Podcaster: Sabrina Stierwalt

Title: Everyday Einstein – Could We Live on Mars?

Organization: Quick and Dirty Tips


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Description: Scientists have been studying the red planet since the 1960s. How much is Mars really like Earth? Could our solar system neighbor become a travel destination in the future? Could we live there? Everyday Einstein investigates the Martian habitat.

Bio:When not writing and recording podcasts for the Everyday Einstein show, Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia. Before moving to Los Angeles, Sabrina received her PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Cornell University. Sabrina earned a B.A. in Physics and Astronomy from UC Berkeley. She studies star formation and gas kinematics in interacting galaxies to better understand how galaxies form and evolve. She travels all over the world to observe the sky with world-class telescopes in Australia, India, Chile, and even on top of volcanoes in Hawaii.

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Scientists have been studying the red planet since the 1960s. How much is Mars really like Earth? Could our solar system neighbor become a travel destination in the future? Could we live there? Everyday Einstein investigates the Martian habitat.

In February of 2019, NASA scientists made one last attempt to contact the Opportunity rover after thousands of previously unanswered calls. When they again didn’t hear back, the mission was officially ended. Eight months earlier, a planet-wide dust storm had ravaged the Martian surface, coating the rover’s location in a thick layer of dust. With dust coating its solar panels, Opportunity was no longer able to power its communications with Earth or its exploration of the Martian surface.

When the Spirit and Opportunity rovers reached the Martian surface in 2004, their mission was expected to last for 90 days and 1,000 meters or 1,100 yards. Opportunity ultimately roamed the red planet for over 15 years and traveled 28 miles returning more than 217,000 images of its adventures back to us here on Earth.

Mars is the most studied planet beyond our own. The first successful mission dates back to 1965 with the Mariner 4 flyby. One of the biggest questions that motivates our exploration of Mars through programs like the rovers is: Can we live there? How much is Mars really like Earth?

Let’s take a look at some of the key planetary characteristics that determine whether or not Mars is habitable and how the red planet compares to Earth.  

Mars Is Cold

Humans need water to survive, so a hospitable planet for us must support temperatures where liquid water can exist. Mars is farther from the Sun than Earth is (1.5 times as far), so it takes longer for the red planet to orbit around our shared star. In fact, a year on Mars is 687 Earth days. So if you’re 30 years old on Earth, you’d only be 16 on Mars (that’s the good news).

The not so good news is that this extra distance from the Sun means temperatures on Mars run colder than on Earth. Temperatures on the red planet can span from a frigid -195 degrees Fahrenheit in winter near the polar ice caps to a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit in summer near the Martian equator.

Somewhat similar to Earth, Mars is also a dynamic planet: it has storms, winds, volcanoes, and even seasons. A hugely important result from the our Martian explorations has been the evidence that Mars was once warmer, wetter, and had a thicker atmosphere.  Opportunity found hematite at its landing site, a mineral that forms in water, and evidence of ancient water at Endeavour Crater much like a pond here on Earth.

But now the planet is a dry and dusty desert. Water at the surface is found either locked up in the polar caps as ice or as scant amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere. Even the dark streaks found trailing down the Martian dunes that were once thought to be evidence of recent seasonal liquid water flow are now argued by some to be formed by sand instead.

Martian Air Is Thin and Unbreathable

Mars lacks the thick protective blanket our atmosphere provides us here on Earth. This lack of an insulating layer leads to large swings in temperature: the difference from one day to the next can be as much as 170 degrees. While it makes for a stunningly clear view, the lack of atmosphere also means no protection against harmful radiation like UV and cosmic rays.

What little atmosphere exists is also not made up of the stuff we like to breathe. Martian air is mostly made up of carbon dioxide along with some argon, nitrogen, and trace amounts of oxygen and water vapor.

Martian life would pose some other problems for us. Dust storms, like the one that eventually crippled Opportunity after 15 long years, can last months and fill the air so much as to block sunlight. The surface gravity on Mars is only 40% of what it is on Earth and we are not sure what prolonged exposure to those conditions would do to our bodies. The soil is also likely toxic given the mix of UV radiation and the chemical compounds called perchlorates that litter the Martian surface.

So humans on Mars would require some sort of heated and pressurized housing along with oxygen to breathe. And we wouldn’t be able to go out on the surface without space suits that protect against solar radiation. The soil would also require a major reworking to more resemble that on Earth and thus be able to provide any food, a process called terraforming. So far terraforming only exists in science fiction, but given unlimited funds, current technology makes it at least possible.

But it’s not all bad news as far as the habitability of Mars. The red planet’s host star, the Sun, is obviously known to support life on at least one of its other planets. Planets similar in size and surface gravity to Earth have been found but their host stars are known to be prone to violent outbursts of radiation making life there unlikely. Mars also has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which can offer possible protection from any rogue asteroids by acting as interplanetary shields.

The logistics of landing people and supplies on Mars still have a long way to go. Private companies like SpaceX are making great strides toward launching and relaunching spacecraft that could make the trip. On the flip side, Mars One, the company set to put humans on Mars in the near future, declared bankruptcy. NASA can land rovers successfully, but the kind of craft that would be required to take people would be on the order of ten times as heavy.

Our plans to explore the science of the red planet are still going strong. NASA’s InSight lander arrived in November of 2018 to begin investigating what lies beneath the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover still roams the surface, sending back new discoveries. In July 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover will head to the red planet to look for signs of microbial life. Mars may not be an ideal Plan B, and taking care of our own planet should remain our top priority, but let’s not give up on our solar system neighbor just yet.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by Planetary Science Institute. Audio post-production by Richard Drumm. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at This year we will celebrates the Year of Everyday Astronomers as we embrace Amateur Astronomer contributions and the importance of citizen science. Join us and share your story. Until tomorrow! Goodbye!

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