The rush to colonize Mars: are we underestimating the difficulties that need to be overcome?
Plans are afoot to colonize Mars as early as the 2020's, yet as of now no detailed and workable plans exist.
Ignoring the harsh realities of realizing a long-cherished dream
Mars has been a source of fascination for humans since the beginnings of recorded history. The Egyptians imagined Mars as Horus, the celestial equivalent of the pharaoh, while the Babylonian god Nergal was seen as presiding over the terrifying domains of war and pestilence. It’s only in the only last century, however, that thanks to the genre of science fiction we could begin imaging the planet as a place where we could actually live. There have been countless books and movies, but one of the books that most accurately reflects what we now know about the actual conditions of the planet is Phillip Dick’s Martian Time-Slip in which its inhabitants lived harsh and isolated existences in the stark landscape that constituted the fledgling colony.
Recently, that fantasy of a human-inhabited Mars has come to be seen as something that could become an actual lived reality sometime in the not-to-distant future. This has tempted many players into what looks to be a game of tremendous historical importance. Privately run organizations with plans to colonize the planet include Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Eric Anderson’s Space Adventures, but the two organizations that have managed to capture the bulk of media attention are SpaceX and Mars One. Mars One has announced plans to send a rover by the year 2920, and to send a ship with settlers and the necessary components by 2023. Every two years a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive. Elon Musk the CEO of SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars by 2025, eventually hoping to build up the population to reach a total of 80,000 people. Cyanobacteria and phytoplankton would be used as a means of converting CO2 in the atmosphere into oxygen.
This sounds exciting, almost unbelievable in fact, but that’s because the plans of both of these organizations are actually unbelievable. Neither of the two has demonstrated that they have come anywhere near overcoming the acute technical problems that such an expedition would inevitably encounter.
Actually getting there is going to prove a major problem. The trip would take at least 6 months and a journey of even comparable duration has never been attempted before. According to Musk, the company will be using a rocket engine three times more powerful than anything ever built, and yet SpaceX has never actually launched a human being into space before. And then there’s the potentially cancer causing problem of radiation emitted by solar flares. Unlike the International Space Station, astronauts won’t be sheltered by earth’s magnetic field, which blocks most of the radiation. Like Mars One, SpaceX has no concrete plans to deal with this problem; Musk can only shrug and say that it will be dealt with easily enough. If and when the colonists actually arrive on Mars, radiation will still be a problem; because Mars has a thin atmosphere and lacks a magnetosphere much more radiation is able to reach the planet’s surface than is the case with earth.
Mars One colonists will be living in self-contained pods, and will sustain themselves by growing food inside these pods. But there are some major problems. Martian soil contains perchlorates which are known to be toxic, so they are going to have to either import soil from earth, or find a way of removing these poisons from the soil. An MIT study estimates that at least 200 square meters of crops would be needed, yet under current plans the company has allocated only some 50 square meters. The same MIT study concluded that the first settlers would suffocate within 68 days because the equipment would not be able to balance oxygen levels in the pods; simply opening the doors to let out the excess oxygen won’t work because that would also let out the nitrogen.
All of these problems pale in comparison to the one problem that is most likely to force both of these organizations to call it quits: lack of finance. The mission is going to be horrendously expensive, so much so in fact that even NASA, which plans a colonizing mission sometime in the 2030’s, is going to have problems coming up with the cash. Yet Mars One estimates the costs as being a risible $6billion; they plan to raise some of it by organizing a reality TV show starring the colonists themselves. To get an idea of how absurd this estimate is one simply has to compare it with NASA’s, which puts the cost as being somewhere between $80billion and $100billion
Can NASA do it?
It goes without saying then that NASA’s plan has a much better chance of success. Apart from the comparatively much greater resources it is able to tap into, as well as the wealth of experience it has accumulated over the decades, it has at least begun to tackle some of the technical issues which are involved. In the coming decades it plans to collect information from the International Space Station in regard to the effects of micro-gravity and radiation with the aim of alleviating both of these problems. In addition, it plans to develop a solar electric propulsion system-conserving fuel will be of vital importance in a journey as long as this.
Yet it’s still early days. NASA has yet to draw up any detailed plans for the actual colonization of the planet. Plus there’s one other factor that NASA may well have not taken fully into account.
And that’s that even if the technical problems are fully solved, colonization is still going to present a formidable challenge. Mars is a dammed inhospitable place, so much so that it will likely impose a severe psychosocial stress on the colonists.
For starters, it’s cold up there, colder than the artic in winter. Even in areas adjoining the equator temperatures regularly drop down to -70 degrees centigrade. And the atmosphere is super thin; atmospheric pressure is about 0.6% of the earth at sea level, which is well below the Armstrong level of 6%, considered the lowest level at which human survival is possible. A leaky spacesuit would result in near instantaneous death. In addition, there are the dust storms, sometimes lasting for weeks and at times blocking out 90% of the sun’s rays. The worse thing about Mars, however, is its extreme isolation. NASA plans to send regular ships up there, but in the intervals between the colonists would have to rely entirely on themselves. The extreme distance between the earth and Mars means that even at times when it is closest to the earth there would a four minute delay in radio signals, ruling out the possibility of any spoken conversation between the two planets.
And the visual environment will be oppressive and dull. The photos we see of the planet have been altered by NASA for the purposes of greater clarity; when seen by the naked eye it will appear far more undifferentiated and unappealing. Not that big a problem, you might think, but when you have to endure such a landscape every day of the week, it’s going to affect your affect your morale.