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A new life on the red planet

By Peng Yining (China Daily)

10:46, May 24, 2013

An artist's impression of a settlement on Mars. The Mars One project has attracted more than 78,000 applicants worldwide. (Photo/ China Daily)

A putative program to establish a human colony on Mars has met with a strong response from hopeful Chinese citizens, as Peng Yining reports in Beijing.

Chinese people have explored most places on Earth, from the arctic icecaps to Amazonian rainforests and the valleys of the Himalaya. Now, it seems, they want to plant a footprint much further afield - on Mars, to be exact.

A private Dutch project called Mars One, endorsed by the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard't Hooft, aims to take four people on a one-way trip and establish a permanent human colony on the red planet in 2023.

The news has stirred enthusiasm for space exploration in China. Applications opened last month and of the 78,000 people who had applied by early May, 10,241 came from China. Only the United States had more applicants with 17,324, according to Mars One's official website.

"What if the four people were infected by a mysterious virus on Mars and became zombies, killing and eating each other?" asked one netizen during a group chat on Mars One Fans, one of the online chat groups dedicated to the mission, which has more than 260 members.

"You watch too many movies!" Another netizen's comment popped up in the chat window.

"Chinese people are increasingly interested in space technology and astronomy, but they need to acquire a greater depth of scientific knowledge. The Mars One project could be a chance for people to learn," said Peng Xiaobo, the director of research and development center at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

Yan Huiming, a 22-year-old applicant from Beijing, said that before he applied to join the project, his knowledge of Mars came mostly from Hollywood movies and science fiction. John Carter centers around the exploits of a US army veteran transported to Mars, where he's able to jump to great heights and perform incredible feats of strength as a result of his different bone density and the planet's low gravity, which is around 38 percent that of earth.

"It was fascinating to watch him jump so high and to see all the aliens in that movie," said Yan, a freelance game designer for mobile devices.

Before he paid the $11 registration fee to upload his application, Yan spent a couple of hours researching the red planet on the Internet. He discovered that he would be hard pressed to play the movie hero if he made it to Mars, mainly because, unlike the character in the film, he wouldn't be able to venture outdoors without a space suit - the planet's thin atmosphere mostly consists of carbon dioxide and water vapor, and the average temperature is - 63 C.

However, Yan wasn't downcast. He had learned a lot about the real Mars as his romantic notions dissolved. He said most of his friends don't know much about the planet or the universe, and he wouldn't have spent hours learning about space science had it not been for Mars One.

"I wouldn't be able to jump high. In fact, I would be lucky to not be blown off the surface by the almost-constant sand storms, which are five times stronger than the fiercest typhoons on earth. I work at home and never leave my studio unless I really have to. Once a week, tops," said Yan, a self-confessed computer geek.

"I am only connected to the world by the Internet, so what's the difference between living on Earth or Mars?" he asked.

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