Living On Mars: The Stuff You Never Thought About

In The Martian we saw what kind of hacking was needed to stay alive for a relatively short while on Mars, but what if you were trying to live there permanently? Mars’ hostile environment would affect your house, your transportation, even how you communicate. So here’s a fun thought experiment about how you’d live on Mars as part of a larger community.

Not Your Normal House

Mars One living units under regolith
Mars One living units under regolith, Source video

Radiation on Mars comes from solar particle events (SPE) and galactic cosmic radiation (GCR). Mars One, the organization planning one-way trips to Mars talks about covering their habitats in several meters of regolith, a fancy word for the miscellaneous rocky material covering the bedrock. Five meters provides the same protection as the Earth’s atmosphere — around 1,000 g/cm2 of shielding. A paper from the NASA Langley Research Center says that the largest reduction comes from the top 15 to 20 cm of regolith. And so our Mars house will have an underlying structure but the radiation protection will come from somewhere between 20 cm to a few meters of regolith. Effectively, people will be living underground.

On Earth, producing water and air for your house is not something you think of doing, let alone disposing of exhaled CO2. But Mars houses will need systems for this and more.

Finding Water

Water equivalent hydrogen within 60° on Mars
Water equivalent hydrogen within 60° on Mars

Water is a mix of hydrogen and oxygen and is abundant in the form of ice mixed into the top meter of the Martian regolith. Around the equator and up to 60° latitude it varies in concentration from 2-18% but further north and south it’s in even higher concentrations, reaching 100% at the north pole.

As in Earth cities, water will be piped or carried in from elsewhere, or it can be produced by the house environmental system from deliveries of regolith from the nearest quarry. In any case, it’s produced by heating regolith to turn the ice to vapor and then condensing the vapor to liquid water. Mars One hired Paragon Space Development Corporation, specialists in space environmental systems, to come up with a design for their habitats. Their design includes a hopper for putting regolith into as the first step in producing water.

Trifles Like Air, Toxins, and Food

Mars air is 95% carbon dioxide (CO2), 1.93% argon, 1.89% nitrogen and only 0.16% oxygen. Our Earth atmosphere, however, contains 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% CO2, and trace amounts of other gases. In The Martian, fresh oxygen for breathing was taken from CO2 in the Mars air. In Paragon’s environmental system, oxygen is also taken from CO2 in the Mars air but also takes nitrogen, argon and trace amounts of CO2 for a more complete mix. In addition, Paragon’s system also takes some oxygen from the water production system using electrolysis.

Interestingly, one of the less obvious issues is keeping toxic elements present in the dust from entering the house. Mars dust is electrically charged and sticks to everything, much like styrofoam packaging. If you’ve lived in environments where you had to clean your boots before entering the house, imagine having to clean your whole space suit, or you could just leave it in the airlock.

Growing food on Mars is possible — we know because we’ve reported on tests done with analogs of Mars soil. Some food will be grown in the house, for the side-benefit that plants absorb CO2 and exhale oxygen. But for variety, quantity and for saving time, much of it will come from separate greenhouses.

Of course, through all this we must keep in mind that all waste, used water, and exhaled air is recycled and reused in an effort to get as closed-loop as possible. That means the requirements for raw inputs would be less than they would be on Earth.

Electrical Ground On Mars

Mars doesn’t have a local electrical ground. The Earth does because the ground is electrically conductive and accepts charge from any charged object that comes in contact with it. Due to the large mass of a local Earth ground, it accepts this charge without becoming very charged itself. The moisture in the Earth ground aids its conductivity by enabling ions to move around. Mars’ ground, however, is dry and while it contains ice, that ice further decreases conductivity.

Mars is also dusty. That dust blowing around can charge space suits, vehicles, and parts of houses not covered in regolith. This is due to the triboelectric effect and is the same thing that happens when you walk across a carpet (charging your body) and then get a shock when you touch a doorknob. In the case of Mars, it’s the interaction between the dust and other objects that does the charging.

Since there’s no local electrical ground to discharge objects, they can build up different charge amounts. After walking around outside, when a person arrives at an airlock and presses a button to open it, a spark can pass between them, damaging sensitive electronics.

The solution is to design systems keeping in mind that there is no natural local ground. To get a local ground, while not a complete solution, electrically connecting houses and other structures via cables results in a giant capacitor, storing charge. Sharp metal points and normal building irregularities would help to discharge that built-up charge back to the atmosphere like a reverse lightning rod.

Wireless Communication Issues

Mars houses with antennas
Mars houses with antennas

As pointed out above, the housing is basically underground. This causes a problem when trying to transmit high frequency signals wirelessly. Of course one solution is to use cables, either copper or fiber optic. But if we want to keep things simple and flexible then the houses would simply have antennas extending outside the regolith roofs.

If houses are truly underground then cues can be taken from the mining industry’s through-the-earth mining communication systems. This transmits signals at ultra-low frequencies of 300-3000 Hz and can transmit through hundreds of meters of rock. The transmitter uses a large loop antenna on, or just under, the surface that transmits through the ground to the dwellings below.

Cavers have also done this for distances of a few hundred meters with more portable units with multiple turns for the loops. This is not normal broadcasting of electromagnetic waves but rather magnetic induction through rock, the transmitter’s loop creating a magnetic field which induces a matching one in the receiver’s loop.

But given the low bandwidth available with such low frequencies, we’ll either use exterior antennas, or cables for most communication.


Chris Hadfield with water bubble in the ISS, Source NASA
Chris Hadfield with water bubble in the ISS, Source NASA

The biggest impact on appliances used within the habitat compared to on Earth is Mars’ gravity, three-eighths that of Earth’s. We’ve certainly plenty of demonstrations of micro-gravity from the ISS. Mostly this would affect things that deal with fluids. For example, the blades in a food blender are at the bottom but would that work as well if the downward pull is half as strong?

In our article about Earth grounding for houses on the electrical grid, we showed various places that the ground played a part in our electrical system.

Appliances with metal cases often have an equipment grounding wire connecting that metal case to Earth ground. This is to discharge any charge built up on the appliance’s case due to things like nearby lightning strikes. But while lightning does occur on Mars in dust storms, it isn’t the form that would send charge through the ground and into appliances. Instead it’s more in the form of a glow within the dust clouds and doesn’t involve the ground.

That’s not to say that those appliances won’t need a ground prong on their plugs. The part of the circuit that trips the breaker if the live wire shorts to the metal case, doesn’t involve ground and is still required. Again, see our grounding article if you’re puzzled why that is.

And remember the days when people used to repair broken appliances rather than just buy new ones? That’ll be the norm on Mars, as will making your own things. Hackers will do well on Mars.

Generating Electricity

Opportunity rover's wind cleaned solar panels, Source: NASA
Opportunity rover’s wind cleaned solar panels, Source: NASA

Solar panels have been used by most of NASA’s Mars rovers and have kept them powered for long periods of time. As such, solar panels can be used for power for our houses. Dust can cover these solar panels, but unlike with the rovers, people will be present to clean them. Dust storms can be an issue though. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed in 2004 and encountered only one big dust storm in 2007. That had them going into survival mode for a few weeks. So just as with off-grid systems on Earth, a backup power system is needed.

Geothermal energy (areothermal energy on Mars) is one possible source but it’s unknown how deep you’d have to drill, 1 kilometer or 10 kilometers, before reaching hot enough temperatures. The deeper you drill, the more energy you need to do it. It will also require a large amount of steel piping, which can be made from the iron oxide which makes up the bulk of Mars regolith. Compressed and liquified CO2 can be used as the heat transfer fluid.

Nuclear power is also an option, using radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) for example. However, replacement radioactive materials will be needed in the long-term. If necessary, this can be a product bought from Earth suppliers.

Going Outside

Venturing outside on Mars is problematic. The surface air pressure is only 0.00628 atm, with Earth at sea level being 1 atm, or 1 standard atmosphere.

Flight engineer Petit helping MS Herrington don his EMU space suit, Source: NASA
Flight engineer Petit helping MS Herrington don his EMU space suit, Source: NASA

People would have to wear space suits, and we’ve already talked about how the suits would collect dust and bring it indoors. It also takes a lot of time to suit-up and unsuit. In the movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock unsuited in under a minute but that rapid speed was to keep the plot going. In reality it takes astronauts on the ISS a lot longer as they first have to don a skin-tight undergarment threaded with tubes for thermal control, followed by bending into the semi-rigid parts that make up the suit proper. All this time, everything is being checked. The process could be sped up of course, but there’s still more involved than tying your shoes and throwing on a jacket.

So how about instead slipping into a vehicle parked in a garage-sized airlock, depressurizing the garage, and driving out? There are a few problems here. One is the time required to cycle such a large volume. Another is the loss of air in cycling such a large airlock. Yet another is the huge opening required that invites abundant dust. It’s probably just as fast to suit-up and slip into an open vehicle waiting outside. Since it’s always outside, you wouldn’t need to clean the dust off it every trip.

Another option is to have tunnels between houses. That’s a large volume to keep filled with breathable air and kept warm so you’d probably want to do it on a small scale.

To avoid the above mentioned issues, for many jobs you could send a robot instead, one that remains outside and needs only periodic maintenance. Robots could keep the solar panels clean, carry supplies from place to place, and do routine maintenance. They could have some level of autonomy but still be teleoperated as needed.

Home Sweet Home

And so that’s our thought experiment about living on Mars. Does it make you want to pull up stakes and move? What would you do differently? What issues have we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

123 thoughts on “Living On Mars: The Stuff You Never Thought About

  1. “Mars is also dusty. That dust blowing around can charge space suits, vehicles, and parts of houses not covered in regolith. This is due to the triboelectric effect and is the same thing that happens when you walk across a carpet (charging your body) and then get a shock when you touch a doorknob. In the case of Mars, it’s the interaction between the dust and other objects that does the charging”

    How about using that effect as part of a generator?

      1. the problem would be consistency. Do they always happen in the same place? Do they always produce the same amount of current? How about over a day? How much of an area would need to be covered in order to get sufficient charges?

        If capturing the energy as it happens is not feasible, what about dealing with the after effects?
        Would they be able to use the discharge from suits, equipment, etc as an ancillary power source?

    1. Ever read anything–admittedly somewhat theoretical–on why all usable-power generation is performed by electromagnetic means? It’s because a generator based on electrostatics would be ridiculously huge .

      Why don’t we charge our phones by making use of all that carpet…?

    2. “How about using that effect as part of a generator?”

      Because there’s no energy there. Lots of volts, no amps.

      Think about it. Obviously power generated by people walking around is pathetically tiny. We’re only 100 W generators, after all.

      So the only real charging you’d get would be from the wind – and there’s no real energy there. Even if you assume you convert literally all of the wind energy into electricity directly (via… magic), it’s still nothing. Mars’s atmosphere is like, 20 grams/cubic *meter*. The power in wind blowing against a surface is just (1/2)*density*area*velocity^3, so if you were able to magically extract *all* of Mars’s ~20 mph typical winds, you’d be getting… around 8 watts/square meter. And obviously electrostatic charging isn’t where most of the energy would go anyway – it’d be going into moving things. But like I said, even if it magically was going into it, it still would be a pathetic amount of energy.

      1. ^^this^^

        That 8 watts per square meter is horrendous when you consider this.
        Our first commercially available solar cells were 6% efficient, Mars receives a maximum of 720 watts per square meter, of sunlight, at 6% efficiency a 1 square meter solar cell would produce 43.2 watts per square meter.
        Modern commercially available solar cells have a maximum efficiency of 24%, on Mars that gets you 172.8 watts per square meter.
        The maximum efficiency of a solar-thermal plant is about 60%, on Mars that gets you 432 watts per square meter.

        Point is, even with solar cell technology from 1954, powering a house on Mars with solar energy is vastly more feasible than an electrostatic generator.

    3. reckon you could just put up plastic sheeting like he did in ‘The Martian’ ?
      the film kinda fell down there…

      would be nice if all that money could go on immediate social issues on Earth.
      Mars looks like a bit of a dump. they’ll only use it to exile undesirables..

  2. For the vehicle issue — instead of having a vehicle in a garage/airlock that gets pressurized and depressurized in its entirity, just have the pressurized vehicle dock to a hatch on your structure. Think of it less like walking out your front door or hopping in your car, and more like spacecraft docking. The docking / sealing / airlock mechanism would probably be equivalently or less complicated than either a large garage structure or a regular size airlock to get suited up in.

    1. I was just at Kennedy. They proposed a rover with space suits that clip onto the rover. You climb into the suit from the rover. When you are done you back up to the rover. The suit clips back into place. You climb out of the suit back into the rover.

      1. Sort of like the cosmonaut space walk suits. A rectangular hatch on the back is opened and the ‘naut climbs in or out. The hatch can be closed by a cable from the inside, so additional people are not needed to help suit up.
        The suit is ill fitting compared to the US Space Shuttle suits which consist of various sized components (gloves, pants, boots…) which are sized closer to the actual user. The gloves are individually made for the wearer.

    2. I think the same can be done to some extent with the spacesuits; keep them in an unpressurized shed attached to the pressurized quarters, inside the shed have the spacesuits’ backs docked to the walls in a kind of sitting position, the astronaut just climbs in and the door shuts behind them and undocks. There would have to be some mechanism to keep the dust from the suits’ backs from entering, but that is a much smaller area to deal with than whole body.

  3. Underground tunnels could be pressurized with the local “air”.
    Then you’d only need to carry oxygen to breathe. And you’d need an airlock. But there wouldn’t be any differential pressure across the ‘lock. You could keep the tubes at a slightly lower pressure to keep CO2 from infusing into the habitats.
    Over time you could change it to breathable air.

  4. I have thought of some aspects of this too and have wondered about the viability of cave systems on Mars. The thought is to partially or totally bury the living spaces, but if there if there are going to be vehicles delivered, would it be more viable to find a large cave system to house multiple living units instead?

    I was wondering if a large and stable cavern was found capable of housing multiple modules, then would it be viable to place a community there and more easily secure it against solar radiation, allow better communications between modules since they won’t be buried separately, and allow for more communal work without the need to dig out tunnels? I know the cave system would probably need to have space cleared, but equipment to clear land shouldn’t be any more difficult than excavating, right? Finally, with the vehicles already being assumed and with the advent of modular, pop-up facilities, then moving them to a new location for building should be a possibility, I would think. Now that I’ve said all that, is there anyone on the site with knowledge of working with that sort of engineering who could give an opinion of that option and the possible pitfalls that would make it less viable than burying everything? I’d like to know more about the practicality of this thought.

    1. probably need some kind of coating on the cave walls to prevent atmosphere from seeping out through cracks and imperfections in the rock. maybe some kind of a spray on polymer, it would also help with insulation and keeping dust from getting shaved off the walls.

  5. Robots to keep the solar panels clean? Think you’ve seen too many SciFi movies :) A simple wiper system (as used on car windshields etc) would make a lot more sense. Not as sexy perhaps but certainly more economical and reliable

    1. Or simply pressuring the local ‘air’ (outside, CO2, etc) and blowing it with nozzles mounted to the panels once a week.
      Sure it will take longer to pump up since atomoaphereic pressure is so low. But even whipers will eventually need replacing.

      1. Because you don’t need them. I’ve not cleaned my windows in 10 years, we have rain, and if they’re a bit grubby for a few days when it’s dry, who cares.
        This doesn’t work for cars, where a few seconds is hundreds of metres of travel.

  6. Lets be honest. Mars sounds like a shit-hole. For the novelty, I’d like to see it but I’m not leaving earth until I can feel alien soil with my own hands so Mars no thank-you.

    1. Pioneers get the arrows. Settlers get the land. But the main reason for going is it’s an easier gateway to what’s out there, than constantly trying to launch everything from Earth.

      1. If that’s your goal IMO far better to construct a space dock at a Lagrange point or some easily maintained orbit, perhaps even at the asteroid belt so you don’t have to move the construction materials. Most of the construction and life support troubles will be the same.
        To get any more specific requires information we don’t yet have. Delta-V budget is going to affect any cost calculations for which base makes the best sense.

        1. Getting to orbit will always be the hard part of space travel, an orbital station would be more efficient as a refueling spot or a shipyard. However, Mars is a realistic goal for planetary settlement to test systems before we try to colonize deeper space.

        1. At first. But if you got a mature, self-sufficient civilisation going on Mars, their space program would be a lot easier than ours.

          Of course apart from Mars and the asteroids, there’s nowhere else really to go. We’re stuck in the solar system until some really really exotic method of getting from here to there turns up. It would be something revolutionary, not a natural development of existing space travel. Some sort of “warp drive” of whatever kind. May well be, probably is, impossible.

          In which case Mars is useful as a backup Earth, but apart from that space travel would be pointless forever. Indeed the “where are all the aliens” question means things don’t look optimistic. We might be stuck on this crappy planet in this crappy universe.

      2. Let’s be real here. The real reason to go to Mars, besides providing a haven’t for humanity in the event of a global catastrophe, is to serve as a filter. Only the bravest, brightest, and most adventurous will go, and only the most resourceful and paranoid will survive. The rest will be culled. The population will be head and shoulders above the rest of us (me included.)

  7. When I read articles such as this I always amazed at how very difficult things are glossed over. Making steel pipes on Earth is very difficult because of the energy requirements and machinery needed to do the job. Go to a steel mill and see what’s involved. Now try to imagine doing that on Mars. This goes for the housing, electronics, food production etc. People living on Mars will be dependent on Earth for a long time (think space station and Antarctic stations) and I don’t know if the Earthlings will want to pay to keep those people alive.

          1. I know I’ll die from a kidney stone one day. I know that those can be made worse by the loss of calcium due to the lowering of bone density in lower gravity. I know that treating an infection in space would be unpredictable; who knows what the radiation would do to “normal” human flora.

            And I would still rather take the risk, and adventure, of a one-way trip to Mars. Not because of a death wish, or for glory . . . just because I would love to see a sunset that few people have ever seen before. Because it would require me to do the quick thinking and hacked problem solving that I enjoy. Because even if no one else followed, even if my ride crashed and cratered, and no one was told my name, I would still know that I was part of one of the “biggest steps in human history”.

            Maybe Delos Harriman just had that much of an affect on me.

    1. I remember talking with someone about that, and one of the things they’re working on is how to manufacture things in a space environment? Right now our technology is pretty primitive so worrying about steel pipes is rather premature.

      1. Steel mills have to produce pipes economically. All those gigantic pools of fire and molten iron are part of that. But blacksmiths can produce steel over a forge with a hammer. If money’s not a problem, and you don’t need too many pipes at once, it’s certainly possible. Probably not massively less efficient either. Steel mills are gigantic because they sell gigantic quantities of steel, because Earth uses gigantic quantities of steel. On Mars you could use some of your industrial capacity to increase your industrial capacity, as more population turns up.

        If you take economics out of it, there’s all sorts of stuff you can do.

    2. Once there is something on Mars people want, then there will be a colony.
      The book / show ‘The Expanse’ has a pretty believable display of Mars-Earth relations with the asteroid belt colonies simultaneously trapped in the middle & generally neglected, political bargaining chips rather than citizens of either government.

    3. “… steel pipes…very difficult because of the energy requirements and machinery needed…try to imagine doing that on Mars. This goes for the housing, electronics, food production etc. People living on Mars will be dependent on Earth for a long time (think space station and Antarctic stations) and I don’t know if the Earthlings will want to pay to keep those people alive”.

      Put this to Elon Musk. Musk is the consummate politician. What he won’t tell you is that his grandiose plans are for you to foot the bill. No? Look at how he’s funded–long-term–all his ‘projects’. Nothing i’s going to change. Only the ‘projects’ will get bigger, and more costly. For US.

      1. Well maybe, but if he’s starting a Mars colony you can’t expect him to pay for it out of his own pocket. It’s a humanity-scale kind of business, so humanity in general can pay for it. We spend far, far, far more money on killing each other down on Earth, and even more on threatening to.

        If humanity grew the fuck up, or managed to pry the psychopaths away from the power they’re so attracted to, and so good at manipulating their way into, stuff like this would be pocket money. Then if we really needed to kill somebody we could just, I dunno, stab them.

    4. “Making steel pipes on Earth is very difficult because of the energy requirements and machinery needed to do the job. Go to a steel mill and see what’s involved. Now try to imagine doing that on Mars.”

      Way of making things on Earth is specific to Earth conditions. How do we make steel here? IANA metallurgist, but I’ll try to answer that from what I gathered: We start with iron oxide and carbon dioxide. We wait several million years until carbon is extracted from carbon dioxide from atmosphere, and oxygen released into atmosphere, the carbon accumulated in subterranean concentrated deposits of coal, and then we continue:

      Get the iron oxide, get the coal, react the coal with regulated small amounts of oxygen to get hot carbon monoxide atmosphere inside reaction vessel, let that heat and carbon monoxide pull oxygen out of iron oxide, and then we let reduced molten iron out into ingot moulds.

      On Mars, we don’t have deposits of coal. So, we’ll have to do it more directly and on smaller scale. We may have to turn CO2 into plasma, separate oxygen and carbon in a mass spectrometer kind of device (capture oxygen for breathing), bombard small particles of iron oxide with streams of elementary carbon ions, measuring resulting output of CO2 to know when to stop to avoid inserting too much carbon into our steel. Once we get particles with high content of pure iron, we will have to sinter them by pressure, so that they would cold weld to each other, to get rods or other shapes of “almost steel” so that we can melt them by electric conduction (e.g. in induction furnace), and refine the material by letting remaining iron oxide float on top of molten iron and be removed. Once again, we let reduced molten iron out into ingot moulds.

      1. You would user an arc furnace. But the real question is why? What would you do on Mars? Why would you want to be 20 light minutes away when you could be on the Moon, with much better selection of metals?

        1. The moon does not have enough gravity for a comfortable living I think. Mars has probably the bare minimum for plausible sustained human habitation, Also a tiny bit of atmosphere is much better than none.

          That said, clearly Mars isn’t viable if most mass of components and tools required for sustaining life need to be shipped from Earth. It will be viable once a solid plan to bootstrap local manufacturing (also known as ISRU, in-situ utilization) is made. That probably includes producing solar panels en masse by refining silicon dioxide and other minerals (martian sand), and using the energy to produce more panels and all other materials necessary.

          1. There are ways of getting your energy which would be easier(at first) to manufacture in-situ, than solar panels.
            You could build mirrors, and a stirling engine, and a motor.
            At that point you have a solar-thermal power plant. Once you build the first one, that gets you more energy, so you can build more and more of them, actually the stirling engine does not even *need* to spin a generator/motor, it could even be used for an air compressor, or water pump, or for conveyor belts, or other things that could directly use mechanical/rotational energy.

        2. “Why would you want to be 20 light minutes away when you could be on the Moon, with much better selection of metals?”

          Volatiles. Mars’s atmosphere is crap, but it’s there, and it wouldn’t take a hell of a lot of effort to use it for volatile collection. It’ll also be interesting to see what turns up once any rovers/etc. actively start going below the top layer of soil.

          Obviously metals are damn handy, but volatiles are what are in scarce supply on light-gravity planets (which is why terraforming Mars is such a long-term pain in the ass). Metals you can reuse. Once the volatiles are gone, they’re gone.

  8. I thought this would be about hobbies. Music is fine, if you can get the instrument there. In “Farmer in the Sky”, the main character gets his accordion to Ganymede by showing he could play it, so it goes as “community” rather than his personal weight limit, where it was too heavy.

    Astronomy would be interesting, if you can get that telescope there. Rockhounds would probably have fun, all that virgin territory.

    But hobbies that need consumables? There’s no Radio Shack, or Tandy Leather. You have to take what you need, but you won’t be able to take much. And when it runs out, it’s gone. And even if you took enough parts, you’d find you forgot something, and there’s no going back. Unless there was test equipment you could borrow, you’d likely be stuck.

    Though anything that can be done in software likely does well, surely everyone gets a tablet or laptop, people need movies and books and news, and a computer or tablet beats old methods.

    If you can get your ham equipment up there, you can spend time making a big antenna. Virtually nobody to talk to, but there’s an award waiting for the first ham contact with Mars, so you can spend your time trying to reach Earth.
    Living a few weeks underwater, like all those Sealab things in the sixties is nothing compare to being really far from earth, and no way back.


  9. Just read the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Covers a lot of these things, but they basically hand-wave the hard, survival stuff because they bring along air-miners and robotic assemblers that do most of the hard work.

  10. The only thing Mars could possibly export to Earth in exchange for supplies is some sort of information. It has to be really important and marketable, though. And I don’t mean reality shows, they get old very fast. Once we establish for sure that there isn’t any original ecology on Mars, it could be used for dangerous experiments that could damage the Earth’s biosphere if tried down here: chemical, biological hazard, radioactive, considering that whole Mars habitats will be on hazmat regime anyway for as far as anyone can anticipate. If we manage to solve the problem of cheap inter-planetary trade, Mars could become destination for (variants of) all most dangerous and dirty industries from Earth, including recycling our electronic and other dangerous waste (cheap and liability here, a goldmine over there).

    1. Interplanetary trade will never be viable unless we discover a way to do it very cheaply. Given the laws of physics and the distances involved that is unlikely to happen. Mars would probably be a one-way trip for a long, long time.

      1. The gravitational potential energy difference (since you mentioned laws of physics) is actually relatively small. At wholesale electricity prices it would cost something like $2/kg to ship to Mars (assuming you don’t recover kinetic energy on arrival). The problem is those solutions usually require building megastructures on Earth, like orbital rings or space fountains, which no government or organization is willing to do.

        1. It’s actually *just* Earth that’s the problem, of all reasonable rocky planets (e.g. excluding Venus). All of the others (Mars, the Moon, etc.) have such shallow gravity wells that a space elevator type ribbon would be pretty easy. At the Moon you’d have to go to the Earth/Moon Lagrange points due to the Earth’s influence, but you could build one to there out of kevlar and it’d be strong enough.

          No one wants to fund the megastructures you’re talking about because realistically they’re very near fundamental physics limits, so it’s damn questionable that you could actually do it. But on the Moon or Mars, they’re far more reasonable, and if you’re shuttling stuff to Mars anyway, it’d just be a decent-sized satellite to ship there.

          1. Look up orbital rings and space fountains (or other concepts like magnetically supported Mass Drivers). Unlike the space elevator, neither require impossible materials (you can build both with Kevlar tethers with margin to spare), but of course would still be a colossal technical challenge and colossal expense. Nothing a few trillion dollars couldn’t achieve though (which is how much the US spends on wars per decade).

          2. Space fountains/orbital rings are both unstable solutions. Yes, you can maintain them actively, and they’re theoretically possible, but you could easily imagine that the practicalities prevent them from ever occurring. The disaster potential is just way too high. And that’s just because Earth’s potential well is just big enough that there’s no “cheap and easy” alternative out there.

            On the moon, it’s a joke – a tether to the Lagrange points could be done trivially. If you imagine a colony starting up on the Moon, and then mining materials, they’d eventually build a tether. That’s a no-brainer.

            Mars is a bit more interesting, but with Phobos being so low, and Martian gravity/atmosphere so thin, a combination projectile/tether becomes a pretty basic idea as well.

            Again, not talking about building something on Earth and sending it there. But in the far future, if you’ve got manufacturing on Earth/Moon/Mars/Belt/Jovian Moons/etc., you’d easily get trade between places *other* than Earth. It’s just Earth, and specifically getting *heavy* stuff off Earth. That’s the difficult problem.

            Of course once you’ve got manufacturing elsewhere in the Solar System, getting heavy stuff off Earth isn’t that important anymore.

    2. If you can build archologies, the 1/3 g will be very attractive for retirement. Mars can be the retirement planet of the solar system. You need good cheap fusion power. With enough power, almost anything is possible.

  11. Wow, where did I get that from?! I just checked the various sources I used, including the one I gave a link to, and all use solar particle event (SPE). Fixed. Thanks.

  12. Let’s be clear here: be sure that *everything* any human or robot/machine will do on Mars will be monitored extremely closely. Every heartbeat will be recorded along with health data, breath, pulse, EGG, thought, step, timeframe, every freakin’ hard on and jerk off, literally every move will end up in a database somewhere.

    Talk about privacy now.

    This idea of wanting to go to Mars is such a childish fantasy. Not that children fantasies are wrong, not at all. It’s just that, they do not need to come true, we don’t need to make them happen for them to be good and useful. Elon Musk is a great inspiration in many regards but that desire of his to go to Mars is such a weird fetish. That endeavor, if it becomes, at anytime, technically viable, is doomed to end up a human failure. There will be far less “free will” on Mars than the bits and pieces of it that we have here on earth. In fact, I suspect there will be no free will at all. It is the perfect environment for robots. Yes, let’s send them AI aggregates; go forth and replicate.

  13. Attrition and consumption pose huge difficulties.

    Supply constraints mean vastly expensive and difficult to replace materials being constantly resupplied.
    Alternatively local materials require processing at levels not currently feasible as payload.

    The dust is highly abrassive.
    It also carries poisons making it unsuitable for use as a soil.
    Ingress to living modules of large quantities of dust pose a risk to mechanisms and explorers alike.
    Wearing out of space suits and carrying poisons into the habitat pose risks long term.

  14. NO!

    SEP is an acronym (a true acronym, by the way, and not a simple abbreviation) for “Someone Else’s Problem”. The SEP-Field generator was introduced by Douglas Adams in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series. and is well
    documented by Ford Prefect, I believe.

    A sterling example of the need for, and use of a SEP-Field Generator is that Elon Musk obviously has one, and uses it on all his projects–to bathe them in its radiation–when it comes to the PROBLEM of how to pay for them.

    1. Sheesh. So you’re like an Anti-Musk activist? What I find strange about your position is why you focus on the one person taking a path that has success as a possible outcome. That is: the problem with the US’ current space-based efforts (really any “mega” scale project outside of war efforts) is not a lack of money, material, or technology. It comes down to will:

      Musk has money (enough for now), is proving the technology, and has expressed the will to see things happen. The money for the future is a problem that can be solved as you go along, just like with any corporate interest.

      1. Waste a literal trillion dollars in a war effort in the desert largely to secure oil supplies? No one bats an eye.

        Propose space colonization, largely privately funded because the public doesn’t want to pay even 1% of GDP for awe-inspiring space exploration? “Musk is a con-man.”

        1. You’re posing a false dilemma.

          1) People got wise from the oil wars, and became suspicious of all government funded “projects”.

          2) securing oil is generally useful to all, whereas space colonization costs everyone a whole lot and benefits only a select few.

      2. “…So you’re like an Anti-Musk activist?…”
        Please extend me the courtesy of assuming that I know how to ignore, and not lend dignity to, individual twits. No, I am not an anti-musk activist. What I am , and what is in very short supply, is an Anti-Con-Man activist…

        1. “The money for the future is a problem…”
          You need go no further. This is precisely what Elon Musk knows, and what he spends the majority of his time on: how to get US to make the paymentS, and make them NOW to fund government-mandated programs, passed by Musk’s lobbying efforts. Which fund Musk, of course.

        2. Yeah, him, Halliburton, Monsanto, and a dozen others. If you’re complaining that giant businesses have got their bloodsucking teeth into the US government, and are embezzling ludicrous amounts of money, and pressuring to have laws changed to suit their own private interest, then… yeah, you’re completely right. But Musk’s a small fish in that pond. He’s just one of the few who are attention whores. The real old pros actively avoid attention.

          You sound like an anti-corruption activist. Keep at it!

  15. I realize starting is the fun subject to talk about when living on Mars but what are the timelines for making the coloney self suffient to the point where it can make its own everything (mining all the way to manufacturing)? It took earthlings a couple of years to get to where we are now afterall.

  16. If anyone is interested for more details on living on Mars and also getting there, Robert Zubrin wrote extensive book “The Case for Mars” which covers this and probably everything else and explains why very well.

    1. There’s also a lessor known one by Zubrin that’s only about living on Mars called How to Live on Mars (very little time is spent on getting there). It’s written as a guide book for someone who’s decided to move to Mars at some future time when Mars is settled, and so describes all aspects of life there: how to choose a spacesuit, a house, what kind of job to get, … Some humor and sarcasm thrown in. I borrowed it from the local library as part of my research for this article, but having read it, I wouldn’t mind having a hardcopy.

  17. But in 4.5 billion years the sun will become a red giant and so even Mars will not be enough to escape that.

    While I know that’s in the future but we know it will happen, more likely something else may make earth non viable for life such as meteor strike, nuclear war etc. much sooner than that.

    So if we don’t at least try and make off planet independent colonies we may as well die off and let the porpoises have a go.

    Maybe start with the asteroids though?

  18. The “air” and dust will all smell like skunk too…

    But Mars will also be able to export biologicals that consume CO2 in their metabolism, would be a great for the atmo here, or the start of a nano bio catastrophe, as they dissassemble the carbon in all of us and our food supplies.

    Airlocks are def the way to go, as you need a strong airflow of charged cold plasma to blast the dust off you and your gear.

    Seems like heavy eqpt operator is going to be a big job catagory, with tunneling, bulldozing, drilling etc.

    1. Yes. (From memory:) Cold plasma is plasma, a conductive fluid composed of ions stripped from atoms by the exTREMELY high ambient temperature of the local environment to which the atoms are subjected. Only, like, you know, man, like…cold. Ya know?
      [taken from the Proceedings of Tenth Annual International IEEE Symposium on Magnetohydrodynamics, Lucerne, Sw…]

  19. What amuses me somewhat is why hasn’t some attempt at an outpost been tried on somewhere a bit more accessible – like the moon. Only a 3 day journey rather than 7 months or so.

    If people want to go to mars that’s great but apart from a couple of space stations we haven’t done anything else.

    Is it because going to mars is a set and forget – once your in your way to mars your NOT coming back so if it all goes pear shaped and everybody dies oh well. But the moon is a bit closer so return and rescue is viable.

  20. There were proposals to use the space shuttle fuel tanks to build ships to cycle between Earth and Mars and the Moon.
    Cargo and passenger ships departing Earth and Mars every month, with the passenger flights reserved for the shortest transfer times. Once the ‘slots’ are full there’d be stuff and/or people departing and arriving at least once a month. At least one SciFi novel has used this.

    There were also proposals to use them to build massive space stations and other things. Imagine a space station with the mass of a fully loaded Shuttle, mounted atop an ET. Put the three SSME’s under the ET, which is modified for mounting four SRBs. The ET would also have fittings inside for installing decks and bulkheads, plus a hatch to the station and reinforced areas for mounting exterior hatches and ports. Cut away insulation, drill through the skin to get at the bolt holes. Mount the hatch then cut the skin out of the center. For interior stuff, much of it would be packed into the station, with more sent up on a cargo version of the station rocket. Dock it side by side with the first, get busy moving all the stuff into both ETs. The empty cargo container becomes a handy place for lots of experiments and/or manufacturing. Zero gravity foundries could be built like this for processing asteroid metal.

    There could have been a space station in orbit with two launches, dwarfing the usable volume of the ISS that’s taken nearly 20 years to build out to its current state.

    NASA chose to litter Earth’s oceans with the External Tanks. Literally throwing away very expensive resources.

    1. We all need to kinda grow out of our childhood fantasies and think hard. Milo has it right – Mars is an absolute shit hole. A butt-load of energy is needed to allow human settlement. Everyone blah blah blahs about dust, yet no one talks about fission. I’ll believe in Mars when NASA and Musk grow the gonads needed to politically and technically take on transportable, compact fission reactors in space. These will have to come from earth. Then you can maybe talk about steel. Until then Mars is popcorn and pepsi in front of a big screen. Or waiting for China to do it first. I’ll probably be waiting a long time.

  21. I think that Mars is a waste of resources at this point, but the technology coming from it may be necessary. I believe that the Saturn system truly provides the resources humanity needs to advance to something greater. The data coming mars can enable that, but permanent colonies are ludicrous.

    A well planned cave base sought out by rovers would be the most logical. The 2020 needs to prioritize cave systems for natural underground radiation protection. The radiation is far too much for a permanent base, theres not enough evidence suggesting that the radioactive regolith will not be radioactive on its own. For humans to stay there indefinitely is a expedited sentence to terminal cancer, possibly in situ in the event of CME / Solar Flare impact.

    Humans can stay there a little while though to learn and get past the biological steps of space travel. Learn what we can about outposts on mars, but the moon and Saturn should be considered for longer stays.

  22. Poor light, underground living, too few people to keep the local internet entertaining. I think only those idiots who wanted Trump to get them jobs as freaking miners would be interested in living there.
    Oh and the research showing you get a rapid decline of mental capacity from the spaceflight, and life on Mars, will also be a wonderful thing I’m sure.

    1. Too bad the rocket’s not ready for all those freaking idiots who WERE going to leave the country because Trump was elected. Why are they STILL here? What’s been the excuse? What’s the excuse NOW?.
      The screaming, left-wing, mouth-breathing mental defectives will jump at the promise of an additional decline in mental capacity. You’re not one of them, are you? Didn’t think so; no one ever is.

      Wipe your hard drive lately? With a dish-rag?

  23. There’s no “local ground” on Mars, which makes a fundamental difference to Earth? For me this is hard to believe. Consider you are in the middle of a huge desert on Earth. According to your theory there should also be no means by which charges can equilibrate, due to the lack of water in the (geological) ground, or close to the (geological) surface. Does the sand get attracted to you due to electrostatic effects? Never heard such a claim. Does the sand cause painful electrostatic discharges to humans? Never heard of that, either.
    Where did you get that idea from?

  24. You talk about electrical ground and say that ‘Mars’ isn’t conductive like ‘Earth’ then go on to say that you could use through-the-earth communication systems. But it isn’t ‘Earth’ it’s ‘Mars’ so would it work?
    Also radios have ‘antennas’ insects have ‘antennae’

    1. The through-the-earth communication is an induction effect. The changing magnetic field in the transmitter induces a similar changing magnetic field in the receiver. The conductivity of the ground doesn’t play a part. Though if the ground was iron then that might act like a ferrite core (magnetic permeability would play a part) and absorb some of the field. Hmmm there is a lot of iron oxide in the Martian dirt. Maybe that would interfere?
      I did a quick search for the plural of antenna when writing the article but the difference wasn’t mentioned. I just looked again and it looks like yet another US/Canada vs British thing. New Zealand and Australia are split on the matter. I’ll change it.

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