Is Elon Musk Trying To Colonize The Wrong Planet?

Besides increasing the total number of  electric sports cars in outer space from 0 to 1, the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is also stimulating serious dialogue about inter -planetary travel.  At the center of those conversations is Mars and the idea of one day establishing a human colony on the red planet.

Musk, who aims to send  a crewed mission to Mars  by 2024, isn’t the first person to set their sights on the 4th planet in our solar system. In 1948 German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun published The Mars Project, the first engineering analysis detailing  the equipment, resources, and calculations needed for planning a trip to Mars. Since the release of The Mars Project there have been over 60 formal proposals for crewed missions to the red planet from both public agencies and private companies. It’s safe to assume that Mars has been on our minds for quite some time.

Of course, like everything else involving space travel, huge technical hurdles must be overcome before humanity can blast off to Mars. The red planet can be anywhere from 55 million to 400 million kilometers away ( 34-250 million miles for you non-metric readers)  with an average distance of 225 million kilometers (140 million miles).  This translates to a travel time of 6 – 9 months one way which brings a slew of challenges because human space passengers require a whole lot more to survive than robots.

In addition to food, water, air, and staying sane in a cramped living quarters passengers aboard the spaceship to Mars will also have to worry about things such as radiation and micro-gravity. Both of which can be detrimental to health when exposed to for long periods of time. Unless there are  major breakthroughs in artificial gravity or space propulsion technologies, there’s not really much that can be done to offset these issues.

After finishing the long and dangerous trek the crew will then have to think about surviving in the hostile environment of the red planet. Although readings as high as 20 oC (68 oF) have been recorded during  summer months, the average temperature on the Martin surface is a chilly -63oC ( – 81oF) with a record low of -140oC (-220oF).  A thin atmosphere and lack of a magnetosphere still leaves the risk for long term radiation exposure. Let’s not forget that Mars has 38% the gravity of Earth which might be detrimental to long term health.

Surviving on Mars is hard, ask Matt Damon (20th Century Fox)

Should the astronauts need to communicate back to mission control their signal ,on average, would take 13.8 minutes to travel to Earth. Sustaining life beyond Earth has been historically challenging, but a journey to Mars will ratchet up the difficulty to a new level.

The idea of taking our next small step on Martian soil has been popular for a long time. However, Elon and his team don’t have to go to Mars. Keep in mind the mission of SpaceX is to one day enable people to live on other planets. They never specified which ones. If there were an easier option for a planet to colonize Musk could choose to send people there instead. Interestingly enough, an attractive alternative may lie heading one planet closer to the sun.

A journey to Venus would definitely be shorter. The morning star can be anywhere between 38 million and 261 million kilometers (24- 162 million miles) away with an average distance of 170 million kilometers (106 million miles). Venus is roughly 25% closer to Earth than Mars giving a reduced travel time of 4.5 – 7 months. A shorter trip implies that less supplies/ fuel will be needed, but more importantly the crew would have less radiation and micro-gravity exposure. Venus is also closer to the sun making solar power a more effective resource.

Those familiar with our solar system have undoubtedly heard of how hostile the Venetian surface is. Large amounts of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid trap the sun’s heat on the planet making the average surface temperature hot enough to melt lead at a toasty temperature of 450oC (842 oF) . The high concentration of gasses also exert an atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth. Make no mistake , survival on the surface of Venus is impossible. Even the probes we’ve sent have only lasted at most a few hours before being burned and crushed.

The surface as Venus photographed by Venera 12 (NASA)

Surprisingly what makes Venus a nightmare on the surface helps to make it a great option for colonization. The carbon dioxide atmosphere causes balloons filled with breathable air (79 % nitrogen and 21% oxygen) to float like helium balloons do on Earth. After traveling up about 50 km (31 miles) Venus transforms from a hostile planet to one of the most pleasant places in our solar system.

At this high altitude temperatures range from 0 – 50 oC (32-122oF) at a pressure equal to 1 atmosphere. Venus has a gravity 90% that of Earth’s and is also protected from cosmic radiation by its thick atmosphere. Flying high in the Venetian sky, human crew members would experience the most Earth like conditions in our entire solar system. The idea of cloud cities on Venus has been floating around ( get it?) since the early 70’s. In 2015 a team at NASA proposed the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) which aims to send airships and eventually humans to explore Venus’s atmosphere.

Attempting to build the cloud city from The Empire Strikes Back isn’t without inherent challenges. There will still be hefty communication delays (roughly 10.4 minutes on average) back to planet Earth. Any materials used on Venus for habitats and space suits could also tear due to corrosion from sulfuric acid in the clouds. Luckily if a balloon were to tear in Venus’ dense atmosphere air would leak slowly giving astronauts plenty of time to fix the issue. Also let’s not forget the serious risk of something or someone falling a long way down off the balloon!

The famous cloud city from Star Wars ( LucasFilms)

Falcon Heavy’s successful launch is one key step in Musk’s goal of reaching Mars by 2024. However with a trip to Venus meaning shorter travel times, better environmental conditions, and a chance to make Star Wars more of a reality one can’t help but ask : is Elon Musk trying to colonize the wrong planet?

Concept art for NASA’s proposed HAVOC project (NASA Langley)

Should we go to Mars or Venus instead. Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Related posts: