Mars has long held a special place in humanity’s collective imagination, having appeared in novels, music, radio shows, movies, and video games.
It’s often said that life imitates art, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve been seriously considering the Red Planet as a candidate for colonisation for decades.
So far we have explored the planet via probes, satellites, and rovers, but have yet to set foot on the place. However, that might change this century.
So, first things first: why Mars?
We now know that Mars was once covered in rivers, lakes, and oceans, much like Earth. It is estimated that if Mars were smooth and all its ice and permafrost melted into liquid water, the entire planet would be covered with an ocean over 100 metres deep. And it goes without saying that water is damn handy.
Mars is rich in elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. This is key, as it means that we will have more luck growing plants.
By contrast, the Moon is a barren and dusty rock. It lacks about half the metals that we require for industrial society, including copper. So, even though the Moon is closer, it doesn’t fulfil the criteria needed for Earthlings to survive.
The Moon has the upper hand here in some ways, because it is closer to the Sun and has clearer skies. However, this is balanced by the fact that Mars has an enormous advantage when it comes to the manufacturing of solar panels, because it possesses the large supplies of carbon and hydrogen required to produce pure silicon for photovoltaic panels and other electronics.
In addition, Mars has greater potential for wind power and there is a possibility that its Deuterium resources could be used for fusion reactors.
While Mars’ atmosphere is relatively thin, it is thick enough to protect crops on the surface from solar flares. Similar to the Earth’s atmosphere, it is believed we will be able to create a greenhouse effect that would simultaneously heat the planet and thicken the atmosphere.
Mars and Earth are in what’s known as the Goldilocks Zone, the region of a solar system that is neither too cold nor too hot to support life. However, the weather on Mars is far from ideal. On average, the temperature sits about a brisk minus-60 degrees throughout the year, which is even worse than Melbourne.
In winter, the temperatures at Mars’ poles can drop to minus 195 degrees and in summer it might go as high as 20 degrees near the equator.
Day and year length
Adjusting our body clocks won’t be too tricky because days on Mars are similar to Earth’s, lasting 24 hours and 37 minutes. Year length, on the other hand, is a different story: a Mars year is 687 Earth days, which means as soon as you arrive you can immediately start to lie about your age.
This one might be a bit of a problem. Gravity on Mars is 0.375 of that on Earth and we still aren’t totally sure how that will affect our bodies. Studies of astronauts seem to suggest that lower gravity won’t be very good for our muscles, bones, and organs. So everything, basically? Our bodies have evolved to live with Earth’s gravity, so perhaps adding artificial gravity to Mars will be the solution.
Despite all its similarities to Earth, terraforming Mars will still be a massive challenge, and life will no doubt be extremely tough for the first colonists.
Right now, it’s freezing cold, and dry and there’s nothing to eat or breathe there. But Buzz Aldrin, famous for being second on the Moon, has high hopes for the Red Planet. He said this in a Reddit AMA: “There is very little doubt, in my mind, that what the next monumental achievement of humanity will be the first landing by an Earthling, a human being, on the planet Mars. And I expect that within 2 decades [from 2014] America will lead an international presence on Planet Mars.”
So how the heck are we going make it liveable?
Trigger a greenhouse effect
In a 2015 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Elon Musk said that there are two ways that we could trigger a greenhouse effect: the slow way and the fast way. The slow way is to release greenhouse gases into Mars’ atmosphere in order to warm it up. The fast way is to drop thermonuclear bombs on Mars’ polar ice caps. Ka-Boom!
In 2006, NASA funded a study which explored the possibility of using giant mirrors in Mars’ orbit, to give the planet extra warmth. The result would be not unlike what Musk calls “the slow way”, gradually heating the planet and triggering a greenhouse effect.
We’d have to convince Jaden Smith that mirrors are real first, though.
How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real
— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) May 2, 2013
Make robots do it
This is probably the most sci-fi idea of all. In order for it to work, we’d send up self-replicating robots and let them do their thing. We’re talking fairly advanced robots here, way beyond what we have now.
They’d have to build everything and be capable of making smarter versions of themselves. How could it go wrong?
Imagining we did get a nice atmosphere and decent climate set up on Mars, there would be other challenges related to good old human nature.
Writing for Quartz, Danielle and Astro Teller observed that humans just don’t enjoy “prolonged periods of duress”. They add that the closest thing we have to Mars colonists are scientists who spend long periods in Antarctica and that they often come back exhibiting aggression, depression, irritability, insomnia, memory deficits and “mild fugue” states. Crikey.
Mars is definitely the best candidate for our shot at Earth #2, but getting to the planet safely and living there will be the greatest challenge our race will have ever faced.
In the meantime, we should probably just focus on taking better care of Earth #1.