Answering the big questions posed by Elon Musk firing a Tesla into space – like, could we ever really live there?
Lauren Bowker is science editor-at-large for Dazed and founder of T H E U N S E E N, an innovation, product development and technology licensing company comprising of talent across design, science and engineering. Lauren merges her interest in the occult and science to create Magick for today’s world.
On February 6 2018, Elon Musk and his company SpaceX launched a cherry red Tesla roadster into space towards Mars, with “Don’t Panic” on the dashboard and “Starman” blasting out of the speakers into infinity, two aesthetic nods to icons who dreamed up brave new worlds. But this was real life – and the first test launch of Falcon Heavy was undoubtedly a seismic moment for the future of travel.
Borrowing the well-oiled Nasa base at Cape Canaveral Florida, the launch was a spectacle, akin to a high-octane, high pressure, hyperactive reality TV show. With more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy’s power equals eighteen 747 aircrafts and can lift the equivalent of a 737 jet full of passengers. That’s one major spaceship.
The three cores then had to make it back down to Earth, on their own, in one piece, from space.
When the two cores landed elegantly together, I was genuinely awestruck. I felt like I was watching something from an Alien movie, when they’re coming into land – so synced and in tune, it couldn't be real life! But that’s exactly what it was, actual space travel, in real time.
The exciting question: what does this mean for our future? If Musk can send his car into orbit and return in less than ten minutes, just how quickly can he get me to Australia? Furthermore, the “spaceship” is reusable, dropping the high, prohibitive costs of space transport. In fact, SpaceX plans on sending two passengers on a trip to the Moon later this year.
But the most challenging part of the journey is yet to come – along with the lingering wait to find out how the payload of materials hold up on the trip through the asteroid belt of doom. Assuming it isn’t destroyed by rocks, what’s left of the load will then head off on its six-month journey towards Mars’ orbit. And then what?
WHAT WILL BOWIE SOUND LIKE ON MARS?
We know the air pressure on Mars is less than one percent of the air pressure at sea level on Earth, meaning sounds will die quickly in the cold thin air of Mars. Since sound is a pressure wave contracting and expanding through the thin atmosphere, every sound will manifest much quieter than it would on Earth.
The chemical atmosphere on Mars consists mostly of carbon dioxide, which is very different to Earth. This will influence the speed of sound and in turn make the sound pitch lower. The Planetary Society website has clips where you can hear Bill Nye, Ray Bradbury and others as though they were talking on Mars.
“Bowie’s Starman may sound a lot quieter and deeper than we know it to be when it reaches the extra-terrestrial environment”
Bowie’s “Starman” may sound a lot quieter and deeper than we know it to be when it reaches the extra-terrestrial environment. What's also fascinating is the potential for the discovery of new sounds on Mars – sounds that we don’t even know about yet.
WHAT COLOUR WILL THE TESLA BE ON MARS?
Let’s look at that roadster. Remember the day the UK was bathed in a post-apocalyptic, Blade Runner-esque red glow last year due to the scattering of dust into our atmosphere? Mars would look similar. Its surface is covered in reddish, iron oxide, dusty minerals that scatter through its atmosphere, absorbing the light wavelengths for the colours blue and green. Colour as we know it on Mars would take on a whole new meaning. Blues would be much more vibrant when they hit the surface. Reds would be duller, more towards the black spectrum. Mars has gorgeous blue sunsets and rises, unlike our orange ones, and if you’re a twilight fan like me (the time of day, not the film) another bonus is that Mars has extended twilights compared to ours, due to storm-scattered dust reflecting the Sun’s light for two hours or more after sundown.
To explain, I created a visual using NASA’s data on Mars’ spectrum of light to show you how colours would differ there compared to Earth, and another one that demonstrates how the Tesla would look if it somehow landed on Mars (spoiler: it won’t).
But colour is probably the last thing you would worry about if you were living there – more likely, you would be concerned with surviving Mars’ brutal environment.
COULD PEOPLE EVER LIVE ON MARS?
We wouldn’t be going out for a quick jog down one of Mars' canals like we would in London Fields. Although modern sportswear has come on a long way in the field of material science and innovation, general activewear on Mars would need a whole new level of material science. We’d have to whip up materials that would repel radiation and filter pollution just to head out to the shops – not entirely outside the realms of possibility for today’s scientists, but a pretty big ask.
If humans lived on Mars, it’s feasible that we wouldn’t leave the confines of our pods. So far, Musk has released some concept sketches of Martian pod-like houses, but we’re not yet fully clear on what a Martian habitat would actually be like. Digital VR environments will absolutely have to be fabricated to keep us sane and in touch with our origins on Earth, along with some robust Earth-quality greenhouses to ensure we could eat nutritional, blue-coloured greens.
While we may not see people living on Mars in our lifetime (and the idea may terrify you), what does all this mean for us back on Earth? Even just the concept of going, or the desire to travel there, means that you’ll be affected by the knock-on innovations – not only in technology, but in the materials and products around you in the world that we still live in (at least, for now).