How mapping Mars could help us live there

We may one day inhabit Mars.

Not the glowing green blobs with three eyes and shaky antennae, but actual people who were born and nurtured on Mars.

While the European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for the first round-trip from Earth to Mars at the end of the decade, NASA researchers are currently spending a year in a replica Mars habitat in Texas in preparation for the space agency’s ambitious plan to land the first astronauts on Mars as early as the 2030s.

But for a spaceship to land safely, precise topographical maps and local weather information are essential. With their Mars Atlas project, researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) are advancing this vision.

According to Dimitra Atri, leader of the NYUAD Mars Research Group, the team meticulously assembled over 3,000 high-resolution photographs taken by the United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission, which has been orbiting Mars since 2021. The result was “a beautiful color mosaic of the whole planet.”

The thin atmosphere makes it tough for rockets to slow down, and even light winds can change landing trajectories, according to Atri. “If you look at the history of Mars, so many probes have just crashed,” he continues. “Science and resources are seriously lost if a probe crashes. The sending of humans, however, requires extreme caution.

How mapping Mars could help us live there
EMM/EXI/Dimitra Atri/NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Astrophysics and Space Science

According to Atri, understanding daily and seasonal weather patterns can aid researchers in deciding when and where to land safely.

Accurate atlases can aid in solving a number of problems, including locating the ideal places for human settlements in terms of geography, climate, and resources. Atri says, “If there is ice available, we can turn it into water that can be used for habitation.”

It may sound absurd, but Atri speculates that visiting and perhaps residing on Mars may become extremely commonplace in the future.

Desertification and dust
Mars has been mapped by astronomers for almost 200 years. Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Mädler in Germany created the first map of Mars in 1840. The natural water channels that Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified on his 1877 map were mistakenly described as man-made rivers, however, and this led to a long-lasting obsession with the possibility of a Martian civilisation.

A greater knowledge of Mars’ terrain was made possible by NASA’s Mariner missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which also produced the first photographs of volcanoes, lava flows, rocky gorges, and enormous dust storms. Since then, NASA has produced a variety of maps, some of which are based on the mineralogy of the planet. Earlier this year, the US space agency unveiled a comprehensive interactive 3D map of Mars.

“The first one to entirely use actual color photographs of the entire planet,” according to Atri, is the map from NYUAD.

The Mars 24 program, developed by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, currently uses the NYUAD map to maintain accurate times on Mars. The atlas has also been put into JMARS, a publicly accessible database utilized by NASA scientists for mission planning.

In an email to CNN, Scott Dickenshied, a representative of JMARS, stated that NYUAD’s image is “created from more recently acquired data than some of the previous global maps” and offers a “additional perspective of what Mars looks like.”

The instrument used to gather the data for the NYUAD atlas, however, has the ability to “observe the entire disc of Mars at once,” according to Dickenshied, who adds that this perspective “could be very useful to researchers looking to observe clouds or dust storm activity at a planetary scale.”

Earth and Mars
According to theory, Mars was originally a water-covered planet like Earth that might have supported life, but atmospheric depletion led to cooling and dryness, which resulted in its current arid state. Today, it frequently encounters global dust storms, which, according to Atri, have a significant impact on its climate by trapping heat and blocking radiation.

Atri thinks that climate scientists may use the data collected on Mars’ desertification to apply to Earth in order “to understand what could happen to our own planet going forward.” Desertification is a rising issue on Earth, especially in areas like the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.

“My concern is that if we don’t take sufficient action on Earth (to combat climate change), then it might resemble Mars,” he continues.

Atri intends to research the behavior of plants by simulating Martian conditions in the lab in the future. Mars’ environment is harsh and merciless, with no atmosphere, very low temperatures, and a lot of UV radiation.

According to Atri, the plants he will study, which naturally flourish in arid, salty soil in places like the United Arab Emirates, could aid in our understanding of how plants might survive the harsh climate of the Red Planet and help scientists develop more effective methods for growing food in space or enhancing agriculture on Earth.

Atri intends to have his first actual samples from Mars around 2033. This research is still in the early planning stages. However, other academics are already looking at the potential effects on Earth of the advances being developed to cultivate food on Mars.

Food production, which consumes a tremendous amount of land and water, is responsible for about 34% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. But because of systemic inefficiencies, one-third of the food produced worldwide is wasted, and over 345 million people are suffering from severe food insecurity, growing hunger, and malnutrition. Food production technology on Mars must be extremely efficient, closed-loop, and waste-free due to the limited resources available in space.

Two food scientists in Canada have written a book contending that growing food on Mars could revolutionize agriculture on Earth, while researchers in the UK published an article last month in the journal Nature Food exploring how controlled environment agriculture in space could be a “gateway” to developing similar technology for Earth.

According to Atri, knowledge gained about the geology, climate, and atmosphere of Mars can also be used to determine whether any of the hundreds of planets outside our solar system might be livable or capable of supporting an atmosphere.

Atri believes Mars is the ideal test site for studying the claim that life on Earth first evolved there billions of years ago.

We must comprehend our neighbor, Atri says. “Perhaps it formerly supported life, or perhaps there is life still present underneath the surface. Maybe our roots were similar. No one knows.

This is the best way for us to comprehend who we are and where we came from.

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