It has been more than 2,000 years since the Ancient Romans named the planet Mars after the Greek god of war. From that time onwards, philosophers and poets gazed at the night sky and imbued this wandering orb with the mystique of "virility": life force. It was long believed that the planet helped crops to grow, creatures to flourish, and life to thrive.
Of course we know better now. And since Aristotle declared that the planets were fixed in motion around the Earth, we have come a very long way from the ancients in terms of scientific knowledge. We now know - for instance - that Mars is a barren, rocky planet, full of ice and iron and devoid of life. We know that it is usually 225 million kilometers away from us. Its atmosphere is poisonous, its soil infertile, and its surface plagued by fearsome storms that kick up choking clouds of dust.
And yet, the ancients may have had a point. Belief that Mars is our friend has never faded away, and to this day, there is an ongoing effort to the claim the planet as a refuge of the humankind, where we may one day live, farm, work and do business. In this article, we will explain why the human habitation of Mars is inevitable, and how we will finally get there.
Mars: The Inevitable Destination
In spite of its distance, Mars is our closest planetary neighbor. Since scientists began to study it, they could not help but notice parallels to Earth. It is almost the same size as our planet; it has riverbeds, ice caps, and evidence of ancient oceans. If it weren’t for its poisonous atmosphere of CO2, Mars would even have a similar climate to Earth. But why believe we will ever get there?
Right now, there are many technological limitations that make a journey to Mars difficult. But think about this: your children will live in a world that is more different from yours than your world is different from your grandmothers.
The year is 2018, and exactly one century ago humans were communicating via telegraph and airplanes were barely invented. Less than fifty years later, man first stepped foot on the moon.
The world seems to change extremely fast: but the evidence says you aren’t just lucky. According to Moore’s Law, the power of digital circuits doubles every two years. This means that today’s computers are 500 times faster than they were ten years ago.
Researchers have suggested that Moore’s law is not unique to computers: according to the Law of Accelerating Returns, technology in general increases exponentially with time as demonstrated in the following graph.
Today, technology is literally exploding: it’s a mathematical fact. All the existing evidence nearly guarantees that whatever difficulties we face today will be gone tomorrow. The horizon is approaching fast, and it’s full of nearly limitless possibilities.
Humans are a lot of things: intelligent, lazy, artistic, compassionate, and sometimes downright evil. But at the end of the day, humans are also mammals, and mammals are good at survival. In past epochs of history, we have crossed mountains, continents and even oceans to survive.
There are many reasons why this simple principle applies to Mars: a day may be coming when Earth simply cannot sustain human life any longer. We know for a fact that this planet has a limited “shelf life”: our resources cannot sustain us for more than 1.75 billion years.
But the need to flee will almost certainly come sooner than the Earth’s expiration date.
There are many reasons why:
Overpopulation - according to many scientists, all of the farmable land on Earth can sustain about 10 billion people. Right now, there are 7.2 billion people in the world, and we are due to hit 10 billion within the next century. The clock is ticking fast
Climate change - climate change is not just one threat to life on Earth, but many bundled together: rising oceans, poisonous air, plagues and floods are all possible in the very near future if something does not change soon.
Human catastrophe - atomic scientists have long used the Doomsday Clock to calculate how close our race is to destroying itself. Right now, the clock is two minutes to midnight. One geopolitical disaster could set off a chain of events leading to the destruction of civilization.
Now one solution to all these problems is fixing our problems on Earth. But while that’s certainly a good idea, it won’t make the world less vulnerable to similar problems in the long-term. Settling on Mars is the next logical step we will take to escape the problems that plague us here.
The love of money may be the root of all evil, but it also makes the world’s gears turn round. In the 1960s, space travel was a completely political goal trenched in Cold War tensions. When John F. Kennedy pushed for man to land on the moon by 1969, NASA accomplished this goal through public funds.
Today, the government is no longer the only player in space. Technology, education and research have brought us to the point that NASA has been contracting private companies like SpaceX to deliver payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) throughout the 2010s.
There are many reasons Mars is an attractive prospect for corporations:
Raw material exports - given the radically different composition of martian soil from Earth soil, there is a high likelihood that some materials that are rare on Earth can be found in abundance on the planet. This creates extremely lucrative opportunities for interplanetary trade in the not-too-distant future.
Space tourism - there are already hundreds of people not only willing to take the arduous three year journey to Mars, but even to die there. This creates a completely untapped niche for space companies to meet and profit from.
Land ownership - The vast majority of Earth’s land resources have been claimed by governments and individuals. There is already a large but unofficial market for Martian territory; the first settlers of Mars will have undisputed claim to over 144 million square kilometers.
We’ve established that there is good reason to believe we can and should make it to the martian surface within the next century. Now let’s discuss the efforts that are already underway to make this vision a reality, and the technological advancements that will need to be made in the interim.
The first step to inhabiting Mars is actually getting there. This is already doable for robots, as demonstrated by NASA’s Mars Rovers. The next step is getting humans to step foot on the planet like Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon in 1969.
Reaching Mars has already been done many times, so there are two main obstacles preventing a manned mission right now:
Return trip - even though there are many people willing to visit Mars and die there, this is both unsustainable and unethical. The spacecraft which visits Mars must be able to sustain a three year journey to that planet, and a three year journey back. NASA is currently testing a solution for return trips with the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).
Psychological testing - Journeying to Mars will involve the confinement of several people in close quarters for three years, delayed contact with the outside world, cramped conditions, and extreme boredom. These are tough conditions for humans to survive in. Experiments have already isolated participants in mock 520 day journeys here on earth to learn more about what it will take to keep people healthy and happy on their way to the red planet.
The journey to Mars is a feat of engineering and resource management. When it happens, it’s important to create self-sustaining base camps on the planet which can provide food, basic resources, and recreation for future inhabitants. This will cut down on the need for costly supply missions.
Humans need four basic ingredients to live: shelter from the elements, a breathable atmosphere, food and water. Aside from water in the form of ice caps and permafrost, Mars has none of these. Notwithstanding, the Mars One Foundation has already proposed ways to get three of these things by 2032:
Shelter can be provided to non-suited Mars travelers in the form of inflatable pods called living units. Living units require little assembly or space on transit; best of all, they can be deployed almost as soon as the first humans on Mars arrive.
Water can be extracted from the martian soil using a life support unit, which serves the dual function of converting the unbreathable martian atmosphere into breathable air.
To solve the problem of food production may not be as hard; martian soil has been found to contain many of the same elements as Earth soil which are necessary for agriculture. NASA is currently experimenting with crop growth in space, and these experiments may soon provide an answer.
Once the initial two stages of inhabiting Mars are accomplished, humans could potentially occupy the planet for decades at a time. The far more ambitious task is converting the entire planet into a biome where humans could live on a permanent rather than semi-permanent basis.
The task of transforming a planet into an Earth-like habitat requires major renovations on a scale that has never been accomplished before. Can it be done though? In theory, yes it can. Mars is a perfect example, because it has all the ingredients and just needs a shove in the right direction.
Almost every proposal to transform Mars involves three distinct stages:
1. Heating up the planet - warming up Mars would liquidate frozen water on the planet’s surface creating a water cycle which would allow plants to grow. Methods to do this range from liberating fluoride compounds from the soil which would act as greenhouse gasses all the way to arrays of sun-reflecting mirrors in orbit around the planet.
2. Creating biodiverse soil to support complex plant life - while martian soil can sustain some forms of plant life as it is, further compounds must be added to the soil so larger oxygen producing organisms like trees can grow. One method might be introducing microbes which would flourish on Mars, clean the soil of toxic compounds and add organic compost before gradually introducing more complex species.
3. Raising atmospheric pressure - the martian atmosphere varies between 6 and 7 millibars, a tiny fraction of Earth’s atmospheric pressure. This environment would act almost like a vacuum on inhabitants without pressurized suits, killing them quickly. Fortunately, adding an earth-like atmosphere would go a long way in resolving the pressure difference.
The day that humans will dwell on Mars is not far in the future, and will probably come in your lifetime. Nevertheless, you don’t have to wait until that day is here to help realize it. The technological problems associated with creating a sustainable Mars colony will be solved on Earth before they are ever implemented on the planet.