Making the First Martians: Living on the Red Planet

By Matt Williams | 1 May 2020

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Welcome back to our ongoing series on Martian colonization. Today, we take a look at the strategies, techniques, technology, and know-how that would allow people to live in this harsh environment. And when we say harsh, we mean really harsh!

In spite of these tough conditions and admonitions from people like Bill Nye, there is no shortage of individuals willing to sign-up for a one-way trip to the Red Planet for the purpose of establishing a permanent human presence there. Just ask Elon Musk, or possibly MarsOne! So what will it take?

Mars is (also) a Harsh Mistress

As we covered in a previous installment in this series, conditions on Mars are naturally hostile to life as we know it. The air pressure is less than 1% of what we are used to here on Earth, and what is there is a toxic plume composed of carbon dioxide and trace gases.

This is part of the reason why the surface is so cold, ranging from -143 in the polar regions during winter and 35 °C (-226 to 95 °F) near the equator during midday in the summer. But because the air is so thin, a person standing on Mars (in the summer and at noon) would experience extreme cold anywhere above their ankles.

And then there’s the radiation, which is roughly 40 times higher than what humans are regularly exposed to here on Earth (worse, when a solar event occurs). There are also massive dust storms that can envelop the entire planet and block out all sunlight. Last, there’s Martian gravity, which is about 37% of what we experience here on Earth.

In short, Mars is cold, dry, irradiated, and the air is thin and unbreathable. But with the right kind of living strategies and technology, living on Mars could be possible. In particular, life on Mars will rely heavily on 3D printing, in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), renewable energy, radiation shielding, and lots of recycling and compost systems.

And as old saying teaches us, the most important thing of all when it comes to selecting real-estate is, “location, location, and location…”

Living Near the Poles

Mars may be bone-dry in most places, but around the polar regions, there is abundant water in the form of ice caps and permafrost. In that respect, colonizing around the poles makes sense because it ensures access to a steady supply of water. Given the temperature, it’s even possible to create habitats out of ice.

This process (as outlined by Mars Ice House) is rather straightforward and elegant. You send robots to the polar regions to harvest ice, which is then mixed with fibers and aerogel to create a building material. This is then 3D printed by other robots to create a structure that remains consistently solid in the cold environment.

Other benefits include natural radiation shielding and walls that admit light and allow people to feel connected to the environment (a great way of preventing cabin fever or feelings of isolation). And of course, the concept relies on indigenous materials to build the structure (ISRU at work).

Living Underground

One of the more popular suggestions for dealing with the radiation on Mars is to build underground, thus using the surface as a natural barrier. In the mid-latitudes, this could be done by accessing the stable lava tubes that have been observed in the once-volcanically-active Tharsis plateau region.

Much like the Moon, and Earth, these tubes were created by fast-moving lava and have since cooled and solidified. They can be accessed through “skylights,” spots where the surface has caved in above the tube. Stable, uncollapsed sections can then be cordoned off and pressurized to create a habitat.

Exploration of the surface has also revealed that ice patches could be scattered across the surface of Mars at mid-latitudes. Data obtained by the Mars Express Orbiter and other missions also indicate that Mars may have a planet‐wide groundwater system that is currently underground.

Living on the Surface

Using Martian regolith, 3D-printed structures can be made on the Martian surface that would provide radiation protection. This could be done by melting regolith down using microwaves and printing it out as a molten ceramic (sintering), or by adding a bonding agent and printing it out like concrete (areocrete?).

Since the equatorial regions are exposed to more sunlight, greenhouses could be incorporated directly into these structures to provide food and clean the air. Underground water sources could be tapped to provide irrigation and drinking water. And solar farms could be built to harness the abundant sunlight.

It has also been suggested that a modular surface base could rely on an electromagnetically-charged torus to provide radiation shielding. This would allow for a more open concept base that could provide views of the surrounding environment while also seeing to the protection of the inhabitants.

Living in the Valley

Another option for settling around the mid-latitudes is to build a habitat in Valles Marineris, a massive canyon system that extends from the Tharsis plateau to Xanthe Terra. All told, this valley measures 4,000 km (2,500 mi) in length, 200 km (120 mi) in width, and is up to 7 km (23,000 ft) in depth.

An added benefit is the fact that the atmospheric pressure on Mars is highest at the bottom of the valley – 1.158 kPa vs. 0.636 kPa (or slightly more than 1% of atmospheric pressure on Earth). Similarly, the Hellas Planitia Basin (located in the southern hemisphere) is the lowest-lying location on Mars, with a depth of 7,152 m (23,465 ft).

Here too, atmospheric pressure would be higher, which would result mean less of a pressure difference between the habitat’s interior and the exterior. This level of pressure would also allow for water to condense during certain times of the day, which would make the colonists less reliant on water that has to be drilled for or brought in from outside the area.

As you can see, there are many options for living on Mars. Granted, they all require a serious level of dependency on technology and innovation, but necessity has a way of bringing about those things. Of course, there are still plenty of unanswered questions as to whether humans can live there long-term. More on that in our next installment!

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Matt Williams is a professional writer, lecturer, and science fiction author whose articles appear in Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, HeroX, Popular Mechanics, and other publications. His first collection of novels is available through Amazon, Audible, and Castrum Press. He lives in Esquimalt, BC, Canada. For more info, check out:⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣,⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ and Follow him at Twitter.

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