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How Can We Live on Mars?

Why live on Earth when you can live on Mars? Well you can’t. Mars is a completely hostile environment to human life. And yet, if we want to expand into the Solar System, we’ll need to live on this planet. Here’s how we’ll do it.

We want to go Mars. For the spirit of exploration, to create a backup location for humanity, possibly to search for additional resources. Or maybe, just because it’s hard.

Elon Musk stated that the goal of SpaceX is to help humans get to Mars. They’re designing rockets, landers and equipment to support that. Musk would like to build a Mars colony with 80,000 people. Which is a good choice, as its probably the second most habitable place in our Solar System. Real estate should be pretty cheap, but the commute is a bit much.

Mars is beautiful. It looks like a nice desert planet with winds, clouds, and ancient river beds. It’s great. If you’re not made of meat and don’t need to breathe oxygen. Otherwise, it’s incredibly hostile. It’s not much more habitable than the cold vacuum of space.

A post-processed mosaic of MSL Mastcam images from Sol 582 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edit by Jason Major)

Afternoon on Mars (MSL Mastcam mosaic)(NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edit by Jason Major)

First, there’s no air on Mars. If you were dropped on the surface of Mars, the view would be spectacular. Then you’d quickly pass out, and expire a couple minutes later from a lack of oxygen. There’s almost no air pressure, and temperatures are incredibly cold. Did I mention the constant radiation streaming from space? You also might want to note that the soil is toxic. There’s a long list of these types of problems. The days are a little longer; you’ll be sleepy.

If we intend to live on Mars, and stay there permanently, we’ll be leaning hard on our technology to keep us alive, never mind comfortable. In order to survive the lack of air pressure and the cold, humans will need pressurized and heated habitats. Fortunately there’s a little local support as Mars does provide us some raw materials. The regolith, the material which covers the surface, could be used to make concrete, and there are cave systems which could be converted into underground habitats to protect citizens from the radiation.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

Martians, the terrestrial kind, will need a spacesuit whenever they go outside, and every hour they spend adds to their radiation exposure and grants all the complications that exposure brings. For the long term, we’ll need to figure out how to extract water from underground supplies, and use that to generate breathable air and rocket fuel.

Once we’ve reduced the risk of suffocation or dying of dehydration, we’ll need to consider food sources, as we’ll be outside the delivery area of everyone except Planet Express. Care packages could be shipped up from Earth, but that’s going to come with a hefty price tag.

We’ll need to produce our own food. Interestingly, although toxic, Martian soil can be used to grow plants once you supplement it and remove some of the harsher chemicals. NASA’s extensive experience in hydroponics will help.

One of the biggest problems will be access to spare parts and medical supplies. You can’t just go down to the store when you’re on Mars if your kidney gives out or if your sonic screwdriver breaks. There will need to be a constant stream of supplies coming from Earth until the Martian economy is built up enough to support itself.

An artist's conception of future Mars astronauts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An artist’s conception of future Mars astronauts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One more big unknown is what the low gravity will do to the human body over months and years. Will it shorten our lifespan or lengthen it? We just don’t know. To thrive on Mars, the brave adventurers may want to change themselves, or possibly their offspring. This could lead to genetic engineering to help future generations adapt to the low gravity, higher radiation and lower air pressure. Why stop at humans. We’ll adapt our plants and animals to live there as well.

Finally, to take things to the next level, We can make a few planetary renovations. We’ll change Mars itself through the process of terraforming. We’ll need to release mountains of greenhouse gasses to warm the planet, unleashing the frozen water reserves. Perhaps we’ll crash a few hundred comets into the planet to deliver water and other chemicals. It might take thousands, or even millions of years, but it could be possible to restore Mars to a place we could live on even without a spacesuit.

What do you think? Would you be part of the Mars terraforming expedition? Tell us in the comments below.


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • philw1776 April 24, 2014, 1:36 PM

    Short Term…
    Bring hydrogen. React with CO2 to produce methane CH4 to power rockets and land vehicles and O2. All this should be done before colonists land. Hopefully our Martian cylons will not revolt.
    With nukes, disassociate Martian water into hydrogen (see above) and oxygen.
    Later, get nitrogen (a big problem) from inner belt asteroids.
    By the time humans go to Mars maybe in the 2030s, medical nanotech should help us with the radiation cell damage issues.
    3-D printer tech 20 years from now should prove invaluable for making stuff needed. Issue will be raw materials (see nitrogen above).

  • Aqua4U April 24, 2014, 7:28 PM

    We really do need to send another HiRise or next gen. camera, this time with a powerful ground penetrating radar attached, to orbit Mars. Yes.. lets look for volcanic tubes or subsurface aquafirs/hot mineral springs? Especially in the Hellas Planitia region…