Destination: Mars

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f all the planets in our solar system, Mars has perhaps loomed largest in the popular imagination. Named after the Roman God of war, the planet’s red color has been a beacon in the sky, inspiring both fascination and fear in countless generations.

For most of history, it was thought to be inhabited by intelligent beings. Astronomer Percival Lowell claimed to have seen artificial canals on the surface, perhaps built by a dying civilization to bring water from the polar regions. In 1938, Orson’s Wells’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds set off a panic with its description of a fictional Martian invasion at Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

Martian Exploration

Those fears were debunked when the first spacecraft arrived at the planet in the mid-1960′s. Initial images showed a heavily-crater and arid planet. The Martian surface is covered in global dust storms that rage for a third of a year across its surface. Its atmosphere is one-hundredth as thin as the Earth’s and its temperature at the equator is similar to the dry valleys of the Antarctic.

As spacecraft beamed back more data, however, scientists became more intrigued. Images showed that indicated vast amounts of water may once have flowed across the Martian surface. That raised the prospects that life may have once existed on the planet.

In the 1990′s, the discovery of the possible remains of microbial life in a Martian meteorite set off a renewed interest in the Red Planet. NASA and other space agencies are launching a series of spacecraft to determine whether life existed or may still exist on the planet’s surface. Future plans include orbiters, landers, and sample return vehicles.

Human Exploration

Although its environment is hostile, it is an environment that is now recognized as being capable of supporting a permanent human presence.

The potential exploration activities on Mars are diverse. Many of the exploration activities that have occurred on the Earth in what are regarded as some of the most scientifically and logistically challenging environments (such as polar, desert and mountaineering expeditions) have the potential to occur on Mars, where many of these geological features are also to be found.

Apart from the Earth, Mars is the only planet in our Solar System to possess significant and traversable polar ice caps that could potentially play host to a long term program of human polar exploration. These ice caps, principally made up of ice and solid carbon dioxide in varying ratios depending on the region and hemisphere can probably be regarded as the last great polar frontier at least within our Solar System.

In addition, Mars has the Solar System’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons, and its deepest and longest canyon, Valles Marineris. Both of these geological features will pose significant challenges for future explorers.

Mars Exploration Awards

As a way of forging a link between the past exploration of Earth and future exploration in space, the Foundation has established Mars and Lunar Exploration Awards, which include awards for future explorers who trek across the Martian ice caps and scale Olympus Mons. The Foundation has a separate long-term endowment growth fund for these awards.

Click on the links below to learn more about these prizes.