A lot has been said, penned, and documented about the famous experiment known as “Biosphere 2” (B2). For anyone whose formative years coincided with the early 90s, this name probably sounds familiar. Since the project launched in 1991, it has been heavily publicized, criticized, and was even the subject of a documentary – titled “Spaceship Earth” – that premiered in May of 2020.
To listen to some of what’s been said about B2 (even after 30 years), one might get the impression that it was a failure that proved human beings cannot live together in a sealed environment for extended periods of time. But in truth, it was a tremendous learning experience, the results of which continue to inform human spaceflight and ecosystem research today. In an era of renewed interplanetary exploration, those lessons are more vital than ever.
This is the purpose behind the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM²), a new analog experiment led by Kai Staats and John Adams. Along with an international team of specialists, experts from the University of Arizona, and support provided by NASA, the National Geographic Society, and commercial partners, SAM² will validate the systems and technology that will one-day allow for colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
It’s hard to deny that we’re heading for a future with a human presence on Mars. But to develop sustained presence, there are an enormous number of technical problems to be worked out. One of those problems concerns manufacturing and building.
We can’t send everything people will need to Mars. We’ll need some way to build structures, and tools and other things.
There’s quite a bit of buzz these days about how humanity could become a “multiplanetary” species. This is understandable considering that space agencies and aerospace companies from around the world are planning on conducting missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, and Mars in the coming years, not to mention establishing a permanent human presence there and beyond.
To do this, humanity needs to develop the necessary strategies for sustainable living in hostile environments and enclosed spaces. To prepare humans for this kind of experience, groups like Habitat Marte (Mars Habitat) and others are dedicated to conducting simulated missions in analog environments. The lessons learned will not only prepare people to live and work in space but foster ideas for sustainable living here on Earth.
“The core essence of Mars City Design is —not to repeat the same mistakes that we did to our planet. The hope to start a new design for living on Mars, every single thing needs to have a sustainable answer within the big picture, of the regenerative circle of life and of the product itself. All things need an exit plan that allows them to be reusable or repurposed. That can hopefully inspire change on Earth.”
-Vera Mulyani (Vera Mars), Founder/CEO Mars City Design
Once the stuff of science fiction, the possibility that humans could establish a permanent settlement on Mars now appears to be a genuine possibility. While doing so represents a major challenge and there are many hurdles that still need to be overcome, the challenge itself is inspiring some truly creative solutions. But what is especially interesting is how these same solutions can also address problems here on Earth.
This is especially clear where the Mars City Design Challenges are concerned. This annual competition was founded with the purpose of inspiring innovative ideas that could lead to sustainable living on Mars. For this year’s challenge, “Urban Farming for Extreme Environment,” Mars City Design and its founder (Vera Mulyani) are looking for designs that incorporate urban farming to support a colony of 100 people.
Humans to Mars. That’s the plan right? The problem is that sending humans down to the surface of Mars is one of the most complicated and ambitious goals that we can attempt. It’s a huge step to go from low Earth orbit, then lunar landings, and then all the way to Mars, a journey of hundreds of millions of kilometers and 2 years at the least.
If and when we decide to go to Mars (and stay there), the Martian settlers will face some serious challenges. For one, the planet is extremely cold compared to Earth, averaging at about -63 °C (-82°F), which is comparable to cold night in Antarctica. On top of that, there’s the incredibly thin atmosphere that is unbreathable to humans and terrestrial creatures. Add to that the radiation, and you begin to see why settling Mars will be difficult.
The NASA Centennial Challenges were initiated in 2005 to directly engage the public, and produce revolutionary applications for space exploration challenges. The program offers incentive prizes to stimulate innovation in basic and applied research, technology development, and prototype demonstration. To administer the competition, Bradley University also partnered with sponsors Caterpillar, Bechtel and Brick & Mortar Ventures.
For the competition, participants were tasked with creating digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a Martian habitat using specialized software tools. A panel of NASA, academic and industry experts awarded the team points based on various criteria, which determined how much prize money each winning team got. Out of 18 submissions from all over the world, 5 teams were selected.
In order of how much prize money they were awarded, the winning teams were:
Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas – $20,957.95
AI. SpaceFactory of New York – $20,957.24
Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi – $20,622.74
SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York – $19,580.97
Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois – $17,881.10
The design competition emphasizes all the challenges that building a life-supporting habitat on Mars would entail, which includes the sheer distances involved and the differences in atmosphere and landscapes. In short, the teams needed to create habitats that would be insulated and air-tight and could also be built using local materials (aka. in-situ resource utilization).
The competition began in 2014 and has been structured in three phases. For Phase 1, the Design Competition (which was completed in 2015 with $50,000 prize purse), the teams were required to submit a rendering of their proposed habitat. Phase 2, the Structural Member Competition, focused on material technologies and required teams to create structural components. This phase was completed in 2017 with a $1.1 million prize purse.
For Phase 3, the On-Site Habitat Competition – which is the current phase of the competition – competitors were tasked with fabricated sub-scale versions of their habitats. This phase has five levels of competition, which consist of two virtual levels and three construction levels. For the former, the teams were tasked with using Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to design a habitat that combines all the structural requirements and systems it must contain.
For the construction levels, the teams will be required to autonomously fabricate 3D-printed elements of the habitat, culminating with a one-third-scale printed habitat for the final level. By the end of this phase, teams will be awarded prize money from a $2 million purse. As Monsi Roman, the program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“We are thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams that have approached this competition in their own unique styles. They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets. We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward.”
The winning entries included team Zorphues’ concept for a modular habitat that was inspired by biological structures here on Earth. The building-process begins with a lander (which is also a mobile print factory) reaching the surface and scanning the environment to find a good “print area”. It then walks over this area and deploys rovers to gather materials, then seals to the ground to provide a pressurized print environment.
The main module is then assembled using pre-fabricated components (like airlocks, windows, atmospheric control, toilets, sinks, etc), and the structure is printed around it. The printer then walks itself to an adjacent location, and prints another module using the same method. In time, a number of habitats are connected to the main module that provide spaces for living, recreation, food production, scientific studies, and other activities.
For their concept, the second place team (Team AI. SpaceFactory) selected a vertically-oriented cylinder as the most efficient shape for their Marsha habitat. According to the team, this design is not only the ideal pressure environment, but also maximizes the amount of usable space, allows for the structure to be vertically-divided based on activities, is well-suited to 3-D printing and takes up less surface space.
The team’s also designed their habitat to deal with temperature changes on Mars, which are significant. Their solution was to design the entire structure as a flanged shell that moves on sliding bearings at its foundation in response to temperature changes. The structure is also a double shell, with the outer (pressure) shell separate from the inner habitat entirely. This optimizes air flow and allows for light to filters in to the entire habitat.
Next up is the Khan-Yates habitat, which the team designed to be specifically-suited to withstand dust storms and harsh climates on the Red Planet. This coral-like dome consists of a lander that would set down in the equatorial region, then print a foundation and footing layer using local materials. The print arm would then transition vertically to begin printing the shell and the floors.
The outer shell is studded with windows that allow for a well-lit environment, the outer shell is separate from the core, and the shape of the structure is designed to ensure that dust storms flow around the structure. In fourth place was SEArch+/Apis Cor’s Mars X house, a habitat designed to provide maximum radiation protection while also ensuring natural light and connections to the Martian landscape.
The habitat is constructed by mobile robotic printers, which are deployed from a Hercules Single-Stage Reusable Lander. The design is inspired by Nordic architecture, and uses “light scoops” and floor-level viewing apertures to ensure that sunlight in the northern latitudes makes it into the interior. The two outer (and overlapping) shells house the living areas, which consist of two inflatable spaces with transparent CO2 inflated window pockets.
Fifth place went to the team from Northwestern University for their Martian 3Design habitat, which consists of an inner sphere closed-shell and an outer parabolic dome. According to the team, this habitat provides protection from the Martian elements through three design features. The first is the internal shape of the structure, which consists of a circular foundation, an inflatable pressure vessel that serves as the main living area, and the outer shell.
The second feature is the entryway system, which extend from opposite ends of the structure and serves as entrances and exits and could provide junctions with future pods. The third feature is the cross-beams that are the structural backbone of the dome and are optimized for pressure-loading under Martian gravity and atmospheric conditions, and provide continuous protection from radiation and the elements.
The interior layout is based on the NASA Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat, and is divided between “wet areas” and “dry areas”. These areas are placed on opposite sides of the habitat to optimize the use of resources by concentrated in them on one side (rather than have them running throughout that habitat), and space is also divided by a central, retractable wall that separates the interior into public and private areas.
Together, these concepts embody the aims of the 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge, which is to harness the talents of citizen inventors to develop the technologies necessary to build sustainable shelters that will one-day allow humans to live on the Moon, Mars and beyond. As Lex Akers, dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University, said of the competition:
“We are encouraging a wide range of people to come up with innovative designs for how they envision a habitat on Mars. The virtual levels allow teams from high schools, universities and businesses that might not have access to large 3D printers to still be a part of the competition because they can team up with those who do have access to such machinery for the final level of the competition.”
Carrying on in the tradition of the Centennial Prizes, NASA is seeking public engagement with this competition to promote interest in space exploration and address future challenges. It also seeks to leverage new technologies in order to solve the many engineering, technical and logistical problems presented by space travel. Someday, if and when human beings are living on the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the Solar System, the habitats they call home could very well be the work of students, citizen inventors and space enthusiasts.
Human exploration of Mars has been ramping up in the past few decades. In addition to the eight active missions on or around the Red Planet, seven more robotic landers, rovers and orbiters are scheduled to be deployed there by the end of the decade. And by the 2030s and after, several space agencies are planning to mount crewed missions to the surface as well.
On top of that, there are even plenty of volunteers who are prepared to make a one-way journey to Mars, and people advocating that we turn it into a second home. All of these proposals have focused attention on the peculiar hazards that come with sending human beings to Mars. Aside from its cold, dry environment, lack of air, and huge sandstorms, there’s also the matter of its radiation.
Mars has no protective magnetosphere, as Earth does. Scientists believe that at one time, Mars also experienced convection currents in its core, creating a dynamo effect that powered a planetary magnetic field. However, roughly 4.2 billions year ago – either due to a massive impact from a large object, or rapid cooling in its core – this dynamo effect ceased.
As a result, over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind. Between the loss of its magnetic field and its atmosphere, the surface of Mars is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth. And in addition to regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, it receives occasional lethal blasts that occur with strong solar flares.
NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft was equipped with a special instrument called the Martian Radiation Experiment (or MARIE), which was designed to measure the radiation environment around Mars. Since Mars has such a thin atmosphere, radiation detected by Mars Odyssey would be roughly the same as on the surface.
Over the course of about 18 months, the Mars Odyssey probe detected ongoing radiation levels which are 2.5 times higher than what astronauts experience on the International Space Station – 22 millirads per day, which works out to 8000 millirads (8 rads) per year. The spacecraft also detected 2 solar proton events, where radiation levels peaked at about 2,000 millirads in a day, and a few other events that got up to about 100 millirads.
For comparison, human beings in developed nations are exposed to (on average) 0.62 rads per year. And while studies have shown that the human body can withstand a dose of up to 200 rads without permanent damage, prolonged exposure to the kinds of levels detected on Mars could lead to all kinds of health problems – like acute radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer, genetic damage, and even death.
And given that exposure to any amount of radiation carries with it some degree of risk, NASA and other space agencies maintain a strict policy of ALARA (As-Low-As-Reasonable-Achievable) when planning missions.
Human explorers to Mars will definitely need to deal with the increased radiation levels on the surface. What’s more, any attempts to colonize the Red Planet will also require measures to ensure that exposure to radiation is minimized. Already, several solutions – both short term and long- have been proposed to address this problem.
For example, NASA maintains multiple satellites that study the Sun, the space environment throughout the Solar System, and monitor for galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of solar and cosmic radiation. They’ve also been looking for ways to develop better shielding for astronauts and electronics.
In 2014, NASA launched the Reducing Galactic Cosmic Rays Challenge, an incentive-based competition that awarded a total of $12,000 to ideas on how to reduce astronauts’ exposure to galactic cosmic rays. After the initial challenge in April of 2014, a follow-up challenge took place in July that awarded a prize of $30,000 for ideas involving active and passive protection.
When it comes to long-term stays and colonization, several more ideas have been floated in the past. For instance, as Robert Zubrin and David Baker explained in their proposal for a low-cast “Mars Direct” mission, habitats built directly into the ground would be naturally shielded against radiation. Zubrin expanded on this in his 1996 bookThe Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.
Proposals have also been made to build habitats above-ground using inflatable modules encased in ceramics created using Martian soil. Similar to what has been proposed by both NASA and the ESA for a settlement on the Moon, this plan would rely heavily on robots using 3D printing technique known as “sintering“, where sand is turned into a molten material using x-rays.
MarsOne, the non-profit organization dedicated to colonizing Mars in the coming decades, also has proposals for how to shield Martian settlers. Addressing the issue of radiation, the organization has proposed building shielding into the mission’s spacecraft, transit vehicle, and habitation module. In the event of a solar flare, where this protection is insufficient, they advocate creating a dedicated radiation shelter (located in a hollow water tank) inside their Mars Transit Habitat.
But perhaps the most radical proposal for reducing Mars’ exposure to harmful radiation involves jump-starting the planet’s core to restore its magnetosphere. To do this, we would need to liquefy the planet’s outer core so that it can convect around the inner core once again. The planet’s own rotation would begin to create a dynamo effect, and a magnetic field would be generated.
According to Sam Factor, a graduate student with the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas, there are two ways to do this. The first would be to detonate a series of thermonuclear warheads near the planet’s core, while the second involves running an electric current through the planet, producing resistance at the core which would heat it up.
In addition, a 2008 study conducted by researchers from the National Institute for Fusion Science (NIFS) in Japan addressed the possibility of creating an artificial magnetic field around Earth. After considering continuous measurements that indicated a 10% drop in intensity in the past 150 years, they went on to advocate how a series of planet-encircling superconducting rings could compensate for future losses.
With some adjustments, such a system could be adapted for Mars, creating an artificial magnetic field that could help shield the surface from some of the harmful radiation it regularly receives. In the event that terraformers attempt to create an atmosphere for Mars, this system could also ensure that it is protected from solar wind.
Lastly, a study in 2007 by researchers from the Institute for Mineralogy and Petrology in Switzerland and the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences at Vrije University in Amsterdam managed to replicate what Mars’ core looks like. Using a diamond chamber, the team was able to replicate pressure conditions on iron-sulfur and iron-nickel-sulfur systems that correspond to the center of Mars.
What they found was that at the temperatures expected in the Martian core (~1500 K, or 1227 °C; 2240 °F), the inner core would be liquid, but some solidification would occur in the outer core. This is quite different from Earth’s core, where the solidification of the inner core releases heat that keeps the outer core molten, thus creating the dynamo effect that powers our magnetic field.
The absence of a solid inner core on Mars would mean that the once-liquid outer core must have had a different energy source. Naturally, that heat source has since failed, causing the outer core to solidify, thus arresting any dynamo effect. However, their research also showed that planetary cooling could lead to core solidification in the future, either due to iron-rich solids sinking towards the center or iron-sulfides crystallizing in the core.
In other words, Mars’ core might become solid someday, which would heat the outer core and turn it molten. Combined with the planet’s own rotation, this would generate the dynamo effect that would once again fire up the planet’s magnetic field. If this is true, then colonizing Mars and living there safely could be a simple matter of waiting for the core to crystallize.
There’s no way around it. At present, the radiation on the surface of Mars is pretty hazardous! Therefore, any crewed missions to the planet in the future will need to take into account radiation shielding and counter-measures. And any long-term stays there – at least for the foreseeable future – are going to have to be built into the ground, or hardened against solar and cosmic rays.
But you know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention, right? And with such luminaries as Stephen Hawking saying that we need to start colonizing other worlds in order to survive as a species, and people like Elon Musk and Bas Lansdrop looking to make it happen, we’re sure to see some very inventive solutions in the coming generations!
When your stated purpose is to send settlers to Mars by 2026, you’re sure to encounter a lot of skepticism. And that is exactly what Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp has been dealing with ever since he first went public with MarsOne in 2012. In fact, in the past four years, everything from the project’s schedule, technical and financial feasibility, and ethics have been criticized by scientists, engineers and people in the aerospace industry.
However, Lansdorp and his organization have persevered, stating that they intend to overcome all the challenges in sending people on a one-way trip to the Red Planet. And in their most recent statement, MarsOne has announced that they have addressed the all-important issue of what their settlers will eat. In an experiment that feels like it was ripped from the The Martian, MarsOne has completed testing different types of crops in simulated Martian soil, to see which ones could grow on Mars.
Located in the Dutch town of Nergena, MarsOne maintains a glasshouse complex where they have been conducting experiments. These experiments took place in 2013 and 2015, and involved Martian and Lunar soil simulants provided by NASA, along with Earth soil as a control group.
Using these, a team of ecologists and crop scientists from the Wageningen University & Research Center have been testing different kinds of seeds to see which ones will grow in a Lunar and Martian environment. These have included rye, radishes, garden cress and pea seed. And earlier this year, they added a crop of tomatoes and potatoes to the mix.
As Dr. Wieger Wamelink, the ecologist who led the experiments, told Universe Today via email:
“We started our first experiment in 2013 (published in Plos One in 2014) to investigate if it was possible to grow plants in Mars and moon soil simulants. We assume that plants will be grown indoors, because of the very harsh circumstances on both Mars and moon, very cold, no or almost no atmosphere and way to much cosmic radiation. That first experiment only had a few crops and mostly wild plants and clovers (for nitrogen binding from the atmosphere to manure the soil).”
After confirming that the seeds would germinate in the simulated soil after the first year, they then tested to see if the seeds from that harvest would germinate in the same soil to create another harvest. What they found was quite encouraging. In all four cases, the seeds managed to germinate nicely in both Martian and Lunar soil.
“Our expectation were very low,” said Wamelink, “so we were very surprised that on the Mars soil simulant plants grew rather well and even better than on our nutrient poor control earth soil. There were also problems, the biggest that it was very difficult to keep the soil moist and that though on Mars soil simulant there was growth it was not very good, i.e. the amount of biomass formed was low.”
And while they didn’t grow as well as the control group, which was grown in Earth soil, they did managed to produce time and again. This was intrinsic to the entire process, in order to make sure that any crops grown on Mars would have a full life-cycle. Being able to grow crops, replant seeds, and grow more would eliminate the need to bring new seeds for every crop cycle, thus ensuring that Martian colonists could be self-sufficient when it came to food.
In 2015, they conducted their second experiment. This time around, after planting the seeds in the simulated soil, they added organic matter to simulate the addition of organic waste from a previous crop cycle. And on every Friday, when the experiments were running, they added nutrient solution to mimic the nutrients derived from fecal matter and urine (definite echoes of The Martian there!).
Once again, the results were encouraging. Once again, the crops grew, and the addition or organic matter improved the soil’s water-holding capacity. Wamelink and his team were able to harvest from many of the ten crops they had used in the experiment, procuring another batch of radishes, tomatoes and peas. The only crop that did poorly was the batch of spinach they had added.
This year, the team’s experiments were focused on the issue of food safety. As any ecologist knows, plants naturally absorb minerals from their surrounding environment. And tests have shown that soils obtained from the Moon and Mars show concentrations of heavy metals and toxins – such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and iron (which is what gives Mars its reddish appearance). As Wamelink described the process:
“Again we have ten crops, but slightly different crops from last year; we included green beans and potatoes (best food still and Mark Watney also seems to love potatoes). Also repeated was the addition of organic matter, to mimic the addition of the plant parts that are not eaten from a previous growth cycle. Also new is the addition of liquid manure, to mimic the addition of human faeces… We know that both Mars and moon soil simulants contain heavy metals, like led, copper, mercury and chrome. The plants do not care about this, however when they end up in the eaten parts then they could poison the humans that eat them. There we have to test if it is safe to eat them.”
And again, the results were encouraging. In all cases, the crops showed that the concentrations of metals they contained were within human tolerances and therefore safe to eat. In some cases, the metal concentrations were even lower than that found those grown using potting soil.
“We now tested four species we harvested last year as a preliminary investigation and it shows that luckily there are no harmful quantities present in the fruits, so it is safe to eat them,” said Wamelink. “We will continue these analyses, because for the FDA they have to be analysed in fresh fruits and vegetables, where we did the analyses on dried material. Moreover we will also look at the content of large molecules, like vitamins, flavonoids (for the taste) and alkaloids (for toxic components).”
However, the Wageningen UR team hopes to test all ten of the crops they have grown in order to make sure that everything grown in Martian soil will be safe to eat. Towards this end, Wageningen UR has set up a crowdfunding campaign to finance their ongoing experiments. With public backing, they hope to show that future generations will be able to be self-sufficient on Mars, and not have to worry about things like arsenic and lead poisoning.
As an incentive, donors will receive a variety of potential gifts, which include samples of the soil simulant used for the experiment. But the top prize, a a dinner based on the harvest, is being offered to people contributing €500 ($555.90 USD) or more. In what is being called the first “Martian meal” this dinner will take place once the experiment is complete and will of course include Martian potatoes!
Looking ahead, Wamelink and his associates also hope to experiment crops that do not rely on a seed-to-harvest cycle, and are not harvested annually.These include fruit trees so that they might be able to grow apples, cherries, and strawberries in Martian soil. In addition, Wamelink has expressed interest in cultivating lupin seeds as a means of replacing meat in the Martian diet.
And when it comes right down to it, neither MarsOne or the Wageningen UR team are alone in wanting to see what can be grown on Mars or other planets. For years, NASA has also been engaged in their own tests to see which crops can be cultivated on Mars. And with the help of the Lima-based International Potato Center, their latest experiment involves cultivating potatoes in samples of Peruvian soil.
For hundreds of years, the Andean people have been cultivating potatoes in the region. And given the arid conditions, NASA believes it will serve as a good facsimile for Mars. But perhaps the greatest draw is the fact cultivating potatoes in a simulated Martian environment immediately calls to mind Matt Damon in The Martian. In short, it’s a spectacular PR move that NASA, looking to drum up support for its “Journey to Mars“, cannot resist!
Naturally, experiments such as these are not just for the sake of meeting the challenges posed by MarsOne’s plan for one-way crewed missions to Mars. Alongside the efforts of NASA and others, they are part of a much larger effort to address the challenges posed by the renewed era of space exploration we find ourselves embarking on.
With multiple space agencies and private corporations (like SpaceX) hoping to put buts back on the Moon and Mars, and to establish permanent bases on these planets and even in the outer Solar System, knowing what it will take for future generations of colonists and explorers to sustain themselves is just good planning.
As part of our continuing “Definitive Guide To Terraforming” series, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Mars. At present, there are several plans to put astronauts and ever settlers on the Red Planet. But if we really want to live there someday, we’re going to need to do a complete planetary renovation. What will it take?
Despite having a very cold and very dry climate – not to mention little atmosphere to speak of – Earth and Mars have a lot in common. These include similarities in size, inclination, structure, composition, and even the presence of water on their surfaces. Because of this, Mars is considered a prime candidate for human settlement; a prospect that includes transforming the environment to be suitable to human needs (aka. terraforming).
That being said, there are also a lot of key differences that would make living on Mars, a growing preoccupation among many humans (looking at you, Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp!), a significant challenge. If we were to live on the planet, we would have to depend rather heavily on our technology. And if we were going to alter the planet through ecological engineering, it would take a lot of time, effort, and megatons of resources!
The challenges of living on Mars are quite numerous. For starters, there is the extremely thin and unbreathable atmosphere. Whereas Earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and trace amounts of other gases, Mars’ atmosphere is made up of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, along with trace amounts of oxygen and water.
Mars’ atmospheric pressure also ranges from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa, which is the equivalent of about 1% of Earth’s at sea level. The thin atmosphere and greater distance from the Sun also contributes to Mars’ cold environment, where surface temperatures average 210 K (-63 °C/-81.4 °F). Add to this the fact that Mars’ lacks a magnetosphere, and you can see why the surface is exposed to significantly more radiation than Earth’s.
On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year. Hence, if humans wanted to live on Mars without the need for radiation shielding, pressurized domes, bottled oxygen, and protective suits, some serious changes would need to be made. Basically, we would have to warm the planet, thicken the atmosphere, and alter the composition of said atmosphere.
Examples In Fiction:
In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martians sands in order to release oxygen.
In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.
In 1992, author Frederik Pohl released Mining The Oort, a science fiction story where Mars is being terraformed using comets diverted from the Oort Cloud. Throughout the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – which centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization.
In 2011, Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana produced the manga series Terra Formars, a series that takes place in the 21st century where scientists are attempting to slowly warm Mars. And in 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson released 2312, a story that takes place in a Solar System where multiple planets have been terraformed – which includes Mars (which has oceans).
Over the past few decades, several proposals have been made for how Mars could be altered to suit human colonists. In 1964, Dandridge M. Cole released “Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, the Pioneering Work“, in which he advocated triggering a greenhouse effect on Mars. This consisted of importing ammonia ices from the outer Solar System and then impacting them on the surface.
Since ammonia (NH³) is a powerful greenhouse gas, its introduction into the Martian atmosphere would have the effect of thickening the atmosphere and raising global temperatures. As ammonia is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also provide the necessary buffer gas which, when combined with oxygen gas, would create a breathable atmosphere for humans.
Another method has to do with albedo reduction, where the surface of Mars would be coated with dark materials in order to increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs. This could be anything from dust from Phobos and Deimos (two of the darkest bodies in the Solar System) to extremophile lichens and plants that are dark in color. One of the greatest proponents for this was famed author and scientist, Carl Sagan.
In 1973, Sagan published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars“, where he proposed two scenarios for darkening the surface of Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure they absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions”.
In 1976, NASA officially addressed the issue of planetary engineering in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen and ozone-rich atmosphere.
In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.
This was followed in 1984 by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s book, The Greening of Mars. In it, Lovelock and Allaby described how Mars could be warmed by importing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to trigger global warming.
In 1993, Mars Society founder Dr. Robert M. Zubrin and Christopher P. McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center co-wrote “Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars“. In it, they proposed using orbital mirrors to warm the Martian surface directly. Positioned near the poles, these mirrors would be able to sublimate the CO2 ice sheet and contribute to global warming.
In the same paper, they argued the possibility of using asteroids harvested from the Solar System, which would be redirected to impact the surface, kicking up dust and warming the atmosphere. In both scenarios, they advocate for the use of nuclear-electrical or nuclear-thermal rockets to haul all the necessary materials/asteroids into orbit.
The use of fluorine compounds – “super-greenhouse gases” that produce a greenhouse effect thousands of times stronger than CO² – has also been recommended as a long term climate stabilizer. In 2001, a team of scientists from the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech made these recommendations in the “Keeping Mars warm with new super greenhouse gases“.
Where this study indicated that the initial payloads of fluorine would have to come from Earth (and be replenished regularly), it claimed that fluorine-containing minerals could also be mined on Mars. This is based on the assumption that such minerals are just as common on Mars (being a terrestrial planet) which would allow for a self-sustaining process once colonies were established.
Importing methane and other hydrocarbons from the outer Solar System – which are plentiful on Saturn’s moon Titan – has also been suggested. There is also the possibility of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), thanks to the Curiosity rover’s discovery of a “tenfold spike” of methane that pointed to a subterranean source. If these sources could be mined, methane might not even need to be imported.
More recent proposals include the creation of sealed biodomes that would employ colonies of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria and algae on Martian soil. In 2014, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NAIC) program and Techshot Inc. began work on this concept, which was named the “Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed“. In the future, the project intends to send small canisters of extremophile photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria aboard a rover mission to test the process in a Martian environment.
If this proves successful, NASA and Techshot intend to build several large biodomes to produce and harvest oxygen for future human missions to Mars – which would cut costs and extend missions by reducing the amount of oxygen that has to be transported. While these plans do not constitute ecological or planetary engineering, Eugene Boland (chief scientist of Techshot Inc.) has stated that it is a step in that direction:
“Ecopoiesis is the concept of initiating life in a new place; more precisely, the creation of an ecosystem capable of supporting life. It is the concept of initiating “terraforming” using physical, chemical and biological means including the introduction of ecosystem-building pioneer organisms… This will be the first major leap from laboratory studies into the implementation of experimental (as opposed to analytical) planetary in situ research of greatest interest to planetary biology, ecopoiesis and terraforming.”
Beyond the prospect for adventure and the idea of humanity once again embarking on an era of bold space exploration, there are several reasons why terraforming Mars is being proposed. For starters, there is concern that humanity’s impact on planet Earth is unsustainable, and that we will need to expand and create a “backup location” if we intend to survive in the long run.
Other reasons emphasize how Mars lies within our Sun’s “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. “habitable zone), and was once a habitable planet. Over the past few decades, surface missions like NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosityrover have uncovered a wealth of evidence that points to flowing water existing on Mars in the deep past (as well as the existence of organic molecules).
Ergo, if Mars was once habitable and “Earth-like”, it is possible that it could be again one day. And if indeed humanity is looking for a new world to settle on, it only makes sense that it be on one that has as much in common with Earth as possible. In addition, it has also been argued that our experience with altering the climate of our own planet could be put to good use on Mars.
For centuries, our reliance on industrial machinery, coal and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect Earth’s environment. And whereas this has been an unintended consequence of modernization and development here on Earth; on Mars, the burning of fossil fuels and the regular release of pollution into the air would have a positive effect.
Other reasons include expanding our resources base and becoming a “post-scarcity” society. A colony on Mars could allow for mining operations on the Red Planet, where both minerals and water ice are abundant and could be harvested. A base on Mars could also act as a gateway to the Asteroid Belt, which would provide us with access to enough minerals to last us indefinitely.
Without a doubt, the prospect of terraforming Mars comes with its share of problems, all of which are particularly daunting. For starters, there is the sheer amount of resources it would take to convert Mars’ environment into something sustainable for humans. Second, there is the concern that any measure undertaken could have unintended consequences. And third, there is the amount of time it would take.
For example, when it comes to concepts that call for the introduction of greenhouse gases to trigger warming, the quantities required are quite staggering. The 2001 Caltech study, which called for the introduction of fluorine compounds, indicated that sublimating the south polar CO² glaciers would require the introduction of approximately 39 million metric tons of CFCs into Mars’ atmosphere – which is three times the amounts produced on Earth between 1972 and 1992.
Photolysis would also begin to break down the CFCs the moment they were introduced, which would necessitate the addition of 170 kilotons every year to replenish the losses. And last, the introduction of CFCs would also destroy any ozone that was produced, which would undermine efforts to shield to surface from radiation.
Also, the 1976 NASA feasibility study indicated that while terraforming Mars would be possible using terrestrial organisms, it also recognized that the time-frames called for would be considerable. As it states in the study:
“No fundamental, insuperable limitation of the ability of Mars to support a terrestrial ecology is identified. The lack of an oxygen-containing atmosphere would prevent the unaided habitation of Mars by man. The present strong ultraviolet surface irradiation is an additional major barrier. The creation of an adequate oxygen and ozone-containing atmosphere on Mars may be feasible through the use of photosynthetic organisms. The time needed to generate such an atmosphere, however, might be several millions of years.”
The study goes on to state that this could be drastically reduced by creating extremophile organisms specifically adapted for the harsh Martian environment, creating a greenhouse effect and melting the polar ice caps. However, the amount of time it would take to transform Mars would still likely be on the order of centuries or millennia.
And of course, there is the problem of infrastructure. Harvesting resources from other planets or moons in the Solar System would require a large fleet of space haulers, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems to make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.
To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.
On the other hand, going the in-situ route – which would involve factories or mining operations on the surface to release CO², methane or CFC-containing minerals into the air – would require several heavy-payload rockets to get all the machinery to the Red Planet. The cost of this would dwarf all space programs to date. And once they were assembled on the surface (either by robotic or human workers), these operations would have to be run continuously for centuries.
There is also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars does have indigenous microbial life (or more complex lifeforms), which many scientists suspect, then altering the ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.
Given all of these arguments, one has to wonder what the benefits of terraforming Mars would be. While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long-run, the short-term gains are far less tangible. Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And given the danger, who would want to go?
But as ventures like MarsOne have shown, there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars and act as Earth’s “first-wave” of intrepid explorers. In addition, NASA and other space agencies have been very vocal about their desire to explore the Red Planet, which includes manned missions by the 2030s. And as various polls show, public support is behind these endeavors, even if it means drastically increased budgets.
So why do it? Why terraform Mars for human use? Because it is there? Sure. But more importantly, because we might need to. And the drive and the desire to colonize it is also there. And despite the difficulty inherent in each, there is no shortage of proposed methods that have been weighed and determined feasible.In the end, all that’s needed is a lot of time, a lot of commitment, a lot of resources, and a lot of care to make sure we are not irrevocably harming life forms that are already there.
But of course, should our worst predictions come to pass, we may find in the end that we have little choice but to make a home somewhere else in the Solar System. As this century progresses, it may very well be Mars or bust!
Elon Musk has always been up-front about his desire to see humans settle on the Red Planet. In the past few years, he has said that one of his main reasons for establishing SpaceX was to see humanity colonize Mars. He has also stated that he believes that using Mars as a “backup location” for humanity might be necessary for our survival, and even suggested we use nukes to terraform it.
And in his latest speech extolling the virtues of colonizing Mars, Musk listed another reason. The Hyperloop – his concept for a high-speed train that relies steel tubes, aluminum cars and maglev technology to go really fast – might actually work better in a Martian environment. The announcement came as part of the award ceremony for the Hyperloop Pod Competition, which saw 100 university teams compete to create a design for a Hyperloop podcar.
It was the first time that Musk has addressed the issue of transportation on Mars. In the past, he has spoken about establishing a colony with 80,000 people, and has also discussed his plans to build a Mars Colonial Transporter to transport 100 metric tons (220,462 lbs) of cargo or 100 people to the surface of Mars at a time (for a fee of $50,000 apiece). He has also discussed communications, saying that he would like to bring the internet to Mars once a colony was established.
But in addressing transportation, Musk was able to incorporate another important concept that he has come up with, and which is also currently in development. Here on Earth, the Hyperloop would rely on low-pressure steel tubes and a series of aluminum pod cars to whisk passengers between major cities at speeds of up to 1280 km/h (800 mph). But on Mars, according to Musk, you wouldn’t even need tubes.
As Musk said during the course of the ceremony: “On Mars you basically just need a track. You might be able to just have a road, honestly. [It would] go pretty fast… It would obviously have to be electric because there’s no oxygen. You have to have really fast electric cars or trains or things.”
Essentially, Musk was referring to the fact that since Mars has only 1% the air pressure of Earth, air resistance would not be a factor. Whereas his high-speed train concept requires tubes with very low air pressure to reach the speed of sound here on Earth, on Mars they could reach those speeds out in the open. One might say, it actually makes more sense to build this train on Mars rather than on Earth!
The Hyperloop Pod Competition, which was hosted by SpaceX, took place between Jan 27th and 29th. The winning entry came from MIT, who’s design was selected from 100 different entries. Their pod car, which is roughly 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide (8.2 by 3.2 feet), would weight 250 kg (551 lbs) and be able to achieve an estimated cruise speed of 110 m/s (396 km/h; 246 mph). While this is slightly less than a third of the speed called for in Musk’s original proposal, this figure representing cruising speed (not maximum speed), and is certainly a step in that direction.
And while Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team’s design called for the use of electrodynamic suspension to keep itself off the ground. The reason for this, they claimed, is because it is “massively simpler and more scalable.” In addition, compared to the other designs’ levitation systems, theirs had one of the lowest drag coefficients.
The team – which consists of 25 students with backgrounds in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management – will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run this June, where it will run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at SpaceX’s headquarters in California.
Since he first unveiled it back in 2013, Musk’s Hyperloop concept has been the subject of considerable interest and skepticism. However, in the past few years, two companies – Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop Technologies – have emerged with the intention of seeing the concept through to fruition. Both of these companies have secured lucrative partnerships since their inception, and are even breaking ground on their own test tracks in California and Nevada.
And with a design for a podcar now secured, and tests schedules to take place this summer, the dream of a “fifth mode of transportation” is one step closer to becoming a reality! The only question is, which will come first – Hyperloops connecting major cities here on Earth, or running passengers and freight between domed settlements on Mars?
Only time will tell! And be sure to check out Team MIT’s video: