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23rd February 2015

Students to go to Mars to read books and leave behind “legacies”

Three British students are in the running to become the first people to set foot on the Red Planet with Mars One, with 100 potential candidates left out of initially 200000 applicants
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“Is there life on Mars?”

For centuries people have speculated about whether the planet is capable of hosting life.

But assuming that Mars One goes ahead as planned, we will have an answer in 10 years: Yes, there is life. Well, human life anyway.

Three British students have made the final shortlist of 100 volunteers for the four available places on board Mars One, which is due to depart on a one-way mission to the Red Planet in 2024.

Maggie Lieu, a 24-year-old astrophysics student at the University of Birmingham, 21-year-old Oxford physicist Ryan MacDonald and Hannah Earnshaw, a 23-year-old Ph.D. student in astronomy at Durham University, are among five Brits who could potentially become the first humans to set foot on Mars.

More than 200000 people originally applied for a place on the mission, which aims to establish a human colony on the Martian surface within the next decade. This was whittled down to just 660 last year, all of whom undertook online interviews with the project’s medical adviser.

Out of those 660 people, a final shortlist of 50 men and 50 women from across the globe was drawn up and revealed recently.

The aim is to send 24 people to the planet to establish the settlement, starting with an initial group of four. They will be preceded by several unmanned missions, which will identify the best place to set up camp. Habitation modules and life support systems will be sent to the Red Planet prior to the astronauts’ arrival.

The controversial Dutch project was first announced in 2011 and is expected to cost $6 billion. It is a not-for-profit organisation led by entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who financed everything himself until 2013.

The day-to-day life of everyone in the settlement will be filmed as part of a global reality television series, which will enable everyone on Earth to witness the progress of the colonisers.

Hannah Earnshaw said: “Human space exploration has always interested me so the opportunity to be one of the people involved was really appealing. The future of humanity is in space.”

Maggie Lieu was equally as enthusiastic, stating, “it’s always been my dream to explore space and advance space science so being given the opportunity to one of the first ever people to physically land on that piece of space rock would be a dream come true.”

Despite its hugely exciting nature, the project hasn’t been met with universal acclaim. Multiple aspects of it seem overly ambitious and there are many individuals and institutions that have their doubts about its feasibility.

Before making the shortlist, Ryan MacDonald admitted that he shared people’s concerns that the mission would never end up happening. However, he insisted that he is still desperate for it to go ahead and stated his reasons for wanting to permanently emigrate to Mars.

“The most important thing to do in life is to leave a legacy,” he said. “A lot of people do that by having a child, having a family. For me this would be my legacy.

“Everyone will remember who were the first four people who stepped onto Mars.”

Cost is a major concern. NASA, who are themselves exploring the possibility of facilitating human exploration of Mars with their planned Orion missions, estimate that the project will cost closer to $100 billion.

A study by researchers Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that any manned mission to Mars would result in the death of all the crew members within 68 days, due to the lack of protection from solar radiation. It should also be noted that only 50 per cent of all previous missions to Mars have succeeded.

But despite the widespread scepticism, Earnshaw remains optimistic about Mars One. “It’s a very ambitious mission and requires lots of things going right for humans to leave the planet,” she explained. “But this project is encouraging other people to talk about the wider implications.

“It’s definitely feasible. Space travel is risky but at the same time, there is a time scale in place.”

The three students are joined on the shortlist by Alison Rigby, 35, a science laboratory technician from Kent and Clare Weedon, 27, a systems integration manager living in Surrey. This means that an entirely British crew could be chosen to represent humanity on the surface of Mars, although it’s highly likely that people from different continents will be chosen.

All 100 candidates will now undergo testing to see how they can cope with stressful situations as part of team. The final list of 24 people is expected to be announced later this year.

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