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How to Prep for Life on Mars

Tech visionary Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors (and PayPal cofounder), has said that humans could be on Mars by 2026. It's never too early to start getting ready for a big trip, is it?

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Packing might look like this.

To prevent contamination, you’ll wear clean-room garb when examining the craft. It’s a nine-month, 350 million-mile voyage to Mars, and everything needs to be in order. Here, engineers and technicians at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena inspect the Curiosity Rover in 2010. Your vehicle will no doubt be roomier.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

You’ll need to practice parking.

The Curiosity Rover touched down on Gale Crater (shown), which measures 95 miles across. That may sound big, but experts liken the task of parking the Curiosity there to throwing a baseball from Atlanta to land in a person’s glove in Los Angeles’s Dodgers Stadium! Sitting in the middle of the crater is Mt. Sharp, standing about 3.4 miles high (placing it between Earth’s Mt. Rainier and Mt. McKinley in height). The Rover’s landing spot was named Bradbury Rise after science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, who wrote The Martian Chronicles and inspired many of the scientists involved in the mission.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Mars looks desert-hot, but get ready to layer for Arctic climes.

Experts agree that Mars’s Gale Crater looks like America’s Death Valley or Chile’s Atacama Desert, but there is one big difference: It’s unnaturally cold. Daytime temperatures hover around freezing; at night, the mercury drops as low as -115 degrees F. The chill is largely because Mars is 149 million miles further from the Sun than the Earth, so it gets roughly 50 percent of the Sun. What does that mean for you Mars settlers? Sunglasses, no. Sunlamps, yes.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Get used to seeing red.

What makes the rugged landscape so red is the iron oxide dust, but Mars also contains plenty of gray-black bedrock (shown, an area called Yellowknife Bay, which is part of Gale Crater). Fashionable travelers may want to wear complementary blues and greens; for the more daring space traveler, may we suggest purple and yellow?

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Brace yourself for dust.

Dust storms are a common occurrence on Mars (close-up of one, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and some may last for weeks. During a storm—even if you’re indoors—you’ll need to don protective gear: goggles, a mask over your mouth and nose, and a bandanna or cloth on your head. Leave your Swiffer back on Earth, and instead pack playing cards, Russian novels, and the entire Simpsons on DVD to banish dust-storm fever.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Maybe jewelry making as a hobby?

The image (shown) is not how Mars would appear to human eyes; instead, it was taken by a mineral-reading orbiting instrument, where the different shades denote the presence of different minerals. Light blue is clay; green is carbonates (in this class are gems like deep-blue azurite, stripey-green malachite, pink-rose rhodochrosite; and dark brown sinhalite); and yellow is olivine (in gem form, it’s light-green peridot). Exciting for the Etsy set, sure, but these discoveries were even more thrilling for scientists in that they contributed to the evidence that water once existed on the Red Planet.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Know your “ventifact” from your “venti latte.”

Newbies, practice tossing Mars expedition terms into your conversation. Some examples: “ventifact” (a rock or geological formation shaped by the wind), “sol” (day), “dichotomy line” (the Mars equivalent of the equator), and “to ground-truth” (to test a theory by using Curiosity to verify it on the Mars’s surface). This rock, shown, may or may not be a ventifact; scientists will need to do ground-truthing first. But they do know how it got broken: The Rover drove over it! Bad Rover.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

You’ll need to pack water.

Volcanic cones on Mars (shown, the Nili Patera caldera) have been another exciting discovery for scientists. Since scientists believe life may have started on Earth in steamy spots around volcanoes, the presence of volcanoes on Mars could mean there was life, once. However, any present-day steam—or any water whatsoever—has not been seen yet, although several geologic signs indicate that water was present at one time. So the next big question to be answered is: When was that time? We’ve already learned so much during Curiosity’s two years on Mars. Perhaps over the next 730 sols, we’ll find out.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Can’t lose those pounds? On Mars they’ll drop like rocks.

Because the gravitational pull on Mars is 38 percent of what it is on Earth, a 140-pound woman will weigh only 53 pounds on Mars. There are downsides, of course. Large objects travel much further there than on Earth, which is why the terrain contains so many massive boulders (shown, the area between Yellowknife Bay and Mt. Sharp).

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Selfies may be more tricky than they appear.

So far, the Curiosity Rover has produced scores of selfies, but not your standard smile-in-the-bathroom-mirror variety. Instead, each photo is created by technicians on Earth who digitally meld up to 900 shots taken from all angles (the Curiosity has 17 cameras) and make them into one composite image like this picture.

© 2014 Marc Kaufman

Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission

The images and factual information came from the excellent new National Geographic book Mars Up Close. It takes you behind the scenes at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on Mars itself, and it contains many never-before-seen photos.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest