Mars 2030: Explore Your Own Virtual Red Planet

mars, the red planet
(Image credit: NASA)

Catching a flight to Mars won't be possible for most of us until human trips to the Red Planet become affordable, routine and heck, even possible. NASA is currently hoping to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, although some experts recently warned Congress that the agency's budget may not be able to support that goal.

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In any case, NASA is sticking to the 2030s timeline for now, and one way it is promoting it is by letting you stroll on the Red Planet in virtual reality. Through a partnership with VR developer Fusion (whose parent companies are Disney-ABC and Univision) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a new game called "Mars 2030" will premiere at South By Southwest in March and be available to the public later this year.

"NASA has provided us information to achieve the highest level of regard for scientific accuracy through direct contact with various teams working on the many facets of such a complex mission," said Julian Reyes, Fusion virtual reality producer and designer, in an e-mail to Discovery News.

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"We've visited JSC (Johnson Space Center) and Langley Research Center on multiple occasions and had several interviews with scientists dedicated to studying the planet. Our goal is to stay within the bounds of scientific accuracy while still driven by a compelling story that engages the players."

(Image credit: Mars One)

Fusion first got interested in Mars 2030 after reading about a now-famous "Mars One" 2014 feasibility study written by MIT students. Mars One is a privately funded initiative to send humans on a one-way trip to the Red Planet, and is now selecting astronauts for preliminary training while simultaneously trying to raise funds for the journey. While Mars One says the hardware will be capable of keeping humans alive indefinitely, the study cited limitations with their version such as needing frequent resupplies, which will only grow as a colony naturally expands in size.

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Fusion contacted lead author Sydney Do (a Ph.D. student at MIT) after the study was publicized. To do the study, Do explained to Discovery News in an e-mail, the students created a simulation of a Mars outpost based on statements and claims by Mars One. Following the activities of four people on Mars, the students then created the systems needed for consumables (gases and water) to keep the crew alive, and the spare parts needed to support these systems. This information then gave them information on what a surface habitat system would need.

"The Mars 2030 experience essentially incorporates insights like these into a more realistic visual environment," said Do, who describes himself as an occasional gamer. "You could say that our research does the back-end work — it determines how much of what resource or technology is needed based on a crew activity profile designed to meet some mission objective, while the Mars 2030 experience visualizes this information and builds a story around it using the state of the art in game development."

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(Image credit: 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Do acted as a technical advisor for Fusion, providing information on aspects of Mars such as surface habitats, life support, food, crew activities in the habitat and outside, maintenance and in-situ resource utilization. He even took into account planetary protection protocols to, for example, suggest sterilized robots explore an area before a human went there and threatened any possible microbes.

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The result, Reyes, said, is an "open-world" environment where players can complete missions to explore Mars — making sure the missions address goals of NASA. The game still feels like a game, but Fusion is "staying true to the science of the experience and elaborating on it whenever possible (without making things boring)," he said.

Reyes said the game should be available for late summer if all goes well, first focusing on desktop systems before being expanded to consoles and mobile. "There are several moving parts that we still need to nail down for that to solidify," he added. According to MIT, platforms that will be included eventually include Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung VR Gear, iPhone, Android and Twitch.

Originally published on Discovery News.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: