More than any other time in recent memory, travel to Mars is looking more like a reality. More than any other time in recent memory, travel to Mars is looking more like a reality. More than at any other time in recent memory, travel to Mars is looking like a reality. (Photo: Aphelleon / Shutterstock)

Who are the major players in the race to Mars?

The race to the red planet is heating up, and these are the firestarters.

When President Barack Obama wrote in a CNN op-ed earlier this month that the country must set a goal of "sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth," he was the most high-profile person to date to comment on the growing fascination with colonizing the red planet.

Because of its proximity to Earth, Mars is the best candidate for space exploration. It also has Earth-like properties, leading many to believe it can sustain life.

Other luminaries have also voiced their conviction that Mars should be explored and, eventually, become a home for humans. Buzz Aldrin, the 86-year-old legendary astronaut, has dedicated much energy to advocating for colonizing the planet in recent years. Last year, he devoted his keynote speech at an international space conference in Israel to the topic.

Fortunately for these two, there are plenty of others out there who agree with them. Thus, there are plenty of programs dedicated to making it happen.


NASA

MIT grad student Sydney Do peers from the front window of NASA’s drivable Mars rover prototype at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.MIT grad student Sydney Do peers from the front window of NASA’s drivable Mars rover prototype at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Photo: Charles Camarda/NASA)

NASA has already unveiled a three-step plan for sending astronauts to Mars and has even gone so far as to ask the public's help in designing Mars habitats. To help them with their Mars mission, the U.S. space agency has entered into a partnership with Israel, the same country that hosted the international space conference at which Aldrin spoke. NASA is also working with aerospace giant Boeing to create a heavy-lift rocket for deep space exploration called the Space Launch System (SLS). And now that U.S. presidents are throwing their weight behind the idea, colonizing Mars could be a reality.


Mars One

An animation of the Mars One Mars settlement.An animation of the Mars One Mars settlement. (Photo: Mars One Facebook)

This nonprofit launched in 2011 with the express goal of colonizing the red planet by 2026 via a team of astronauts. The initial application process to be one of the astronauts yielded more than 200,000 applications. Mars One's mission design is currently in the early mission concept phase, or, as called in space development terms, Phase A. The organization is relying mainly on donations, sales of merchandise, private investments, sponsorships and speaking engagements to finance the mission.


SpaceX

Elon Musk has been the most vocal and ambitious proponent of colonizing Mars.Elon Musk has been the most vocal and ambitious proponent of colonizing Mars. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk believes he can be the first to colonize Mars, and thinks he can do so within the next decade. Thus far SpaceX has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, and the Dragon spacecraft. It has also unveiled the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) which it says will be used to bring 1 million people to the red planet. While the program has had many achievements, it hasn't been without its setbacks either. It remains to be seen whether SpaceX can fulfill Musk's lofty goals.


China

Concept design of the China Mars Rover and Lander which the China hopes to land on Mars in 2020.Concept design of the China Mars Rover and Lander, which China hopes to land on Mars in 2020. (Photo: Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence)

China's secretive China National Space Administration (CNSA) has operated apart from the rest of the world, but aims to launch a mission to the red planet by 2020. Earlier this summer the country gave the world a first glimpse of its design for the space probe and rover it plans to use in its first mission there. In August the country launched a potentially groundbreaking quantum-enabled satellite, testing communications technology, and it's planning to send its Jade Rabbit lunar rover to the red planet to send back data on its soil, atmosphere and other features, including any ice or water it finds.


Exomars

 This rocket launched an ExoMars spacecraft to Mars earlier this year. This rocket launched an ExoMars spacecraft to Mars earlier this year. (Photo: Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images)

A joint mission of the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency, ExoMars' goals are to search for signs of past and present life on Mars and to investigate how the Martian water and geochemical environment varies. It also wants to investigate atmospheric trace gases and their sources and demonstrate the technologies that could allow for a future Mars colony. A recent mission to out a lander on the planet went awry when technical faults saw it crash land, but officials emphasized that the Schiaparelli, as it was called, was a technology demonstrator ahead of the landing on Mars in 2021 of much larger six-wheeled rover.

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Who are the major players in the race to Mars?
The race to the red planet is heating up, and these are the firestarters.