With the Perseverance rover landing last week, everyone started talking about Mars again. But is it truly a safe haven where humanity can thrive if we fail (on) Earth?
For a few minutes, let's assume that we have the technology and resources available to send humans safely to Mars and back, via an existing moon base for example. Let's also assume that we sent rovers and satellites to scout for the best possible landing site/settlement area on the planet.
Now that this is out of the way, let's focus on what matters here, aka the hostile environment that is Mars and the difficulties we will face when we get there.
Let's pretend you just landed on Mars. Congrats! You're the first ever human to set foot on the Red Planet! You just traveled 53 million km over about 8 months and you can't wait to go take a walk! So you step outside, ready to take the mandatory selfie you want to post on Marstagram, and you're already faced with a few issues:
- You're cold! Temperatures on Mars averages -60ºC, and can go as low as -143ºC (as recorded by the Viking landers). Indeed, you're standing 1.52 times as far from the Sun as when you left Earth...
- You feel light! Gravity on Mars is only about 38% of Earth's gravity, so don't try to jump too much.
- You can't breathe! I mean, you're breathing 96% CO2 so... Yeah maybe try to hold your breath a bit when you step out.
- You feel sick! Oh yeah, cause Mars' atmosphere is only 1% as dense as ours, which means a lack a protection from nasty space stuff being shot at you constantly. So you're going to feel the effects of these UV radiations and solar flares real fast, as they're hitting you 50 times stronger than they would on good ol' Earth.
Okay, so now let's say you're wearing a great spacesuit, super insulated, weighed, and with an oxygen reserve. And let's even assume it has some kind of protection from radiations. It's probably not gonna protect you completely, but it's definitely better than a swimsuit.
You already feel better, but then you see something in the distance... The light Martian air surrounding you means you won't hear it coming before it's way too late... A sandstorm! Mars' dust is so fine that it will stick to your suit and find its way inside, no matter what. I think it's time build a shelter, cause this storm, raging at more than 150km/h and covering almost the entire planet, will be all over you for a few weeks...
- To shield yourself from radiation, starting off in a cave can be a good idea, or at least covering your shelter entirely with dirt, and a layer of frozen CO2 (easily harvestable from the atmosphere) maybe? It's not perfect, but it will do the trick for a while, at least until the next mission comes. I hope you were not planning on looking out the window while washing the dishes...
- Speaking of dishwashers, how are we gonna power all that? Light, heat, PS5, Marscoin mining rig, all the gear and all the good stuff need electricity. You can't solely rely on solar power unfortunately. As we've just established, the sun is too far away and solar power in only 40% as effective there as it is on Earth. Add dust storms covering your panels for months at a time and I think you'll understand why it's a bad idea. Forget about wind as well, or geothermal energy, Mars' environment won't allow for any of that. I guess you'll have to go nuclear, and I hope you packed enough batteries from Earth cause you won't find the elements you need over there right away. Unless you find a way to somehow harvest seismic energy, cause it's definitely gonna move a lot.
- This electricity will be pretty helpful to create an artificial atmosphere (with nitrogen and oxygen), cause you'll also need to breath sometimes. And, to fix the gravity issue, you'll have to exercise. A lot. Unless you don't care about muscle tearing, bone structure deteriorating and hearts failing, of course. If you manage to build some sort of giant rotating habitat at some point, to generate artificial gravity, you can finally stop exercising and start thinking about taking a shower.
- Oh, right, water... Well that's not a problem, you're a smart astronaut, so you've created your settlement by one of the poles and you just have to harvest water from the ice caps. Easy peasy. But now you're hungry...
- I don't care how much you laughed at Matt Damon while watching The Martian, you're probably gonna have to grow potatoes from poop as well. Mars' alkaline soil lacks the nitrogen needed to grow plants, so you'll need to plant food indoors, with decontaminated soil and a biological waste type of fertilizer. It's gonna be hard and long, so make sure to pack a couple extra sandwiches before you leave Earth.
- Digging in Martian soil can also uncover some old unknown Martian bacteria... You definitely do not want to come in contact with these, as the closest hospital is millions of kilometers away and they probably wouldn't know how to help you anyway. Using spacesuits that stay outside at all times (and that you "enter" from inside, kind of like how a delivery truck is filled in a warehouse) might be a good idea to prevent contamination of your habitat. Everything needs to be extra airtight anyway.
I think you're pretty much done, if you've survived this far and managed to do all that, you might actually have a shot at colonizing Mars! But be sure of who you pick to be your roommate, cause the last danger we need to talk about is being in closed quarters with the same people for long periods of time (about two years before you see anybody else) without any possible escape. But if you've made it through 2020, this is probably the least of your worries.
So... Did I make you want to move to Mars or what?
Disclaimer: I am no scientist, space engineer or Mars expert, I'm just a passionate astronomer with little knowledge and big dreams.
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