Colonizing Mars

Recently, Elon Musk threw a Tesla car at Mars and somewhat carelessly, missed. How can you miss a planet? The answer is, not unsurprisingly, quite easily. Mars might be a planet, and planets might seem large, but they are staggeringly small compared with the solar system. But whatever else this achieved, it did draw attention back to thoughts of humans on Mars, and as an exercise, it is not simple to bring the two together. Stephen Hawking was keen on establishing a colony there, mainly as some sort of reserve for humanity in case we did something stupid with out own planet. Would we do that? Unfortunately, the answer is depressingly quite possibly.

So what is required to get to Mars? First, not missing. NASA has shown that it can do this, so in principle this problem is solved. The second requirement is to arrive at the surface at essentially zero vertical velocity, and NASA has not been quite so successful at that, nevertheless, we can assume that landing will be with a piloted shuttle, so this should be able to be done. So far, so good? Well, not quite, because when you get there you have to have enough “stuff” to ensure you can survive. If it is a scientific exploration, the people will be away for over two years, so at a minimum, they will need groceries for two years, unless they grow their own food. They will need their own oxygen and water unless they can recycle it. They will need some means of getting around or there is no point in going, and they will need some sort of habitat. If they are settlers they will need a lot more because they are not coming back.

The obvious first thing to for settlers to do is to have somewhere to live. We can assume that the ship that brought them will provide a temporary place, although if the ship is to be recycled back to earth and they came down in a shuttle, this is a priority. At the same time they must build facilities to grow their own food and make oxygen. This raises the question, how many people could actually grow food and guarantee to do it well enough not to starve in a totally different environment to here? I am not sure you can train for that, but even if you can, there will still need to be a lot of food taken as well as oxygen. However, let’s assume these settlers are really competent and they are raring to get on with it.

The first requirement would be enough area to do it, so they would need a giant glass house (or houses). That means glass, and metal to hold it, but there is worse. You have to pressurize it, because the Martian atmospheric pressure on average is only about ½% of Earth’s. That means you need a strong pump, but because of the aggressive nature of dust in the atmosphere much of the time, you need some form of filter. The air is about 95.3% carbon dioxide, about 2.7% nitrogen and 1.6% argon. If you want to recover the oxygen to breathe, you want to boost the nitrogen so that what is produced is breathable as air, and that requires a major gas separator. The best way is probably to seriously overpressurise it, so the carbon dioxide comes out as a liquid, and keep the rest. However, there is another problem: you need water, so that equipment will probably have to be made even more complicated so the water in the atmosphere can be recovered. The next problem is that if the glasshouse is to be pressurized, it has to be leak-proof. All the joints have to be sealed with something that will not decay under UV radiation, and worse than that, a deep footer is needed around the glasshouse. That means digging a deep trench, pouring concrete, and sealing the walls. Finally, the whole regolith inside the glasshouse has to be treated to decompose its strong oxidizing nature (but this does produce a small amount of oxygen) otherwise the soil will sterilize anything you plant, then you have to add some actual soil. Many of these operations would be best done mechanically, but they each need their own machine.

You may notice that all of these things costs weight, and that is not what is wanted on a space ship. So the question is, how much can be brought there? There is a second requirement. Every time you use a machine, you need fuel. That has to be electric, which means either batteries, which so far would require huge numbers to keep going all day, or fuel cells, but if fuel cells are selected, what will be the fuel? Note that two fuels are required; one to “burn” and the other to burn it in, as there is no oxygen in the atmosphere worth having. Either way, a serious energy producer is required because not only do you have to power things, but you have to keep your glasshouse warm. The night-time temperatures can drop below minus 100 degrees Centigrade. The most obvious source is nuclear, either fission or fusion, but that requires shielding and even more weight.

The above is just some of the issues. I wrote a novel (Red Gold) that involved Martian settlement. The weight of the two ships was twenty million tonne each, and each had a thermonuclear propulsion system that detached and could be used as power plants and mineral separation units later. The idea was that construction materials would be made there, but even if that is done, a huge amount of stuff has to be taken. Think of the cost of lifting forty million tonne of stuff from Earth into orbit alone. Why two ships? Because everything should be done in duplicate, in case something goes wrong. Why that much stuff? Because you want this not to be some horrible exercise in survival.

At this stage I shall insert a small commercial. Red Gold is a story of such colonization, and of fraud, and it includes a lot more about what it might take to colonize Mars. It is available on Kindle Countdown discounts from 13 – 19 April. (

. Science in fiction (2). The role of “devices” in SF, and a readers’ quiz on the cloaking device.

Comments on my previous blog made the excellent point that science fiction should not be about “stuff”, but that nevertheless, “stuff” should contribute to the plot in some way. I would now like to take this a bit further, and consider some well-known TV programs, specifically “Star Trek” and “Blake’s Seven”. These are  two classics, and before I go further, I must emphasize that I really enjoyed these, and I regard the reason they are classics is because they had good script writers, and good actors who could show character. But let me consider whether “stuff” is relevant to the plots, and to do that, I ask, could the story, with a change of “stuff”, fit some other genre?

 Space ships get between stars/planets while weapons like phasers were simply weapons. At this point, the stories could be simply pirate stories and while the “stuff” made the settings, it did not critically alter the story.  Teleportation was more interesting. The reason for that was that the programs were of forty-five minutes duration, and getting to the surface of a planet in a shuttle, then concealing the shuttle is both time-consuming and repetitive. In such a short time, you do not wish to waste ten minutes boring the audience in the same way every episode. Warp speed had no function whatsoever, other than to return to a place and meet the same people.

 More interesting was the Klingon “cloaking device”. The cloaking device is one of the oldest devices in literature, but the question is, what is to be done with it? Star Trek did not seem to know what to do with it. Klingon ships could appear from nowhere, but they had to appear to do anything. It could have involved plots to steal this technology, but I do not recall that being done, and in much later series when there was peace, the cloaking device seems to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong. Star Trek was somewhat unique in its early days by having some of its scripts written by well-established guest authors, and generally the scripts were of high quality, which suggests that stories that critically depend on “stuff” are somewhat hard to write. Authors can dream up these wonderful magic devices, but they still have to do something with them, and that is harder.

 Now, a little question for readers. Can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? If so, let us know and award yourself an imaginary chocolate fish. The one I am thinking of is extremely well-known, although probably very few have actually read it, which is something of a pity. I shall leave this question open for a while to give readers a chance.