As we increase the number of unmanned craft and satellites studying the surface conditions on Mars, we grow ever closer to the day when humans themselves will first set foot on the red planet. Once we have set up a habitable, enclosed environment, what would it be like to explore Mars on foot?
The number of unmanned exploration missions to Mars is steadily growing, with the most recent including NASA’s Perseverance rover, and the Tianwen-1 probe from the China National Space Administration. With every mission, we learn more about Mars, gathering information about its past and the conditions humans will face on its surface. With each revelation, we get closer to the day when humans will take their first steps on a new planet.
Leaving the bubble
Humans will not be able to visit Mars until we can overcome the extreme conditions on its surface. NASA uses extreme environments on Earth to test equipment and understand some of the challenges to living on Mars. These include Antarctica for its extreme cold temperatures, and the Atacama Desert in Chile, an extremely dry desert with rock formations similar to those identified on Mars. However, the Martian surface takes inhospitable environments to the next level.
Extremely cold temperatures, averaging around -60 °C, and an extremely thin atmosphere compared to Earth, means that we could not survive on the surface without building a protective environment to live in. What if you wanted to take a walk outside your liveable habitat? You would need a space suit capable of protecting you. Hopefully technology will progress enough that an environmental suit won’t be too cumbersome to prevent a stroll through some of Mars’s spectacular scenery!
The surface of Mars is not just a sandy red desert. Dune fields, mountains, craters, plateaus, and canyons are all features of the terrain. Wind is the primary driver of erosion on Mars, and in fact the winds are so strong that dust can be picked up into huge storms that can last for weeks, covering areas the size of a continent. All of the equipment and technology for survival on Mars would need to be able to withstand sand storms, and regular maintenance and clearing of sand would be a part of your daily life on Mars.
“Mars is home to possibly the most dramatic landscapes in the solar system, and has not always been geologically inactive.”
Canyons and volcanoes
The Martian surface is predominantly basalt rock, a crystalline igneous rock that is erupted from mid-ocean ridges on Earth, forming our sea floor. The internal structure of Mars is likely to be similar to Earth’s, although scientists don’t yet know for sure. One big difference, however, is that there is no evidence for active tectonic plates – whose movements drive volcanoes and earthquakes here on Earth, building new mountain ranges and subducting areas of the crust over millions of years.
Mars is home to possibly the most dramatic landscapes in the solar system, and has not always been geologically inactive. If you manage to get out for a hike between sandstorms, you would be treated to some of the deepest canyons (Valles Marineris) and the tallest volcano (Olympus Mons) in our planetary neighbourhood, far outstripping the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest on Earth and making for some spectacular views!
Adventurers should be wary though; while the reduced gravity on Mars (around 62% less than Earth) makes it easier to lift objects, walking speed is drastically reduced without the pull of gravity to help generate forward speed. Despite this, Mars would make a fantastic planet to explore on foot, presenting a whole new series of challenges for a keen hiker!
Ruth Kirk is a science writer based in the UK.