May 10, 2013, by Zoë Goodwin

The next Big Brother programme is the next step for mankind

Dutch organisation Mars One are hoping to build a community of settlers on planet Mars in 2023. And yes, when I say settlers, I mean it. It would be a one-way trip to Mars. The desire for adventure which has inspired many of our great explorers such as Columbus and Magellan has now willed on Mars One’s co-founder Bas Lansdorp to design this voyage.

The whole project will be filmed and televised starting with the selection process where the public get to vote who goes, to the lift-off and landing and then the day-to day lives to which these explorers will lead.

They will use existing technology throughout the entire project – solar panels will be used to generate energy, water will be recycled and extracted from the soil, and food will be grown by the astronauts themselves. They will also be provided with regular top ups of food from Earth as four new explorers join every two years.

I decided to take this story to one of our experts here at the University of Nottingham to find out if this really is possible. Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk from the MRC/Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing research has carried out research in this field before. He believes that Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a microscopic worm which is biologically very similar to humans, can help us understand the impact on the human body with long-duration space exploration.

Dr Szewczyk said: ‘A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonise other planets. While this sounds like science fiction it is a fact that if mankind wants to avoid the natural order of extinction then we need to find ways to live on other planets. Thankfully most of the world’s space agencies are committed to this common goal.’

In December 2006, Dr Szewczyk and his team blasted 4,000 C. elegans into space.  He said: ‘We have been able to show that worms can grow and reproduce in space for long enough to reach another planet and that we can remotely monitor their health’.

The applicants will be marked against a strict set of criteria to make sure they will be able to cope with this mission. Their commitment to living on Mars will be extensively evaluated as the one-way ticket is not the only reason these future explorers will be unable to return. Lansdorp explains that not only will the seven to eight month journey cause the astronauts to lose bone and muscle mass but it will be almost impossible for their bodies to readjust to Earth’s much stronger gravity after spending time in a much weaker gravitational field.

Dr Szewczyk disagrees here with Lansdorp: ‘While this is a widely held view, I would have to say that there’s not really much data to support this statement as astronauts do seem to more or less adapt back to “normal” after extended flights. Indeed, a few years back a NASA commissioned panel of experts concluded that there are no medical “show stoppers” with regards to a manned return mission to Mars. However, what is ignored is the fact that at the moment we (the world’s space agencies) lack any demonstrated technology to allow for a return journey from the surface of mars.’

Much more criticism has been presented about this mission. Many scientists have criticised the technicality of living on Mars; the planet has no liquid water, the atmosphere is very thin, the temperatures change radically and radiation levels are much higher than Earth.

Dr Szewczyk adds: ‘Clearly, as with most exploration, this is a risky endeavour and there are matter of ethics, international law, science, and technology that all factor into this discussion’.

However, most critics have actually focused on funding, arguing that the mission is theoretically plausible but the project will not be able to maintain the funds in order to sustain this community. But Lansdorp is confident that funding will be continuous from the revenue made through the broadcasting of this project. He believes people will never stop watching.

Picture credited to NASA. Artist: Pat Rawlings.

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