Colonizing Mars: basic problems

Apparently there is a reality program being made where the prize for winning contestants is a one-way ticket to Mars, so the question may well be asked, who would want to go? Is this a booby prize? Suppose you went, what would be the problems and what could be done about them?

The one problem you cannot do anything about is the fact that the gravity is about 40% of Earth’s. Will it matter? I have no idea because I do not know everything that gravity does, but I suspect not. If the argument is there will be insufficient forces on your body, you can get around that by lifting weights, and if you are building things, there should be plenty of heavy things. Another problem is the UV radiation and the lack of deflection from a magnetic field of charged particles. That one is more easily dealt with: live underground, and only come up on benign days. Being underground means digging a cave, finding one, or burying your building. A building with thick enough walls would probably be sufficient, so no real problems here if you are prepared to make the effort.

Your next problem is water. As it happens, there is plenty of water on Mars, but it is buried, and it will be in the form of ice. There are massive deposits at the poles, but also moderate deposits elsewhere that would be enough for any settler, but will they be easily accessible? Water can be obtained from the air by compressing the air and freezing it out. That is energy intensive, but you have to compress air anyway because the atmospheric pressure is on average less than 0.6% Earth’s atmospheric pressure, although it gets to about 1.15% at the bottom of Hellas Planitia.

Breathing is your next problem, and there are three such problems. The first is a lack of oxygen. You cannot take a lifetime of oxygen from Earth, so you have to make it. As it happens, plants will do that for you, and growing plants has another benefit, namely you can eat them, so if you manage this properly, you get both oxygen and food. The second problem is the Martian atmosphere has about 96% carbon dioxide, and humans cannot breathe it, even if supplemented by oxygen. Plants can, but the settler cannot, so atmospheric control is needed with a means of expelling surplus carbon dioxide. That can be done by pressurizing the atmosphere, so that process also gets you water. The third problem is you cannot breathe pure oxygen either, so you need to dilute it. The Martian atmosphere has about 2% nitrogen, and about 2% of argon, which is just as useful, if not more so. So, theoretically, we have solved breathing and eating, provided we have the equipment, and we can grow plants.

To grow plants, you need something to maintain the pressure. Science fiction tends to use huge tents made of transparent plastic. What sort of plastic? Most plastics have a rather short lifetime under the UV radiation you would find on Mars, in which case they go very brittle and opaque. I personally would prefer something more permanent, such as glass. Glass also has the advantage that it contains a UV filter, and you can adjust its composition to give it more filtering effect. There is a further problem in that any such structure is liable to being struck by a small meteorite. Immediate decompression would destroy the plants, so you need the structures to be compartmentalized, or to be lucky. These have to be outside, to get sunlight, or inside caves with light guides from outside. Ultimately you may want to bury the growing systems, but initially you will want to get started quickly, because eating and breathing cannot be suspended and left until construction is finished. So to start with, the initial settlers will have to be supplied with kitset structures from Earth, and with redundancy. The real bad news would be if the glass got broken on landing.

Growing plants may seem easy, but note there is no soil as we know it, because there is no organic matter on Mars. So, the settler has to create soil, which means adding fertilizer, organic material, and so on, all brought from Earth. The initial farming may well be hydroponic. Fortunately, the settlers will generate solid waste, excreta, etc, and this can be treated with good bacterial cultures to generate the organic composition of soil. So basically, growing food needs some good scientific and engineering skills. I wonder do those entering that reality show know that?

There are a lot more problems, which I shall leave for a later post, but some are outlined in my ebook, Red Gold, which is about fraud during the colonization of Mars, and is on a kindle countdown promotion from November 7 – 12. At the same time are promotions for Legionis Legatus, the second in my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy that I thought I had on promotion earlier, and for UK readers only, the first in that trilogy, Athene’s Prophecy.

2 thoughts on “Colonizing Mars: basic problems

  1. That’s the problem with all aspirations to colonize other planets — we are creatures of Earth and have to take it with us or create a facsimile (‘terraforming’. Unless we find an Earth-like planet to exploit. Oh, and there’s always magic…

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