This might sound a bit depressing, but things aren’t going particularly well here on Earth. Despite huge advances in technology and collective intelligence around the world, there are major issues facing this planet that often seem insurmountable. Between climate change, rising political and social tension, terrorism, democratic instability and an unpredictable new president in the United States, some people are looking for ways to escape.
For those people who are truly fed up with life on Earth, they are even looking towards the stars, or at least the nearest planet that could support life – Mars. The idea of colonizing and surviving on Mars has been thrown around a lot in recent years and decades, but there are some serious obstacles – such as freezing temperatures, a lack of oxygen, and extreme cosmic radiation. With all that standing in the way, many people are asking… how would human beings possibly protect themselves in the harsh Martian landscape?
Short Answer: Possible solutions include ice-insulated igloos, robot construction crews and a return to agriculture.
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Setting Up Camp
We have already managed to send rovers and unmanned missions to Mars, so we are confident in our ability to make the trip, but once potential colonists or researchers arrive, there needs to be somewhere they can be protected from the harsh environment of Mars. Remember, the average temperature on Mars is roughly -80 degrees Fahrenheit, as compared to an average of 62 degrees Fahrenheit on Earth.
To make “base camp” on Mars, it is suggested that robots would first be sent to Mars to construct the necessary habitat, as they can function and survive in the unforgiving conditions of the planet. These robots could also be tasked with extracting resources from the Martian surface, decontaminating them, and essentially stockpiling the things future colonists would need. Growing food would be essential for long-term colonization, but the Martian soil is packed with heavy metals, which are dangerous for human health. Robots could begin the leaching process to remove these minerals and set the stage for agricultural efforts, just like many of you saw in The Martian!
With those supplies in place, it would be a relatively easy transition for colonists to arrive and begin to operate a colony or base immediately. The atmospheric issues can be countered by current technology, such as spacesuits, like those currently used by astronauts, which can provide the necessary oxygen. The atmosphere on Mars is about 1% the density that it is on Earth, and most of the “air” is carbon dioxide, unbreathable by humans. Without a protective atmosphere to shield the planet from the constant barrage of cosmic radiation, settlers on Mars wouldn’t last very long, which brings us to the real crux of the “living on Mars” problem – the shelter.
What Does Home Look Like?
In 2016, an old architectural concept was dusted off and brought back into the light – the igloo. Called the Mars Ice Home, this high-tech igloo will basically be a transparent bubble, with large storage pockets on the edges to hold water and carbon dioxide. The water will turn into ice, due to the freezing temperature of Mars, and that’s where the beauty of this plan lies.
This fancy igloo serves a number of purposes; first of all, the translucent nature of ice means that Martian settlers will be able to get natural light, an impossibility in the other proposed ideas (where astronauts live underground to protect from radiation). More importantly, however, ice has the perfect atomic structure to block cosmic radiation (gamma rays, etc.), in the form of particles, which are primarily made up of protons.
For those of you who paid attention in chemistry class, you know that H20 is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. The single proton in the hydrogen atoms is the perfect shield against radiation, as those single-proton cosmic rays will bang directly into the tightly-knit protons of hydrogen and bounce off, keeping those inside safe from the deadly radiation.
This igloo/icy inner tube structure could be extended to other structures, making the “colony” larger, an interconnected network of radiation-free pods and living spaces, where artificial atmosphere could eventually be generated, meaning that colonists could actually live without a spacesuit!
How Close Are We to Living on Mars?
While the prospect of living on another planet is becoming more attractive by the day, there are still quite a few hurdles before we reach the Red Planet. From Barack Obama to Elon Musk, a lot of projections have recently been made about when and how we are going to colonize Mars, but some people remain skeptical.
First of all, the trip to Mars is a 3-year roundtrip with current technology, and with people onboard, that means years of supplies and space for these people to comfortably live during long-term space journeys. This means building bigger spacecraft, which in turn means building more powerful rockets. SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA are some of the leading names in these future developments, and a robotic launch vehicle (enabling satellites and spacecraft to be launched from Mars’ surface) from SpaceX is scheduled to set off for the red planet by the end of 2018.
We often think about the ISS as being in outer space, but in truth, it is in low-Earth orbit, meaning that it is still shielded from a great deal of cosmic radiation by the Van Allen belts. However, on a long journey through free space, additional consideration will need to be taken to protect travelers from the much higher levels of radiation pummeling the spacecraft during the journey. Safely landing on the surface of Mars using supersonic retropropulsion is also a tricky prospect, but one that SpaceX and other companies are working on with their “reusable” rockets and spacecraft.
As you can see, there are numerous obstacles that still exist to this dream of a Martian colony, but with a global interest in this newest space race, it’s only a matter of time before we solve these problems and take our next tiny steps into the unknown!