A space elevator would work on Mars

Emigration into space

Our neighboring planet, Mars, is like a cold, barren desert. But that can be changed, say some scientists - and are even making plans to colonize Mars

Living on the red planet - is that possible?

The red desert stretches almost endlessly over the planet. Gorges cut through its surface, trenches furrow deep into the stony ground. Huge volcanoes soar. The fine dust that lashes through the ice-cold air creeps into every crevice and even turns the sky red. Mars, our neighbor in the solar system, is a harsh, inhospitable place. And one day conifers will grow here? A whole forest greening the equator? Should rivers flow and even an ocean billowing in the northern hemisphere?

Maybe. At least there are people who dream and believe in exactly that - in a life on Mars. And these are by no means just weirdos who have been staring through their telescope for too long. "We can make Mars habitable," says Christopher McKay, planetary researcher with the US aerospace agency NASA.

Crazy? For sure. But he has good reasons for his confidence: First, Mars, as the direct neighbor of Earth, can be reached relatively quickly by spaceship. Well, even with the most favorable planetary constellation there are still almost 100 million kilometers between it and our home (see graphic). The trip would certainly take around six months. Nevertheless, this is a manageable period of time. Second, the people on Mars hardly need to adjust in terms of time: A Martian day, called "Sol", lasts 24.6 hours, barely longer than an Earth day. Thirdly, the temperatures are downright cozy compared to any other planet with an average of minus 53 degrees Celsius. On summer days, the air at the equator even warms up to a pleasant plus of 20 degrees Celsius.

Make solid water liquid

Fourthly, and most importantly, in 2008 the Phoenix probe proved beyond any doubt that there is frozen water on the Red Planet. The researchers all over the world got excited. After all, water is the source of all life.

The only problem: the water is not liquid. Which is not only due to the cold, but above all to the thin air. The pressure of the atmosphere is so low that frozen water does not melt as it does on earth, but immediately becomes gaseous and evaporates in the air.

"Terraforming" - "transformation to earth"

But that can be changed, says Christopher McKay. "If we warm the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, we would be able to have liquid water in about 100 years," he claims. Christopher McKay and his colleagues believe that in the Martian soil, for example, a closed carbon dioxide (CO2) would be gaseous as a result of the heat, compress the air and envelop the planet like a protective layer. That would be the beginning of a transformation that would make Mars more like Earth. Scientists call such processes "terraforming" (in German: conversion to earth).

Of course, flower meadows or the coniferous forests mentioned at the beginning do not automatically sprout. "However, the first plants could already survive," says the researcher. Lichen, for example. Because these plants don't need anything except light and carbon dioxide, which they can convert into oxygen. And there is enough carbon dioxide on Mars: 95 percent of the air around the Red Planet consists of nothing other than CO2.

Here we go! Trip to mars

Step by step, higher and higher forms of life could then be settled on Mars. It would take 900 years for the first conifer to actually stand, calculated the botanist James Graham from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA. His idea: the plants would produce so much oxygen over time that humans on Mars could one day breathe without aids! If it should actually come to that, our great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, and ressurized, great-grandchildren: "This would take maybe 100,000 years," says Christopher McKay.

But back to earth, back to the present: up to now no one has ever set foot on Mars. And before that happens, the researchers have to think about completely different things. For example about the fact that a spaceship needs a lot of fuel to get to Mars and back - more than it can transport.

Since there are of course no gas stations in space, the scientists plan to send an unmanned mission ahead. This is to build a power plant on Mars, remotely controlled and with robots. With the help of hydrogen, it then converts carbon dioxide into the rocket fuels methane and oxygen. After about two years of operation, the first crewed spaceship could take off. In 2030 at the earliest.

Will Christopher McKay be there? The scientist is 55 years old today and in 20 years' time he will probably be too old to travel to Mars. Nevertheless, he continues to research and brood over the transformation of our neighboring planet: "The only risk is that it won't work."

The landing is approaching ...

Scientists have calculated that a flight to Mars would take about six months.

A landing could look like the picture on the right:

Once the spaceship has reached Mars orbit, the lander disconnects and enters the atmosphere. A parachute brakes the capsule before landing.

Sparkling ideas

Jet into space with a lift? Live under glass on Mars? Even before the first person flew into space, poets, researchers, filmmakers spun ideas on how they could explore or even colonize the alien worlds in space ...

Was Konstantin E. Ziolkowski (1857–1935) a nut? The Russian researcher actually had the vision of one Space elevator to build. After all, this way you can do without missiles, he said. Not only hobby researchers like the idea. Even NASA is still working on it today. Planned length of the lift: 35,800 kilometers.

Reinvent the wheel? That is exactly what scientists at Stanford University in the US state of California did in 1975.

Together with NASA, they pondered the model of a tire-shaped station in the middle of space.

This Stanford torus (in German: Stanford Ring) was planned with a diameter of 1.6 kilometers.

Entire towns, rivers, forests and around 10,000 people should find space in it. The idea: the wheel rotates one lap per minute and the centrifugal force pushes everything outwards against the floor of the station.

Another idea: The coupling of the earth citizens on Mars! Under Giant roofs Some scientists believe that people far away from Earth could survive and call this form of all-colonization paraterraforming. Within the oases there would be settlements, forests, fields. However, because the pressure outside the building would be much lower than inside, it would have to be fixed well. Otherwise they will fly away.

Mars history

Like the other planets in the solar system, Mars was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. A denser atmosphere surrounded it like a warm sphere, rivers and seas covered its surface.

As it cooled, the air thinned and the water evaporated or froze.

The Mars probe Phoenix took a sample of the Mars ice in 2008, examined it in its mini-laboratory and radioed its results to Earth.

Mars exploration: every helper counts!

"Be a Martian!" With these words, the American aerospace authority NASA asks all space fans to help - with the crater counting. The reason: Mars probes have now photographed the surface of the Red Planet so often that NASA employees are no longer able to evaluate the images on their own. Everyone can help! On the English-language website http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov/welcome you only have to register and you can start counting the craters. We wish you a lot of fun!

Student experiment "Mission to Mars"

How does an astronaut feel on Mars? How do you build a Mars robot and how do you control it? Try it yourself! The German Aerospace Center (DLR) invites school classes to their experimental laboratories in Cologne and Dortmund. On the simulated journey to Mars, the DLR scientists answer questions about space technology, and you can even exchange ideas via video conference in Cologne and Dortmund.

You can find more information on the DLR's "Schoollab" website.

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