Life on Mars

Mars

In a past post, I looked at the problems around terraforming Mars. Today, let’s look at living on Mars in its current state. What problems need to be overcome?

Life on Mars

Well, this section might better have been called ‘no life on Mars’. Like I explained in my previous post, Mars is a cold, dry, low-gravity hell-hole. The temperatures are below freezing, and often below the freezing point of carbon dioxide. There’s hardly any water, and what is there is in the form of carbon-dioxide-laced ice. Gravity is a third of Earth. And finally, the atmosphere is thin and toxic.

So, even if you get some astronauts there, living on Mars will be a challenging proposition. Those on Mars need to overcome all these problems. Worse, they have to do it while mostly cut off from direct communication with the rest of humanity.

Water

Luckily, there is water on Mars. It’s mostly ice, but it is there. Colonists could heat it, then run it through a filter, then drink it. Supposedly, anyway. There are some practical difficulties.

You see, there isn’t a large abundance of water. But, you’ll need to know where it is before you land. Since you can’t take a jet and fly somewhere else, you have to land near a place where water is located. And since much of the water is beneath the surface, well, that is a bit of a conundrum.

The second problem is getting to the water. It could be right beneath the red dust, or it could be beneath meters of rock. It’d be a real shame if the first Martian colonists died because they brought the wrong drill bit, or a drill that didn’t quite reach far enough.

Air

Creating air is another problem to solve. The air on Mars is thin, and it’s almost exclusively made up of carbon dioxide. You breathe that, you die. So colonists need to create breathable air. Not only that, they need to increase the pressure too.

So, any habitat on Mars will need to be a pressurized airtight contraption. Then, you need to have a machine that produces the right mix of air. Not only that, but you need to do that continually, as long as there is somebody there. One possibility is to extract oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere. Experiments for that are being conducted. Another option is to use regolith from the Mars surface and use heated salts to extract oxygen from them.

Power

The above water heating, filtration, and oxygen extraction, all require power. On top of that, colonists will need heating (because Mars is cold). So, power is something that you definitely need a lot of.

Oil-based fuel is right out, because you can’t bring it, you can’t easily burn it, and without plant life, there are no oil reserves on-site. Wind power is also a no go in a low pressure environment.

That leaves a nuclear reactor, or solar power. Nuclear Power is a pretty good idea. You can get a lot of power with a limited amount of fuel, and you can keep the lights on for quite a while. The Voyager probes use nuclear power, and they’ll only shut down somewhere this decade, after 50 years of operation. And they’ll still be at 50% power.

Solar power is also a good idea. However, you need power storage, otherwise you won’t have power at night, or during dust storms and such (and no power is no oxygen). Also, you’ll be cleaning dust off those panels all the time.

Food

The next hurdle for living on Mars is how you’re going to feed the colonists. There are no plants on Mars, no animals, not even moss. So, to survive, colonists need to either take food, or grow it. Given how much humans eat, bringing food is not going to work.

Growing food is possible, but that has a very different downside. Because food doesn’t grow in a thin oxygen-poor atmosphere. Especially if there is no water or heat. So, growing food means having a pressurized, lighted, and heated place to grow it. And growing enough food for a colony requires quite a lot of space.

Habitats and stuff

Finally, when we have all that sorted out, you need to put it all in a habitat. That’s quite the habitation space. That’s not something you can pack on a spaceship.

So, you’re going to have to use local building materials where possible. Mars has a lot of rock, so you’re going to have to use that. Of course, using local materials to build stuff, requires machines to help build all that stuff.

In other words, colonizing Mars means transporting a lot of stuff to Mars. And that is not a trivial problem in itself.

Human bodies on Mars

When you have all that sorted out, you’ll still have a few problems left. One problem is that when colonists arrive, they’ll have been in zero G for months. Zero G isn’t very good for human bodies. Bones and muscles atrophy, eyesight suffers, and people’s organs and blood flow get a kick.

On Earth, returning astronauts need to recover from any prolonged visit to space. However, when going to Mars, the astronauts will arrive with a lot of work ahead of them. That could be a problem. On top of that, Mars still has only 38% of Earth gravity, which still isn’t ideal for the human body. The upside of low gravity is that the muscle atrophy will affect colonists slightly less, but the long term effects of living on Mars are unknown. As are things like: can we reproduce on Mars?

And of course, given we have to create air-tight windows on Mars from local materials, colonists have to live in enclosed artificially lit caverns. That’s not very healthy either.

Cut off

The final problem of going to Mars is that of isolation. The distance between Earth and Mars changes, but light takes at least three minutes to get from one to the other, and often more. You can’t have a phone call with somebody with a six-minute round trip time for sentences.

Humans on Mars are effectively cut off from direct communication. That means that if you were to live there for a long time, your entire world would be the people there. We’ve experienced lockdowns and social isolation recently, and the effects are pretty harsh. And we could still have Zoom calls with our relatives during the pandemic, but on mars that’s a non-starter.

So, at a minimum, you’re going to have to bring some psychiatrists along. The extreme conditions on the planet are not going to help. The low gravity will also play havoc with human bodies, causing even more stress, not to mention living in enclosed dark spaces.

Conclusion

I’ll keep it short and simple: living on Mars is hard.

Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but not because of romantic notions of Star-wars like space adventures. Living on Mars is not an adventure, it’s a pretty shitty job.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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