Earlier this year, I wrote a series of pieces for Mental Floss on the surprising engineering obstacles to building a colony on Mars. It was well received (though the edits left something to be desired) and I thought I’d share the pieces here. Part 1 provides an overview of what we’re up against.
In 2001, NASA sent a particle energy spectrometer to Mars to study the red planet’s radiation. This was called the Mars Radiation Environment Experiment, or MARIE. The device found that the surface of Mars has two and half times the radiation that you’d get at the International Space Station, and that’s not even counting the solar proton events, which come without warning and really bombard the place. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Why don’t we worry about solar proton events here on Earth? I mean we share the same sun!” Good question. When the protons of an SPE hit Earth, the magnetosphere pulls them to the poles, and the ionosphere (just below the magnetosphere) handles the rest. This is called polar cap absorption, and is one of the many reasons why Earth is a wonderful place indeed. Mars, lacking a magnetosphere, offers no such protection. How much of a problem is this, human-life-wise? After a series of solar flares in 2003, MARIE was damaged and rendered inoperable. If the sun is frying the machines on Mars designed to measure such solar salvos, imagine what it will do to humans. So, cancer: CHECK.
Part 2 explained the challenges associated with actually shooting people and equipment from the third planet to the fourth, and then finding a way to get those things, biological and mechanical, on the ground.
Getting something to Mars and landing it there is basically impossible. You might think it’s just a matter of building a rocket and pointing it in the right direction, and you’d be right, technically, but the men and women who have to actually carry the one and do the hard math know that there’s a dark power at work that often trumps our greatest engineering achievements. There’s no sense in dancing around the issue. There is a giant space monster that doesn’t want us on Mars… Humans have been sending things to (or near) Mars since 1960, and in that time there have been an inordinate number of accidents. Sometimes we’ve lost contact with our probes. Sometimes they just crash into the planet. Sometimes they never even make it out of Earth’s orbit. Scientists sometimes attribute our weird misfortune to the Great Galactic Ghoul—also called the Mars Curse. The Red Planet, it seems, is located in the stellar equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
In part 3, I described the human problem. See, once you’re settled into your new Martian bungalow, you have a new problem: your new Martian bungalow will be the only place you ever go, ever.
The sheer scope of the challenges associated with building a colony on another planet should be pretty clear at this point. Yes, each of the technologies covered have solid foundations and laboratory successes, but they’re going to have to actually work, and work well, and not break, to be useful on Mars. And they’re all going to have to work at the same time. Any one break in the chain would pretty much spell certain death for literally everyone on the planet. So if you plan to move to Mars, you’d better be an optimist… Here’s the thing. Our Martian colonists will be confined mostly indoors, will live with the possibility of sudden extinction at any given moment, and—garden tending and science projects aside—will be faced with jaw-clenching boredom. On Mars, there are no trips to the mall, no walks in the park, no Redbox runs, no rainy afternoons at the coffee shop, no nights on the town. There is only your habitat and what you brought with you. The Mars 500 crew tried passing the time by playing Guitar Hero and watching DVDs, but they quickly grew sedentary and lethargic. Ultimately, only two out of the six crewmembers adjusted to the mission. On an actual Martian colony, the risk of a crewmember or colonist snapping is all too real, and the result could be devastating beyond imagination.