The Materials Behind Mars Exploration

Enabling Mars Exploration

Ever since the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first observed “canals” on Mars in 1877, the question of life of the Red Planet has been has been a hot topic in scientific circles, and a staple of science fiction. Now, in an ironic turn of events, it may turn out that the first life form to be detected on Mars will be homo sapiens.

This is not science fiction, but the story of Mars exploration does have an interesting plot twist. Private enterprise will help lead the way.

While a bill that sets forth human exploration of Mars as an official NASA objective is moving forward in Congress with bipartisan support, the main news is in the private sector.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, whose company is already conducting regular re-supply missions to the International Space Station, recently revealed detailed plans for Mars colonization. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg responded with a declaration that his company would get there first, setting up what amounts to a new, 21st-century space race.

A Cold, Dangerous Environment

It’s clear that there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm behind the idea of Mars exploration and colonization, but would-be colonists who make the attempt will face an extremely hostile environment, both during the six or more months of the voyage and after they arrive.

The average temperature on Mars is roughly minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62ºC), with extremes that range from minus 195 degrees F (-125ºC) near the poles during the Martian winter to 70 degrees F (20ºC) around noon near the equator.

The Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than that of Earth, and contains less than 1 percent oxygen. At best, an unprotected human being could last only a few minutes under these conditions.

Finally, there’s the issue of radiation. Earth’s atmosphere protects us from radiation, but in outer space and on the surface of Mars, no such protection exists. The risk is difficult to quantify. According to a 2001 NASA study, astronauts on a 1,000-day round trip to Mars would face a 1-19 percent increased risk of cancer. Other studies have set the risk even higher, but whatever the precise number may be, the risk to human life is not trivial. Also, radiation could affect the electronics upon which the lives of colonists would ultimately depend.

Space-Ready Materials

Many of the materials that will likely be used to protect Martian colonists are well known here on Earth. DuPont™ Kevlar® fibers are already a key component of the shielding on manned modules of the International Space Station.

Another material that could play an important role on Mars is DuPont™ Kapton® polyimide film. In outer space, it’s used both alone and in combination with other materials in situations where radiation resistance is required and weight is also an important consideration.

Obviously, shelter is not the only problem that needs to be solved if humans are to successfully colonize Mars. Getting plants from Earth to grow in Martian soil is another important challenge, as is the problem of how the human body will react to Mars’ lower gravity. In fact, the list of challenges is long. But when it comes to keeping Mars astronauts warm and safe, whether in a pressurized dome or when walking on the surface of Mars — we’re ready.