Can we really colonize Mars?

Colonies on Mars
Artist's depiction of a colony on Mars
Image Source: 
Contrary to the scare that comes along with the thought that aliens might be interested in visiting our planet, humans, as a race, are quite enthusiastic when it comes to possibilities of inhabiting other planets in our solar system.  Whether we are eager to do this, in the name of science, or probably to quench our age old traits of conquering newer lands (something that is no longer an option on Earth), is matter of debate. But since, most people agree to this thought of colonizing other planets, we thought we could scientifically discuss, whether this was really possible. 

First and foremost, where do we go? 

Before we can decide what we would really need on this campaign for colonization, we need to first decide, where we need to go. Do, we go towards the Sun or away from it? Or do we just pick up the nearest planet to the Earth and start our preparations? We can simply look at our immediate neighbours first, Venus and Mars. While Venus is approximately 41 million kilometres away, Mars is about 78 million kilometers away from the Earth. So, why did NASA send its rover missions to Mars, when Venus was just half he distance away? 

Well, the answer to this lies, in this simple graph that compares temperatures of the planets in our Solar system
Graph showing average temperatures for the planets in our Solar system
Graph showing average temperatures for the planets in our Solar system
Image Source: www.enchanted
As you can see, the Earth's average temperature is around the zero degree Centigrade mark, the temperature where we know water freezes. In comparison, Venus, the planet that is closest to us has a temperature around the 450 degrees centigrade, making it completely inhabitable for humans. If we were to set up a colony there, we would have to find a very good mechanism to cool down the planet or at least the colonised area by a massive 400 degrees, something that we are not very good at, at this point in time. 

On the other hand, Mars has a sub-zero temperature range, with some places even registering a positive temperature. Additionally, as a race, we are quite adept has surviving in sub zero temperatures and keeping ourselves warm. Thus, Mars becomes the logical choice, when looking for a planet that we can colonize. It is not only close by, but we also already know a few things that can help us survive there. This is why, NASA and other space agencies have been sending exploratory missions to Mars and not Venus instead. 

What do we need? 

So, now that we know, which planet can be reached, we now need to make a list of things that we will need to get there and require, once we land on Mars. 

Place to Live 

In preparation, we will first need to ship Living Blocks to Mars that will be capable of supporting human existence on the planet. These blocks will maintain regular room temperature and levels of oxygen, Carbon dioxide, nitrogen, etc. within the blocks, just like the atmosphere on Earth. This will allow the first human inhabitants on the planet to live a life, free from space suits, much alike how life is aboard the International Space Station (ISS)

Food to Eat

Needless to say, the Living Block would have to be stacked with food, since from the information we have so far, Mars is incapable of growing potatoes and wheat for us. The ISS is also stacked with food for a crew of 3-5 people but supplies on the ISS are restocked every six months or so. The Living Units on the Mars would need supplies for at least 3-5 years since even a planned mission to the planet requires 7 months of journey time. 

Work to do

After spending billions of dollars to ensure that humans reach the red planet with food supply to last many years, it would be quite stupid to let them sit there and waste their lives, waiting for a pickup back to Earth. Curiosity demands that we do something there, like take a torch light and look out for signs of life. Rovers sent to Mars have already been able to send us good amount of information about what elements exist there, so that natural thing to do would be use this information to make the planet more habitable for us. For example, carry genetically engineered plants from here, that can sustain themselves there.

If these ideas seem a little beyond the horizon for now, the least we could do is carry enough equipment to set up more living units and stock more food so that more humans can be sent there at a latter point, with a mission that extends beyond just survival.

Means of transport

Moving along the surface of Mars should not be very difficult, since Rovers sent earlier to the planet have been able to do so with the power that is drawn using solar panels. However, it is the lift off from Mars that will much more difficult to achieve. Although, the gravity on Mars is only 38% of that on the Earth and the atmosphere is also thinner on the planet, the fuel to lift off has to be first transported from the Earth, along with other supplies and stored carefully, until the time it is required. Since, this looks like a tedious task to achieve, it is likely that humans travelling to such colonies may not return back to Earth in their life time.

Unless, of course, in the immediate future, we do find some kind of fuel on the planet or a Transport Shuttle of some sort is invented that can make the take off and landing much more easier to carry out on both the planets. 

Do we have the technology to achieve this? 

Amongst the things mentioned above, we have the technology to get ourselves on Mars (if not back right away). The Living Blocks are something that we need to develop. The development of the ISS is somewhere mid way between leading normal life on Earth and settling down on Mars. These blocks would require a mechanism to extract water from the frozen ice crystals on the planet and also a way to convert the plenty carbon dioxide on the planet to usable oxygen.

There is the chemist and engineer's way of making a device that takes into account the chemical changes required to convert one form of gas into another or else, there is the biologist's way, of using plants that have been doing this for millions of years and are likely to do the same on another planet as well. Rather, preliminary experiments have showed that this is quite doable and probably, along with Living Blocks, we should also send some seeds and saplings to the Red Planet to start off.
Plants grown in simulated soil environments for Moon, Earth and Mars!
Plants for Mars
Image shows plants grown in simulated soil environments for the Moon, Earth and Mars!
Image source: PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103138.g002

We will also need a few handy robots that can helping with building tasks and perform routine checks on equipment on hars environments on the Red Planet. The robots we have built are quite capable of handling tasks for us (A Wall-E future), so this is also achievable in the coming few years.

However, we will need to raise the temperature of Mars to bring it in line with that on the Earth. The human race is well aware of how to do this, so this should not pose a real problem. It is just it will be required to be done much quicker than usual and may be we will be able to find an economical way to transport trapped pollution to Mars in the years to come.

Like mentioned before, we do not have the technology to bring people back, so initially people heading to Mars will only be carrying a single journey ticket.

How soon can we do this? 

To be honest, people have already preparations to travel to Mars. Although, NASA's manned mission to Mars will probably take place in the early 2030s but private firms like Space X and Mars One have plans of landing humans earlier and perhaps even colonising it before NASA astronauts reach there.

Space X has been a well known name in space industry since they have been contracted to transport supplies to the ISS. Their Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets have be applauded for their abilities and its founder and CEO Elon Musk has revealed that a complete roadmap to Space X's Mars Mission will be revealed before the end of 2015.

Mars One on the other hand, is a non-profit company, looking to set up a colony on Mars. Its Co-founder, Bas Lansdorp has been working since 2011 to ensure that the first crew for their Missions takes off from Earth by 2026. Unlike Space X, Mars One does not really have any rockets or launch engines at their disposal and their mission largely depends on the tie-ups they manage and the external funding they can generate to pay for these services. Interestingly, Mars One has already invited applications from the common public to become astronauts for this one way trip and people have responded in large numbers. The applicants list has already been shortlisted to a 100 names and Mars One has plans of broadcasting the selection process, training program and the actual take off to Mars as an historic event world over. The company aims to raise funds for their program through the distribution of the entire event whilst making space research a part of reality television.

But what ever means, people take to reach the Red Planet, the truth is that the race is on and it is only a matter of time, before humans set foot on Mars!

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Wamelink, G., Frissel, J., Krijnen, W., Verwoert, M., & Goedhart, P. (2014). Can Plants Grow on Mars and the Moon: A Growth Experiment on Mars and Moon Soil Simulants PLoS ONE, 9 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103138

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