Mars is an obvious source of inspiration for science fiction movies. It is familiar and well studied, compared to other planets in our solar system, but different and far enough to inspire adventures from other worlds. NASA has its eyes on the red planet for the same reasons.
Robots, including the soon-to-launch Perseverance rover on Mars, teach us what Mars is like on the surface. This information helps adapt future human missions to the Red Planet.
To do this, we will need to equip spacecraft and astronauts with technology to take them there, explore the surface and return them safely home.
The development of technology has already begun to allow a possible manned mission to Mars somewhere in the 2030s. Many of the capabilities will be demonstrated first on the Moon during Artemis missions.
There it is six technologies that NASA is working on to make science fiction a reality on Mars.
1. Powerful propulsion systems to get us to Mars faster – and home
Astronauts to Mars will travel about 230 million kilometers in deep space. Advances in propulsion capabilities are the key to getting to your destination as quickly and safely as possible.
It is too early to say what propulsion system will take astronauts to Mars, but we know that it must be nuclear activated to reduce travel time.
NASA is advancing several options, including electric nuclear and thermal thermal propulsion. Both use nuclear fission, but are very different from each other. A nuclear electric missile is more efficient, but does not generate much force. Nuclear thermal propulsion, on the other hand, offers much more force.
Regardless of the system selected, the fundamentals of nuclear propulsion will reduce crew time away from Earth. The Agency and its partners are developing, testing and maturing critical components of various propulsion technologies to reduce the risk of the first human mission to Mars.
2. Inflatable heat shield to land on other planets
The largest rover that landed on Mars is the size of a car, but sending people to Mars will require a much larger spacecraft.
New technologies will allow heavier spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, approach the surface and land close to where astronauts want to explore.
NASA is working on an inflatable heat shield that allows the large surface to take up less space in a rocket than a rigid one. The technology could allow a spacecraft to land on any planet with an atmosphere.
It will expand and swell before entering the Martian atmosphere to land the shuttle and astronauts safely.
The technology is not yet ready for the red planet. A flight test with a 6 meter diameter prototype will demonstrate how the shield works as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
3. High-tech Martian space suits
Space suits are essentially custom spaceships for astronauts. NASA’s latest space suit is so high-tech that its modular design is designed to be developed for use anywhere in space.
The first woman and next man on the moon will wear NASA’s next-generation space suits, called the “extra-vehicle exploration mobility unit” or xEMU.
Space suits prioritize crew safety, while allowing the Artemis moonwalkers to make more natural, Earth-like movements and perform tasks that were not possible during Apollo missions.
Upcoming updates to address differences on Mars may include technology for life-sustaining functionality in the carbon-rich atmosphere and modified outerwear to keep astronauts warm during the Martian winter and prevent overheating in the summer season.
4. Martian house and wheeled laboratory
To reduce the number of items needed to land on the surface, NASA will combine the first house and Martian vehicle in a single rover completely with breathable air.
NASA has conducted extensive tests on Earth to develop a mobile home pressurized to the moon.
Artemis astronauts living and working in the future pressurized Moon Rover will be able to provide feedback to help refine the capabilities of astronauts on Mars.
Like an RV, the pressure rover will include everything astronauts need to live and work for weeks.
5. Uninterrupted power
Just as we use electricity to charge our devices on Earth, astronauts will need a reliable source of energy to explore the planet Mars.
The system will need to be light and able to run regardless of its location or the weather on the red planet.
Mars has an Earth-like day and night cycle and periodic dust storms that can last for months, making nuclear fission power a more reliable option than solar energy.
NASA has already tested the technology on Earth and shown that it is safe, efficient and sufficient to allow long-term surface missions.
NASA intends to demonstrate and use the fission system first on the Moon and then on Mars.
6. Laser communications to send more information home
Human missions to Mars can use lasers to stay in touch with Earth. A laser communications system on Mars could send large amounts of information and data in real time, including high-definition images and video streams.
Sending a map of Mars to Earth could take nine years with current radio systems, but it only takes nine weeks with laser communications.
NASA’s laser communications are possible, and we know that after a demonstration on the Moon in 2013.
The agency’s next demonstration will work through various operational scenarios, refine the pointing system and address technological challenges in Earth’s low orbit – things like clouds and other communications disruptions.
NASA is building small systems to test human spaceflight, including on the International Space Station and the first manned Artemis mission.
Another useful task of laser communications will be venturing into deep space to help inform what is needed to use the same technology millions and millions of miles away from Earth.