Recently, researchers at NASA announced that the Mars rover Opportunity had ceased functioning, ending its 15-year analysis of Mars’s surface. The rover’s “death” has sparked renewed interest in the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) that NASA began back in 2003, leaving many people curious about whether it’s actually possible to live on Mars.

In truth, living on Mars is certainly in our future—but not for a long while.

Living on Mars: ETA

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Researchers estimate that the first human to land on Mars will do so by 2040, with others, like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, claiming we may have full-fledged colonies on the planet by 2060.

Of course, there’s plenty of debate around these projections, as we’re still decades away, and there’s just no telling what kind of technology may exi8st in a few years. And these tech advances are crucial to landing on Mars, as there are still several big problems with the planet that we’ll need to sort out before we can even think about living there.

More research is needed

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While this won’t come as a surprise to anyone, researchers simply don’t yet have enough research to making living on Mars viable. NASA is still in the process of sending rovers to the Red Planet in the hope of learning more about its geography, seismic conditions, weather patterns, and habitable characteristics. While the Opportunity rover may be history, another rover named InSight landed late in 2018 and already bears the distinction of being the first rover to deploy a science instrument on the planet’s surface.

And of course, that’s just one drone of many in NASA’s long-term plans. Another rover is scheduled to be sent to Mars in 2020 and again in 2024—each collecting more advanced data on how we might survive on the planet’s surface. But given that we’re still trying to understand how to make it to Mars in the first place, it’s clear that there’s plenty of work to do before we can start talking long-term living arrangements.

We couldn’t land if we tried

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Even if we learned enough about the planet’s surface to make a trip feasible, we probably couldn’t land a human safely on the ground. While NASA has landed several rovers on Mars over the years, plenty of them have smashed into the planet’s surface or burned up in the atmosphere. If we wanted to get a human to Mars, researchers would need to develop a craft about 10 times the size of our current rovers and find a way to land astronauts safely on the surface. (Not to mention getting them back home, but that’s a whole other problem.)

Living with new hazards

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Let’s say we knew enough to make it to the surface and that we had the means to land a human safely on the ground. These barriers to entry are only the beginning of our challenges, as living on the Mars surface isn’t an appetizing prospect for most:

  • The “air” is 95 percent carbon dioxide, not suitable for our lungs.
  • It’s cold; the average daily temperature on Mars is -80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Dust storms routinely ravage the planet’s surface for months at a time.
  • Soil conditions aren’t ideal for most types of crops.

All together, it’s a lot for researchers to deal with, despite the fact that Opportunity confirmed that there was indeed water on the planet’s surface. Before we can start building condos, we’ll need to find a way around these life-threatening conditions.

Dealing with aliens

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Yes, traveling to Mars means that we’ll need to learn how to deal with aliens.

We’re not joking. While we haven’t yet made contact with intelligent life (or have we?), saucer-flying beings aren’t the only type of aliens we may encounter. Rovers have found evidence of organic molecules on Mars’ surface, the so-called “building blocks of life.”

And while this discovery by itself doesn’t prove anything, scientists view it as an important step in understanding what kind of life forms may have existed—or may currently exist—on the Red Planet. And these sentiments are echoed by those in the know at NASA.

We’re not ready for Mars

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When you look at the wide range of problems inherent to living on Mars, it’s pretty obvious that we have a long way to go. However, with all the news about rovers discovering water and carbon-based material, it’s natural to be curious about timelines. Expect to stay earthbound for at least the next 20 years or so. After that, it’ll all depend on what kind of technology we have and what we find when we get there.