Problems of Sustaining Settlements on Mars: Somewhere to Live.

People who write science fiction find colonizing Mars to be a fruitful source of plot material. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote three books on the topic, ending up by terraforming Mars. I have also written one (“Red Gold”) that included some of the problems. We even have one scheme currently being touted in which people are signing up for non-return trips. So, what are the problems? If we think about settlers making a one-way trip to New Zealand, as my ancestors did, they would find a rough start to life because much of the land was covered in forest, although there were plains. But forests meant timber for houses, some fuel, and even for sale. Leaving aside the stumps, the soil was ripe for planting crops, and you could run sheep or cows. It would have been a hard life, but there would be no reasons to fear instant death.

Mars is different. It has its resources, but they are in an inconvenient form. Take air. Mars has an atmosphere, but not a very dense one. The air pressure is about two orders of magnitude less that on Earth. That means you will have to live in some sort of dome or cave, and pump up the atmosphere to get adequate pressure, which requires you to build something that is airtight. The atmosphere is also full of carbon dioxide, and has essentially no oxygen. The answer to that is simple: build giant glass houses, pump up the atmosphere, and grow plants. That gives you food and oxygen, although you will need some fairly massive glass houses to get enough oxygen. So, how do you go about that? You will need pumps to pump up the air pressure, some form of filters to get the dust out of the inputs, and equipment to erect and seal the glass houses. That will need equipment brought from Earth. Fortunately you can make a lot of glass houses with one set of equipment. However, there are three more things required: glass, metal framing, and some form of footer, to seal in the pressure and stop it leaking back out. Initially that too will have to come from Earth, but sooner or later you have to start making this sort of thing on Mars, as otherwise the expense will be horrendous.

Glass is made by fusing pure silica with sodium carbonate and calcium oxide, and often other materials are added, such as alumina, magnesium oxide, and or borate. It is important to have some additives because it is necessary to filter out the UV radiation from the sun, so silica itself would not suffice. It is also necessary to find a glass that operates best at the lower temperatures, and that can be done, but how do you get the pure ingredients? Most of these elements are common on Mars, but locked up in basaltic rock or dust. The problem here is, Mars has had very little geochemical processing. On Earth, over the first billion years of ocean, a lot of basalt got weathered by the carbonic acid so a lot of magnesium ended up in the sea, and a lot of iron formed ferrous ions in aqueous dispersion. The earliest seas would have been green. Once life learned how to make oxygen, that oxidized the ferrous to ferric, and as ferric hydroxide is very insoluble, masses of iron precipitated out, eventually to dehydrate and make the haematite deposits that supply our steel industry. Life also started using the calcium, and when the life died and sunk to the bottom, deposits of limestone formed. As far as we know, that sort of thing did not happen on Mars. So, while sand is common on Mars, it is contaminated with iron. Would that make a suitable glass? Lava from volcanoes is not usually considered to be prime material for making glass.

So, how do you process the Martian rock? If you are going to try acid leaching, where do you get the acid, and what do you do with the residual solution? And where do you do all this?

While worrying about that, there is the question of the footer. How do you make that? In my novel Red Gold I assumed that they had developed a cement from Martian sources. That is, in my opinion, plausible. It may not be quite like our cement, which is made from limestone and clays heated to about 1700 degrees C. However, some volcanic eruptions produce material which, when heated and mixed with burnt lime make excellent cements. The main Roman cement was essentially burnt lime mixed with some heat-treated output of Vesuvius. Note once again we need lime. This, in turn, could be a problem.

My solution in Red Gold to the elements problem was simply to smash sand into its atoms and separate the elements by electromagnetism, similar to how a mass spectrometer works. The energy input for such a scheme would be very high, but the argument there was they had developed nuclear fusion, so energy was not a problem, nor for that matter, was temperature. No molecules can survive much more than about ten thousand degrees C, and nuclear fusion has a minimum temperature of about eighty million degrees C. Fine, in a novel. Doing that in practice might be a bit more difficult. However, if you don’t do something like that, how do you get the calcium oxide to make your cement, or your glass? And without a glass house, how can you eat and breathe? Put you off going to Mars? If it hasn’t, I assure you once you have your dome your problems are only beginning. More posts on this some time later.


4 thoughts on “Problems of Sustaining Settlements on Mars: Somewhere to Live.

  1. Settling Mars will happen IF and ONLY IF we have a colossal source of energy, for the reasons you point out. For this enormous energy source, either thermonuclear fusion, or the Dark Matter scheme I have suggested could be a possibility.

    • Yes, I picked on fusion partly because it was the best I could think of, but also because it could do three things easily: generate electricity, power a huge space ship (because you have to carry a huge lot of stuff if you want the settlement to work) and separate out useful stuff from rock. But there may well be other possibilities.

    • An interesting and certainly inventive proposition, although I am not quite sure how you get the dark matter into the cavity in the first place, if it exists. (The dark matter cannot go through the walls, or it probably won’t work.) Dark matter is a bit of a mystery. I favour the neutral electron (i.e., a lepton slightly heavier than the electron, and no charge) but I suppose neutral quarks might be a possibility also.

      There will be a big prize waiting for you if you could work out how to make such a dark matter drive, though.

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