Why all the hype about Mars?

Over the course of July this year, China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US embarked on five separate unmanned missions to Mars. China launched its Tianwen-1 rover and Tianwen-1 orbiter; the UAE its Emirates Mars Mission orbiter; and the US it Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. So what’s the rush to get to Mars? What does it mean for us here on Earth?

The last space race was between 1955 and 1975, with Russia and the US competing neck-in-neck to reach the moon first. The race to the moon was not only a test of our technological strength as a civilisation – here, I mean Earth as one, united civilisation – but how far we as humans are willing to go as explorers and conquerors of our own universe. 

The year 2020 has ushered in a new type of space race. One that is focusing on colonising another planet and touring our local neighbourhood for the first time in history. It means that there is potential for ordinary citizens to one day travel to outer space and Mars, not just to experience it as a tourist but to potentially live on the red planet as a, well, Martian.

Private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Amazon’s Blue Origin are all making significant headway into making this a reality. Each has space tourism and colonisation plans high up on the agenda, and the best part is we don’t have to wait millennia for these plans to become a reality. We take a look at the three private space companies breaking the mould when it comes to space exploration and dive a little deeper into their plans on getting us to outer space for a visit or permanent relocation. 

SpaceX soars for Mars

Starship spacecraft concept art. Image credit: spacex.com

SpaceX has already put its rockets into motion by helping NASA send cargo to the International Space Station on the Falcon 9 rocket. More recently, SpaceX successfully completed their first-ever manned mission to the International Space Station on 30 May 2020 with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on the Crew Dragon Spacecraft. This was a giant leap forward for the company as it has made their dreams (and ours) of transporting 100 passengers and cargo to Mars on their spacecraft Starship that much closer to becoming a reality. Projected for 2023, Starship is aiming to have manned spaceflight around the moon as a practice run before heading to Mars. By 2028, SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk believes a full-blown, inhabitable base will be up and running on Mars. Ambitious yet possible at the rate SpaceX is going. 

Virgin Galactic tours Earth

Mach 3 Aircraft concept art. Image credit: virgingalactic.com

Although Virgin Galactic has yet to launch a spacecraft, they are making headway in testing their latest space tourism prototypes. Virgin Galactic is more focused on getting people to lower Earth orbit than heading to Mars at this stage. A ticket will cost you a staggering £188 000 but promises six minutes of floating about in the spacecraft and three hours of spectacular Earth views. The company does have a bigger picture in mind, however, which includes reusable rocket boosters and transportation systems between space hotels and laboratories. “One small step” at a time, however – as their slogan goes. 

Blue Origin and the next leap forward

New Shepard launch. Image credit: blueorigin.com

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a passion for commercial spaceflight (so it seems), recently unveiling a prototype of a lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis programme. Besides government-contracted work, Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is working on getting people and cargo past the Kármán line – the point at which Earth’s atmosphere and space meet – on their spacecraft New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the very first US citizen in space). The company boasts the trip will take a mere 11 minutes and New Shepard aims to carry six people at a time. New Shepard’s latest test flight was 11 December 2019, making it the twelfth test thus far. Who knows, maybe you and five friends will be the first to test New Shepard out.

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