Reality Check: Is settling on Mars in the next 10 years a possibility?

WATCH: Six Canadians are among the many hoping they’ll be the chosen ones for a one-way ticket to Mars. But as Robin Gill reports, skeptics aren’t sure the program will take off at all.

TORONTO – The news that 100 people have made the short list for a private company’s settlement on Mars is lighting up the Internet.

The $6 billion Mars One project isn’t an exploration mission: this is a one-way trip. You go there, you die there. You might even die on the way. There will be no rescue attempts, no hospitals, no quick fixes to any problems that may arise. And no return to Earth.

READ MORE: Why are we trying to get to Mars?

But how realistic is it to set a goal for human settlement on the red planet for 10 years’ time?

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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told The Guardian in 2014, “If we started going to Mars any time soon everybody would die.”

“We don’t know what we are doing yet. We have to have a bunch of inventions between now and Mars.”

Technological limitations

“Human settlement on Mars is possible today with existing technologies,” reads a statement on the Mars One website.

But that’s only somewhat true.

On the simplest levels, we have the technology to get to Mars, even build a habitat and grow food. But can we continue to grow food over a long period of time?

WATCH: The Mars One project has whittled applicants down to a list of 100.

A study on the feasibility of the Mars One project released last October by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that, at current technology levels, a colony on Mars as prescribed by the Mars One project isn’t feasible. The problems include the inability to provide an adequate food supply for the settlers as well as too much oxygen generated by indoor crops.

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They also cited the enormous cost of launching supplies and people to the red planet, an estimated $4.5 billion for the launches alone.


Space is not a human-friendly place. We have evolved on this planet and are built for Earth and Earth alone.

Take radiation, for example. There are two very concerning types of radiation in space: galactic cosmic rays (GCR), cause by supernova explosions and other high-energy events in space, and solar energetic particles (SEP), created by solar events.

In May 2013, a study using measurements from the Mars Curiosity rover concluded that radiation levels during a six-month trip to Mars would be equivalent to getting a whole-body CT scan once every week or so. That’s more than three times the amount of radiation dose experienced by astronauts aboard the space station.

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WATCH: BC grandmother shortlisted for ‘Mars One’ mission

Of course, that doesn’t include the radiation levels on the planet’s surface. Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field to help protect people from harmful particles from the sun. Mars One does acknowledge that the surface of Mars receives more radiation, but that it “still blocks a considerable amount.” Yet, the truth is, we don’t know what the effects of such radiation exposure will be.

Ralf Gellert, associate professor at the University of Guelph’s Department of Physics, who has also worked on several Mars missions (including Curiosity) said that he doesn’t believe the radiation is the main challenge, however.

For people on a one-way trip to Mars, maybe that’s not so much of a concern. But still: what if one develops cancer while there. Will there be radiation or chemotherapy treatment that they would have access to?

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So now you have your settlers on Mars. What happens when something breaks?

The MIT study pointed to the lack of spare parts as one of the main concerns for settlers on Mars. This isn’t a case of heading out to the nearest Home Depot to get a spare part. You’d have to have one with you, and there is no way that the Mars One mission will carry a spare part for every component in the colony.

However, on the plus side, the rapid growth of 3D printers may be something that helps alleviate that concern for the mission’s detractors.

Ambitious project

Though the mission is likely to face some serious challenges in its drive to settle on Mars within the next 10 years, there are those who think that at least we’re on the right track.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, famed astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City addressed the Mars One program in one of his recent  StarTalk podcasts.

“You need to have people who invent projects like that in our midst,” Tyson said. “Otherwise we’ll never go anywhere.”

However, he added, “I think it’s a little too ambitious… I think it’s great that we have people thinking this way. My worry is that they might be over-dreaming and there might be some investors who think the destination is closer than it actually is.”

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Asked if he thought that there would be a Mars colony in 10 years’ time, Gellert replied, “Honestly? No.” Still, like Tyson, he said that it’s a good start.

“It’s already a success if people are thinking and planning and talking about it. It’s a noble and nice goal to set.”

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