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WANTED: middle-aged, married couple for 501-day round trip to Mars. Must be mechanically gifted, physically and emotionally robust, and willing to decorate the walls with own faeces.

This will be the profile of the very first Martian astronauts, if first space tourist and multimillionaire Dennis Tito succeeds with his audacious plans. Last week, the Inspiration Mars Foundation that Tito heads announced its intention to launch a capsule on 5 January 2018Movie Camera. Minimising relationship complications, it will take a middle-aged married crew of two to about 160 kilometres above Mars. The Red Planet's gravity will slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth without burning any more fuel. With no stop-off on Mars, it may not sound like much fun, but the aim is to inspire a new generation of explorers.

It's a tall order. The 2018 deadline is fixed to make the trip fuel-efficient: the next launch window when Mars and Earth align isn't until 2031. That means the race is on to develop four critical systems involving totally new technologies by 2015, says chief technology officer Taber MacCallum (see graphic). Three years is the minimum time to ready the systems for take-off.

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Category: Science