Making the First Martians: Could We Colonize the Red Planet?

By Matt Williams | 14 April 2020

Artist’s concept of a habitat on Mars. (Credit: NASA 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge)

In the next thirty years, space agencies from all over the world hope to send astronauts to Mars. These missions will build on decades of exploration made using orbiters, landers, and rovers. Not only that, but there are even tentative plans to establish a permanent human presence there in the form of bases and even a colony.

Far from being the kind of thing that only billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are hoping to do, the colonization of Mars is something that has been actively advocated by scientists, luminaries, entrepreneurs, and regular citizens for generations. So as the possibility draws nearer, we have to ask the obvious questions:

Could we build a colony on Mars, how would we do it, and should we even try?

What are the Challenges?

Let’s start with the most basic and obvious. Mars has very little in the way of atmosphere compared to Earth. In fact, the air pressure is less than 1% of what we are used to and what is there is a toxic fume, composed primarily of carbon dioxide and small traces of argon and nitrogen.

Mars also experiences huge variations in surface temperature, from -143 to 35 °C (-226 to 95 °F), depending on the time of day, season, and latitude. But since it has a very thin atmosphere, anything above the surface is always cold enough to freeze a living creature solid.

Radiation is also a major concern. On Earth, the average human being in a developed country is subjected to an average of 0.62 rads (6.2 mSv) per year. But because of its very thin atmosphere and the absence of a protective magnetic field, the surface of Mars gets about 24.45 rads (244.5 mSV) per year – and even more when a solar event occurs.

Then there are the massive dust storms that can get so big, they can envelop the entire planet and prevent sunlight from reaching the surface. Then there’s Martian gravity, which is about 37% of what we experience here on Earth and likely to lead to muscle and bone degeneration (and other health issues) over time.

Mars is also very far from Earth, ranging from 56 million km (33.9 million mi) during an opposition (when it’s closest to Earth) and 401 million km (249 million mi) apart when they are at conjunction (farthest). Using current technology, it takes months to get to Mars during an opposition, and that only happens once every two years.

What Can We Do About It?

So to live on Mars, we’d need habitats that could ensure a steady supply of air and water and protection against the elements and radiation. We’d also need to make sure that the colonists are as self-sufficient as possible since resupply missions could only get out there every two years, and they would need something in place to address the long-term effects of gravity.

How do we do all that? Glad you asked!

In terms of self-sufficiency, we know that Mars has significant amounts of water ice (and permafrost) in its polar regions and large amounts of liquid water underground. This could be harvested to provide a steady supply of drinking and irrigation water. Water could also be chemically disassociated to produce oxygen gas and hydrogen gas (for fuel).

Local regolith could be used to fashion building materials like ceramics and cement which could then be used to create thick-walled habitats with natural radiation shielding. There’s also the option of building underground, possibly in stable lava tubes that have since gone extinct. And composting toilets would also be handy since the colonists will need fertilizer to grow food in Martian soil.

Long-term, there’s even the possibility of placing a magnetic shield in orbit around the Mars-Sun L1 Lagrange Point, where it will block out most of the harmful radiation coming from the Sun. This will also prevent Mars’ atmosphere from being slowly stripped away by solar wind, giving it a chance to thicken and replenish over time.

The only question that remains has to do with the long-term effects of gravity. Could humans live in 0.37 g indefinitely, have babies, and live normal lives? That is something we’ll need to research long-term and develop mitigation strategies, which could involve medical treatments and/or simulated gravity.

Why Go?

Given just how hostile Mars is to life as we know it, you might be asking, “why would anyone in their right mind want to settle there?” Well, as it turns out, there are a few reasons. First, there is the opportunity for research on the Red Planet, which could reveal life beyond Earth, or what planets need to remain habitable.

There’s also the possibility of establishing humanity as an interplanetary species. This has the benefit of giving us access to the resources of Mars, its system of moons, and nearby asteroids. It would also ensure that no cataclysmic fate could claim all of humanity – like an asteroid strike!

But perhaps the biggest draw of colonizing the Red Planet is the challenge it represents. The idea of going to a new land and carving out an existence in an otherwise hostile environment holds great appeal for many. But perhaps it was John F. Kennedy who said it best:

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Sure, we haven’t figured it all out yet. But the prospect of becoming the first Martians continues to inspire ideas and possible solutions!

For more information, check out the full-length article at Universe Today! Or if you’re in the mood for an extra-detailed read, check out this article by yours truly from Interesting Engineering.

Check out the rest of the series here.

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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