By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
The Mars One project has received quite a bit of press lately. This project plans to establish a human colony on Mars in 2023 with four people. The project is the brainchild of Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch businessman. You must give him credit for creativeness. Much of the financing will come from a 24-hour television reality show that will follow every step of the project, including watching the new “Martians” as they adapt to the harsh Mars environment.
According to the Mars One website, this project will use existing technology. The habitat consists of modules that will arrive on Mars over a period of years and will be moved into place by a Mars rover. The first colonists will do the final assembly. Every two years, four more colonists will arrive until the total population consists of twenty immigrants. At that point, the colony intends to be self-sustaining, requiring no additional supplies from Earth. No kidding! At $10,000 per pound, Earth will not continue sending oxygen, water, food, Mars suits, and more to Mars regularly.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the trips by the colonists will be one-way only. There’s absolutely no provision for bringing them home. Even with an estimated $6 billion budget, the money just isn’t there. So, who will these colonists be? Interestingly, Lansdorp proposes to charge for the privilege of taking a one-way trip to hell. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The technology does exist to ferry materials, habitats, and a few people to Mars. The technology exists to produce enough solar power to eke out a sort of living there, in principle. The concept of establishing human habitation on another world must create a sense of excitement in anyone who has the time to pay attention. The educational opportunities would be enormous. The new colonists would be “going boldly where no one has gone before” – unless NASA gets there first with their round-trip Mars program.
It all looks exciting even if very dangerous. One misstep would spell death for the entire colony. It’s reminiscent of those who left Europe to colonize the New World or those taking their chances in the American West. Many died on the trips and after arrival from a wide variety of causes. The numbers for the Mars mission will be much smaller, and any rupture of the habitat will exterminate them all. If food production falters, they could all starve. Failure of water processing and reprocessing will doom them. These are the easy parts.
The true problems arise when you look more deeply into the circumstances under which the Mars colonists will live. Skip over the problems with four people traveling in cramped quarters for the eight-month trip to Mars. They pale in comparison to living on the planet.
Problem number one is radiation. Interplanetary space is filled with solar and cosmic radiation. The former originates from the Sun and fluctuates on an eleven-year cycle. The latter originates outside of our solar system from cataclysmic star events and black holes. Both are potentially deadly.
NASA has estimated that a three-year round-trip and visit to Mars by astronauts would expose them to about one Siemen of radiation, the recommended lifetime dosage. Annual exposure on Earth at sea level is in the milliSiemens range. The effects of radiation exposure include cataracts, increased likelihood of cancer, and sterility. Without radiation shielding on Mars, colonists will be doomed to very shortened lifespans and would be unlikely to reproduce. Children, if born, would have even more problems because rapidly developing cells are even more sensitive to radiation effects.
The reasons that radiation is such a problem on Mars but not on Earth arise from the two things that shield us Earthlings from radiation: our atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field. The Martian atmosphere is about 1/100 that of the Earth. Essentially all radiation arrives on the surface. Mars has no magnetic field. Scientists postulate that it is solid to the core and so has no liquid interior to generate a magnetic field. The Earth’s magnetic field deflects arriving ionic cosmic rays and solar radiation, although gamma rays are unaffected. This deflection to our polar radiation is the reason that we see the aurora borealis near our north pole but not near the equator. Those light displays are caused by energetic ions impacting the atmosphere.
The proposed Mars One habitats have no evident radiation shielding, and radiation is not mentioned on their website. The best shielding would be a thick layer of liquid hydrogen, but water can also function reasonably well. Oddly, metal shielding, unless very thick, makes cosmic radiation worse because the rays hit metal atom nuclei and create a shower of new radiation from what was a single ray.
The colonists could go underground to avoid radiation, but Mars One has no such plans. They do hope to build extensions to the shelters from the Martian soil. We don’t know how feasible this plan is or whether the thickness of the soil walls will be sufficient to avoid significant radiation damage.
Moving on past the radiation issues, which may never be adequately resolved, you will encounter a number of more mundane issues. These fall into two areas: physical and psychological.
The physical problems have to do with life support and expansion. Life requires air, water, food, and shelter. With one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, Mars has an atmosphere that we cannot breathe. It’s mostly carbon dioxide (95%) anyway with oxygen only as a trace component. Even if you compressed it, you still could not breathe it. The colonists must live in a pressurized environment and must scrub the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air to prevent stress and eventual death from hypercapnia. Oxygen must constantly be generated from some source to make up for oxygen consumed by the colonists.
Plants grown for food can perform the functions of carbon dioxide removal and oxygen generation, but early plans for Mars One suggest that the space allotted for plants may not be sufficient for these purposes and must be supplanted by mechanical and chemical processes, which will require power.
Substantial supplies of water will be required to support even four colonists who will be living in a water-poor environment. The interior of the habitat may actually be moist because it will not take much water to saturate the small atmosphere contained there. Most edible plants transpire, and a moist atmosphere will reduce their water requirements. Water will come from three sources: water carried on the mission, water recycled from colonists, and water “mined” from the Martian soil.
This last source may be a problem because the best location for water is near the Martian poles, but the best place for solar energy is near the Martian equator. We do not yet know if reasonable amounts of water exist below the Martian surface at the equator. Water is also the most likely source of oxygen. Electrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen gases. Therefore, water is necessary for both its own value and for replenishing air. Because colonists must venture outside and so step through an airlock, losing air in the process, and because the habitat will certainly have at least minor leaks, air must be constantly replaced.
The initial six habitat modules have been allocated in pairs. One pair has been reserved for food production. The exact nature of the plants to be used has not been described by Mars One. Unless colonists have a decent radiation shield, the plants will neither grow nor reproduce well. Assuming such a shield is available, the plants must convert sunshine to edible plant matter. The solar intensity is about 43% of that on Earth, which will necessitate the use of efficient plants that can grow well in eternally cloudy Earth climes. Most food plants must have strong sunlight. Hybrids may be developed to compensate.
Even so, it’s unclear whether the amount of space allocated for food production will suffice to feed the entire colony. Even if the space is adequate, the diet will be monotonous. The inefficiency of animals for food sources means that the entire diet must be vegan. Yeast or similar organisms must be grown as well to provide B12, which cannot be obtained from strictly plant sources. Colonists will never again see a steak or filet of fish. They will have eggs or milk products. They won’t even have the produce of trees – nuts, apples, citrus, etc. There will be no pepper, cinnamon, or vanilla.
Only the most efficient plants can be utilized for food on Mars. The variety will certainly be limited. We cannot yet tell if colonists can grow some ginger or basil to help alleviate the monotony of diet.
Shelter will remain a serious problem for the foreseeable future. Four people will inhabit six small modules of which four are reserved for mechanical and food purposes. The shelter must remain airtight and insulating at all times. Temperatures on the Martian surface drop to far below freezing at night. Although the atmosphere is extremely thin, very strong winds create sandstorms that can erode anything exposed outside, including the shelters. The materials from which shelters are built must be strong enough to withstand the winds but light enough to ship to Mars, a real engineering challenge.
Heat will be lost through the walls of the habitat even with the best insulation. This heat must be replaced. The Mars colonists will find absolutely no coal, no oil, and no natural gas to use as an energy source. Only solar and wind energy will be available unless they bring along a nuclear power generator. Small ones, such as is being used by NASA’s Curiosity rover, can provide some power but not enough for this purpose. Heat will be a serious issue for Mars One. Their plans call for large flexible solar panels to be rolled out onto the Martian surface to capture the wan sunlight. The plans do not show calculations for expected energy capture during the long Martian winters. With a “year” twice as long as ours, winters are also twice as long.
In addition, batteries must store this captured solar energy. Lots of batteries will be needed to hold enough energy for heating and other purposes such as oxygen generation throughout the Martian nights. The Mars One information does not include battery specifications. Even the most efficient batteries are heavy and will have to be lifted from Earth to Mars at $10,000 per pound.
The colonists must work outside of their habitat in the harsh Martian environment and so must have Mars suits that are the equivalent of space suits. Maintaining these will be crucial to extending the colony. Without petrochemical sources, it’s unclear what materials will be used to replace the plastic components of these suits.
If the colony is to be self-sustaining, it must be able to expand using local materials. Water is too precious to use for making concrete or even adobe if the basic materials could be obtained. Note that cement requires lots of heat to make. To make iron, iron ore and enormous amounts of energy are needed. Converting iron to steel requires more energy and lots of carbon, but Mars has no fossil fuels as sources of carbon. Similarly, copper, zinc, and tin all require massive amounts of energy – far more than the solar arrays will provide.
Colonists will have to expand their solar arrays as they expand the colony – if such expansion can be done at all. The high-technology required for manufacturing these arrays will be far beyond the capabilities of the Martian colony. With nothing to export, the colonists will have to depend on Earth to send them the needed materials and will become interplanetary beggars. If they have children, they’ll have to expand their food tanks. Of what will they construct them? Indeed, what building materials will the colonists have for any purpose, even for making cooking pots or children’s toys?
Medical issues have not even been considered. The colonists would not have any access to modern medicine. They would have to be carefully screened for genetic factors that predispose to disease. Medical problems that we can handle readily here would result in death on Mars.
Even if power, air, water, food, shelter, and building materials can be resolved, a very unlikely result, the colonists must face extreme psychological pressures. A single small error by one colonist can kill them all. This could happen on any day.
Only digital material could be imported from Earth on a regular basis. With sufficient power, the colonists could watch videos and listen to music. However, conversation with Earth-bound families and friends would not be possible. The round-trip delay for radio transmission is between 6 and 40 minutes. Say, “Hello,” and you hear a response 20 minutes later on average. All communication with Earth would be asynchronous.
What would it take to make life on Mars bearable? How could you overcome the monotony of food, of view, of company, of smells, of cramped living spaces? You would never smell a pine forest again or see the ocean. There are no “amber waves of grain” or even cityscapes. You’ll have no blue skies or clouds and no hope of ever experiencing them again in person. You’ll be subject to extreme cabin fever.
It looks like Mars colonists will be in a constant state of stress from a long list of sources. How can you stand this sort of stress? The answer typically lies in hope for the future, in the belief that you’re building something for your children and future generations. Unless the problems of radiation, power, water, building materials, repairing and replacing Mars suits, and the rest are solved, you’ve just sentenced yourself to a life in prison, and that prison is the closest thing to hell that any living person can experience over protracted periods. Without hope, Mars One is doomed today.
Unless and until the Mars One organizers provide clear and detailed explanations of exactly how they will deliver the ability for a colony on Mars to grow and flourish, this project is dead on arrival.