Mars and the full Moon stick close together tonight. Mars looks like a brilliant orange star, outshining all but the Moon and the planet Venus. In fact, it’s at its brightest for the next few years. It’s close to the lower right of the Moon at nightfall.
Mars is abristle with visitors from Earth right now — six working orbiters and two rovers. And more missions are scheduled to head that way in the next few years. That includes a mission from a country that has yet to launch a single spacecraft: the United Arab Emirates.
The mission is known as Al-Amal — Arabic for “Hope.” The orbiter is scheduled to launch in July 2020 and arrive at Mars the following year. It will study the Martian atmosphere and climate. And it’ll give the country experience to pursue even grander plans — building colonies on Mars in the 22nd century.
Toward that end, the UAE has announced plans to build a simulated Mars colony in the desert, near Dubai. Known as Mars Science City, it’ll consist of several domes, all with self-sustaining ecologies. One of its labs will be dedicated to agriculture — learning how to grow crops on the Red Planet. Among other things, it’ll grow lettuce, strawberries, and a staple of the desert, date palms.
Growing crops on Mars won’t be easy. The Martian dirt contains compounds that are toxic to plants. But experiments like the one planned by the UAE could help pave the way for colonists to survive on our planetary neighbor.