This is what Mars would look like to an astronaut arriving there for the first time.
To be there would be inspiring, and intimidating; it would be a giant step for mankind; and for many it would herald a new era in science.
For others it would be overreaching; the technology simply is not there to make this leap without unacceptable risk to life. The potential losses outweigh the gains.
Yet the question remains: Should we send humans there? Or would it be less risky to send machines rather than men?
Men like ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst argue space will be no different to other unknown frontiers:
“Humans will go to Mars, I’m very sure of this. You just have to look back in human history and you’ll know. As soon we learnt to build ships, we took them not only to go to the next island, we took them to sail over the horizon.”
The problem is time, and the subsequent exposure to all of space’s debilitating effects. Depending on the Mars orbit it is 55 million to 400 million kilometres away.
One tour on the ISS leaves a hardened astronaut unable to stand on their return. Going to Mars would be much longer.
“With today’s technology, such a mission to go to Mars and then come back, we would generally think about three years. It would take eight to ten months to go there, and then waiting for the next good position of the planets to come back quickly the crew would stay one year on Mars, maybe a bit more, and then once again, eight to ten months to come back,” says ESA Support Engineer Romain Charles.
In 2011 Romain took part in the Mars 500 experiment to simulate a return trip to the red planet, without of course the radiation, muscle wasting, loss of bone calcium, or any of the other dangerous conditions that prolonged life in space induces.
It has given him some insight into the main difficulties we would face:
“I think that on top of the technical challenges, which we should be able to overcome today, you have the challenges linked with the astronauts themselves.
I would think of three mainly: space radiation and how to protect humans from those radiations.
The second one is weightlessness, how to make sure that we have good countermeasures, so that the astronauts can work efficiently as soon as they arrive on Mars.
And the third one is the psychological one – how can we make sure that the astronauts will be able to endure such a long trip to Mars?”
German Space Agency psychologist Bernd Johannes develops training systems for astronauts to keep their skills up to date during long-duration space flights.
He stresses the need for good teamwork.
“If men will go to Mars, then not a single astronaut will go to Mars, they will go as a crew. And the crew relationship depends on the members, and that is one of the most important factors that will become a risk for the mission success or support the mission success,” he says.
Despite the risks to an astronaut’s body and mind of such a long trip in a confined capsule three years from home, those who have lived in orbit on the ISS are positive that we should try.
“We humans have been explorers for millions of years and since 50 years we know how to do spaceflight, so we’re right at the beginning of this new technology, of this new age of exploration,” says ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst.
Robot explorers are already there, leaving tracks in the red dust and gathering data for scientists safe on planet Earth.
The open question is whether the rewards of sending humans to Mars can really justify the costs and risks involved.