Mars Science City will replicate life in a Martian colony as preparation for the UAE's 100-year vision of a city there
Taste of life on the Red Planet is coming to Dubai
How long before we can visit Mars? America’s space agency Nasa is talking about the 2030s, while billionaire Elon Musk has pencilled in 2024 for his Big Falcon Rocket.
Well before then, though, we can all get an idea of what life will be like on the Red Planet - by taking a ride to Dubai’s Mushrif Park.
This is the site of Mars Science City, a collection of huge domes that will be part research centre, part museum and part entertainment – although with a strong educational bias.
The project was launched last September at the Annual Government Meetings in Abu Dhabi and made headlines around the world.
At the time it was described as costing Dh500 million, covering 1.9 million square feet, and offering "a viable and realistic model to simulate living on the surface of Mars”.
Now senior officials at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre have revealed in more detail what it will be like to step inside the world’s largest science centre dedicated to another world.
The UAE’s vision for Mars exploration stretches 100 years into the future, as Saeed Al Gergawi, programme director at the Space Centre points out. Or more correctly, it is now just 99 years until the deadline for Mars 2117 and a working city on the planet.
“We have this vision set by the leadership of the UAE. How are we going to set up for that?” he asks. “How are we going to make sure that we can tackle challenges, solve them on Earth before going to Mars?”
The initial concept was a centre purely for research, but it was soon realised that this would exclude the public from understanding the scope of the project.
“You want to showcase your research. You want to show the world this is what we are doing, this is what we have achieved so far,” Mr Al Gergawi says.
Research is still a key component with the project open to scientists from all over the world.
Mars Science City will have dual function, focusing on issues that will be major concerns for future colonists, but also very much relevant to the UAE today. So advances in these fields will offer immediate benefits as well as helping develop a sustainable Martian colony.
“We looked at what the challenges we see are, where there are mutual interests for Earth and Mars and what we saw in the UAE was food, water and energy security,” says Mr Al Gergawi.
“So these are going to be driving the research; what everything will revolve around. Trying to solve these three challenges.”
One example is extracting water from sand, a seemingly impossible task, but one which actually has possibilities.
“If you go in the desert and you dig after a while you will find wet sand or sand that has some water particulates in it, “says Mr Al Gergawi. “If you put it in a machine, it can take away the water, and save it for you.”
In a country like the UAE, a new supply of water would be incredibly valuable. On Mars it would be even more so, when mixed with elements in the Martian soil to create building materials.
Other technologies could breakdown the components of the Martian atmosphere, which is largely carbon dioxide. Extracting the oxygen and combining it with hydrogen could be another source of water while the surplus carbon could become part of another building material.
Food is another major issue. As Mr Al Gergawi points out “It is too expensive to take livestock to Mars and much, much cheaper to grow your food.”
“We can experiment on types of crops that don't need as much water and which grow at the most effective rate.
“Another thing is which plants create the most oxygen? Which create it most effectively?” Such plants could help the Mars colonists breathe as well as eat, he says.
“We can translate these developments to farming practices in the UAE and implement a lot of what we think could work on Mars here in the UAE, perfecting it here prior to going to the Red Planet.”
The Science City will include a museum that celebrates the UAE’s achievements in space past and future, including the Emirate’s Mars Mission, the first probe sent to the planet by an Arab nation. Its displays will be both educational and entertaining.
But what will strike visitors first are a series of huge domes that will house Mars Science City, designed by the Danish and New York based Bjarke Ingels Group, better known as BIG, and behind iconic buildings like the new Google headquarters and Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed district.
The domes are supported by the pressure of air from within and will be designed so that, in summer, the heat rises to the top, ensuring that the areas used by visitors and researchers will remain pleasant at all times.
Their shape is also a precursor to how the first colonists might live on Mars. Those travelling to the planet can expect to experience twice as much radiation on a six to nine-month trip as they would in a lifetime on Earth.
Once on Mars, exposure to radiation continues to be a major challenge. The dome design is part of a concept that protects, while providing natural light, essential for human well-being and plant growth.
Buildings constructed under the dome will provide some protection, but it will be necessary to build rooms under the surface to block the most dangerous rays.
On Mars, says Mr Al Gergawi, the most likely site for building a structure would be over a small crater.
“Having a dome built on a crater gives you the best of both worlds. You get to see sunlight instead being stuck underground, but it allows you to have that protection underground if need be.
“Furthermore, if you build on a crater on Mars the chances of having underground ice where you can extract water is much higher.”
Future experiments in Mars Science City will include testing one promising concept for a Martian colony that envisages sending robots to the planet ahead of humans to construct habitations.
In other ways, the Science City highlights the difference between the two environments. Mars, for example, can drop to -60C while the temperature in the UAE can rise above 50C.
Part of Mars might look like Ras Al Khaimah, says Mr Al Gergawi. “However the air is toxic and it’s freezing - and you can jump much higher.”
“What we can do is simulate living conditions. For example, at Mars City we are looking at building the interior from 3-D printing sand which is what you would need to build on Mars because it can protect you from radiation, and it is quite cheap.”
In the short team, Mars Science City will reflect our ideas for exploring the Red Planet in this decade. But the long term reality could be quite different.
“Our vision is for 100 years down the line,” explains Mr Al Gergawi. “We are not sure what will happen in 100 years when we talk about priorities and how people will be on Earth - let alone on Mars.”