Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner.

The Honest Truth: Will humans ever be able to live on Mars?

Matt Damon in The Martian.
Matt Damon in The Martian.

Everyone from the ancient Greeks to David Bowie has pondered on the existence of life on Mars but we have never known so much about the planet as we do now.

Simon Morden, author of The Red Planet, tells Alice Hinds the Honest Truth about the fourth rock from the sun.


What first sparked your fascination with Mars, and our wider solar system?

I was three when the first Moon landings happened. I don’t remember that but I do remember playing with the little plastic spacecraft that came in packets of cornflakes.

When I was seven, we moved out of a town and into the countryside where it was properly dark at night.

Seeing the stars and planets, and especially that little red dot, has stayed with me ever since.

What is the most common misconception we have about Mars?

That it’s a bit like Earth, when it’s nothing like Earth at all! Apart from the obvious differences – it’s smaller, lighter and colder – its entire history is a radical departure from how the Earth formed and developed over time.

Can you think of a particular cinematic scene that has depicted Mars accurately… or laughably inaccurately?

I enjoyed The Martian very much, both the book and the film but the opening scene with the dust storm just won’t wash. Mars has almost no atmosphere, and no matter how high the wind speed there’s no force behind it.

You wouldn’t get blown over, and neither would anything else. In fact, you’d barely notice.

What is the most exciting thing scientists have discovered about Mars?

Just how close the conditions are to allow free water on the surface. We know that water once covered the entire northern hemisphere, and that rivers flowed, on and off, for billions of years afterwards.

Currently, almost all the water is locked up as ice, but we’ve seen snow fall at high latitudes. It’d only take a small change in conditions for that to turn to rain.

If humans were able to touch down on Mars tomorrow, what would the planet look, smell and sound like?

The sky is a pinky blue and sometimes it has clouds. The land is shades of black, brown and red – the red dust gets everywhere.

It’s also very cold so there would be frost in among the rocks and craters, and nothing living at all, so far more barren than even our harshest deserts. Beautiful, but very stark.

Because the atmosphere is so thin, all sounds are very muted, but you’d hear your footsteps squeak and crunch against the loose rock and dust.

You’d have to wait until you went back into your spaceship to find out what Mars smelled like – your spacesuit would have an acrid, unpleasant sulphur-ammonia odour, bad enough that you would store them away from your living area!

What is the “seven minutes of terror”?

Seven minutes is roughly the time it takes from a probe entering the Martian atmosphere to landing – hopefully intact – on the surface.

As Earth is so far away, we can’t control the descent, and everything has to be done by onboard computers. Lots of mistakes can happen in those seven minutes which could end up causing a very expensive new crater.

Back on Earth, we can only watch as billions of pounds and years of work hurtle at enormous speed towards a very hard planet.

A big question – will humans ever live on Mars?

I think it’s inevitable that we will, but we’ll treat it like Antarctica. The bases will be permanent, and people will go for a year or two, then come back. Living there as colonists is a far bigger ask – even with all the technological fixes.

It would be a very precarious existence and always one step away from total disaster. As for trying to turn Mars into a second Earth?  I’m not going to say never, but if we can do that, we’d be able to build as many space stations as we wanted, and live in those instead.

The Red Planet: A Natural History Of Mars, Elliott & Thompson, £14.99, is out now.