a precursor to life, is not stable on the planet. However, there is mineral and geological evidence that there were once flowing rivers on our red neighbour. This suggests that although from a harsh, windswept landscape, Martian microbial life might exist, and humans could have their first alien interaction.

Gary Boyle is former president of the Ottawa chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and former lecturer at Algonquin College who has been watching the new era space race with interest.

“The hype with Mars has really come tenfold,” says Boyle. He says that social media has been especially influential in propelling interest. He notes that when he was a child in the 1960s and 70s, he’d have to wait for at least a month for discoveries to be published in a magazine. Today it can be published online fifteen minutes later.

Canada and the space industry

The third nation to send their technology into space, with the Alouette 1, in 1962, Canada has always been a world-class player in space travel

Exhibit of the Canadarm at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

Notably, Canada has been well-known for its robotics contributions. The country’s most famous success has been the Canadarm series, designed and built in Canada. Canadarm 1 was launched in 1981 aboard the space shuttle Columbia. It was a dexterous arm that could capture, manoeuver and deploy payloads. The more advanced Canadarm 2 is the International Space Station’s robotic arm. It can do repairs and capture payloads on the space station. It is also on the Canadian five-dollar bill.

Canada has sent eight astronauts to space, beginning with Marc Garneau in 1984. The most recent Canadian in space went up in 2012, and became, what some have called, the world’s most famous astronaut. In early 2013, Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video in space when he covered David Bowie’s Space Oddity. The video went viral, boosting international attention to Hadfield, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the space station program more broadly.

On November 30, 2018, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will launch in a Soyuz spacecraft, for his first mission.

“If we went to Mars, it wouldn’t be NASA doing it on its own, it wouldn’t be SpaceX doing it on its own,” says Rogerson, “You could imagine a first mission to Mars having a Canadian flag, an American flag, a Russian flag and a SpaceX logo.”

“We will play a role,” says Rogerson, “It’s hard to say how much, because, the first missions to Mars, the astronauts that go, will be the ones that payed the most money for the mission, and that’s likely to be Russian, Chinese and American.”

No matter when it happens, Canadians are making preparations for the ultimate mission. McGill researchers are already testing technologies for finding microbiological samples from the Martian surface, using the high Canadian Arctic as a stand-in for the desolate distant land. Western University has geologists studying ice deposits for where water might settle and hide on alien lands.

The Martian fever is growing.

Exterior of the telescope dome on top of Herzberg building at Carleton University [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

At Carleton University, Etienne Rollin, a physics professor, runs the campus observatory. The metal dome on the Herzberg building allows Rollin’s students to observe the night sky, including Mars.

Rollin says that he doesn’t have the time to accommodate all the demand to visit the observatory.

Interior of the Carleton observatory [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

Global Exploration Roadmap

On Feb 2, a consortium of fifteen space agencies, including the CSA, released the third edition of the Global Exploration Roadmap.

The 36-page document is an outline of how national space agencies, including NASA, CSA, European Space Agency and Roscosmos, intend to push beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity, and ultimately onto Mars.

The route is something of a leapfrog approach.

Model of the International Space Station at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum [Photo © Tamara LaPlante]

There’s been continuous human presence in space, on the International Space Station, since 2000. Any future space travel will be based on knowledge gained from this endeavor, so the collection of agencies intends to keep investing in the space station, and use that as a launch point.

What is new about this iteration of humanity’s push for Mars is the inclusion of the Deep Space Gateway in the mid 2020s. This is a space port orbiting the moon, from which missions could be launched both to the moon, and further into what’s known as deep space.

Once there’s a launch pad in deep space, according to the document, the route is set to take humans to Mars by the mid 2030s.  

Jessica Lacasse, communications manager with the CSA, said by email that the roadmap, “Contributes to the dialogue with people around the world who are interested in proposing innovative solutions to exploration challenges.”

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