I’m in the camp that believes we will colonize Mars. I’ll even make a prediction that a SpaceX/NASA collaboration will lead to the first Mars landing by humans in 2034, fast-tracking a period of space colonization!
Mars is not a bad selection, given its many similarities with Earth, including: size; inclination; composition and structure. Importantly, Mars has water, making it potentially a prime candidate for colonization. But the similarities end there, with many ecological challenges to be faced including: an unbreathable atmosphere; a cold atmosphere just one percent the size of Earth’s and no magnetosphere, meaning high radiation levels. Colonizing Mars faces a myriad of daunting challenges.
What are the key challenges?
There have been many studies in the last forty years. A NASA study in 1976 was one of the first serious studies researching if terraforming, suggesting importing ammonia from the outer solar system, or coating the Mars surface (icecaps) with dark materials to increase the amount of sunlight absorption on the planet. Dark dust (from Phobos and Deimos) or extremophile lichens and plants were suggested.
Technological methods were reviewed in 1997 looking at the use of orbital mirrors to sublimate the poles as well as redirecting asteroids to impact the surface.
A study in 2014 researched the use of biodomes to develop colonies of oxygen producing cyanobacteria and algae to terraform domed farms for use by human missions.
So, research has shown potential methods of terraforming are possible, but the challenges of terraforming all of Mars are significant, not least being the loss of its magnetosphere. Quantities of CFCs required to trigger warming are estimated at 39 million metric tons, three times the amount produced on Earth between 1972 and 1992! Even if that could be done, there is a risk CFC introduction could destroy Mar’s ozone, undermining efforts to shield radiation. The other possibility of introducing terrestrial organisms could be effective, it the time frames are very long term, upwards of millions of years!
Logistically, pulling resources from other planets would require large fleets of space haulers with advanced drive systems that currently doesn’t exist. It would also need manufacturing infrastructure on Mars requiring heavy payload rockets that would cost more than all previous space programs combined.
What is currently happening?
A flotilla of probes have been launched from around the world to further the exploration of Mars. Previous robot missions have revealed Mars is not a dead, alien planet. It’s surface is peppered with old lake beds, dried out river channels and organic materials suggesting an ancient history perhaps teeming with life. There are three missions in 2020 researching whether life once existed. The launch dates are in close proximity given this is the period where Earth and Mars orbits are closely aligned.
The USA mission will drop a van sized robot, Perseverance, into Jezero Crater, near an ancient river delta, to collect and examine rocks on the crater surface which will ultimately be returned to Earth. It will also carry a small helicopter to examine the Mars atmosphere.
The Chinese mission, Tainwen-1, is a 3-in-1 spacecraft consisting of satellite, lander and rover, its main mission to search for water and ice.
The Emirates mission, Hope, will enter into the Martian orbit to study the Mars atmosphere in detail so as to provide the first global weather map of the planet.
So, is it worth it? It is clear that the Mars space program is a long term goal that will require much more than government support which can be spasmodic, given their short term electoral cycles.
In my new novel, SENTIENT, I imagine one century into the future where colonization of Mars is a reality. In Sentient, government willingly hands control to AI intelligence, given the climate emergency that was faced in the late 21st century. Resources funneled into the global industrial military complex were diverted to areas that helped address the climate emergency as well as space exploration.
How do you imagine the future?