Skip to main content
Move the World.
Human Mission to Mars

Lead image by NASA/Langley Research Center.

This article is an installment of The Future Explored, a weekly guide to world-changing technology. You can get stories like this one straight to your inbox every Thursday morning by subscribing here.

Mars is going to be bombarded with visitors from planet Earth — the U.S., China, and UAE are all launching unmanned spacecraft to the red planet this month. (The UAE and China both launched this week).

Why this is important: NASA is the frontrunner in the race to Mars with plans to send humans to the planet in the 2030s — but before that can happen, they need to understand a lot more about the planet's conditions. This NASA expedition will collect pristine samples of the planet (including possible traces of past life forms). NASA also needs to test the technologies required for humans to survive on Mars and they're using this mission as a testing ground. For example, samples of the spacesuit material are being sent to see how it holds up on the harsh planet.

A red planet gas station: As part of the prep for human travel, this mission will attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This oxygen could be used for (surprise!) breathing but also could be converted into rocket fuel. Mars is a long, long way from Earth so being able to create oxygen on the planet will be crucial — it's much cheaper than lugging it from Earth, potentially saving billions of dollars on future missions.

Meet MOXIE: Or, more formally known as the "Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment." It's catching a ride on NASA's rover, Perseverance, and is designed to convert CO2 (which constitutes 96% of the red planet's atmosphere) to oxygen.

How it works: MOXIE will take the CO2 — made of one carbon and two oxygen atoms — and separate the oxygen atoms. This test mission is designed to measure the purity of the oxygen produced, aiming to get at least 99.6% pure oxygen. MOXIE is only the size of a car battery, but if it works, future missions will employ machines that are 100 times bigger.

But wait, there's more: Other than MOXIE, there's a ton of new gear scientists want to test. There's RIMFAX, a ground penetrating radar used to hunt for water and ice below the surface. There's even Ingenuity, a small helicopter that will attempt the first controlled flight on another planet.

The Jezero Crater is full of mission-ending obstacles like sand dunes, cliffs, and boulders.

The Jezero Crater is full of mission-ending obstacles like sand dunes, cliffs, and boulders. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Hunting for signs of life: Aside from testing new technology, the mission's main priority is to study the habitability of the planet and look for ancient signs of life. Perseverance will be landing at Jezero Crater — full of mission-ending obstacles like sand dunes, cliffs, and boulders. Scientists say it's worth the risk though because the crater was full of water 3.5 billion years ago, meaning there may have been life there as well. Perseverance will be the first rover to collect and store samples of the planet. The samples will be brought to Earth at a later date as part of a future Mars mission.

When to watch: You can watch NASA send the Perseverance rover into orbit on July 30, lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The UAE launched their spacecraft on July 19 and China launched today. Each spacecraft must travel more than 300 million miles and all are scheduled to reach their destination by February 2021 (and you thought your family road trip was exhausting).

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Aerospace
Meet NASA's Autonomous Vehicle — For Mars
nasa's autonomous vehicle
Aerospace
Meet NASA's Autonomous Vehicle — For Mars
When Perseverance lands on Mars, it will hopefully drive further faster than any rover before. NASA’s autonomous vehicle’s secret? A dedicated “pilot.”

When Perseverance lands on Mars, it will hopefully drive further faster than any rover before. NASA’s autonomous vehicle’s secret? A dedicated “pilot.”

Culture
Elon Musk Explains the Economics of Getting to Mars
Elon Musk Explains the Economics of Getting to Mars
Culture
Elon Musk Explains the Economics of Getting to Mars
The SpaceX founder gave a rousing presentation on his company’s long-term plan for getting to Mars and establishing...
By Mike Riggs

The SpaceX founder gave a rousing presentation on his company’s long-term plan for getting to Mars and establishing a civilization there.

Space Exploration
Closer to the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
parker solar probe
Space Exploration
Closer to the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
NASA is getting closer to the sun than ever before with the Parker Solar Probe, leaving researchers excited and bewildered by the data they saw.

NASA is getting closer to the sun than ever before with the Parker Solar Probe, leaving researchers excited and bewildered by the data they saw.

Aerospace
NASA’s Plans for Space Tourism Are Becoming a Reality
Space Tourism
Aerospace
NASA’s Plans for Space Tourism Are Becoming a Reality
NASA’s space tourism plans, which include hosting private citizens on the International Space Station, are starting to come to fruition.

NASA’s space tourism plans, which include hosting private citizens on the International Space Station, are starting to come to fruition.

What It Takes
How NASA’s Space Food Lab Will Feed the Farthest Journey in History
How NASA’s Space Food Lab Will Feed the Farthest Journey in History
Watch Now
What It Takes
How NASA’s Space Food Lab Will Feed the Farthest Journey in History
These food scientists are making it possible for us to explore space in ways we haven’t yet as a species.
Watch Now

Space food isn’t just that astronaut ice cream you had as a kid. NASA’s kitchens are hard at work preparing a new menu of space food for the farthest trip in history - the flight to Mars. This space food is more advanced even than food on the International Space Station - it needs to last for five years, more than two years longer than it can currently. That’s enough time to get to Mars and back, and serve as an emergency...

Healthcare
New Health Wearable Measures Sweat to Track Your Mood
Wearable
Healthcare
New Health Wearable Measures Sweat to Track Your Mood
An app that works with a wearable wrist sensor to track how much a person sweats could change how we harness the power of biodata in the future.

An app that works with a wearable wrist sensor to track how much a person sweats could change how we harness the power of biodata in the future.

Genetics
$100 Genome Sequencing Has Finally Arrived
genome sequencing
Genetics
$100 Genome Sequencing Has Finally Arrived
China-based genome sequencing company MGI says it can sequence a human genome for just $100, a cost that could make the service available to all.

China-based genome sequencing company MGI says it can sequence a human genome for just $100, a cost that could make the service available to all.