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When Humans Colonize Mars

We, as humans, have been dreamers since the dawn of our existence. As far-fetched dreams go, humans colonizing Mars, represents one of the most dazzling dreams the human race has ever yearned for. Ever since the “discovery” of what appeared to be canals on Mars, by Giovanni Schiaparelli, in 1877, we’ve salivated at the thought of exploring Mars, sending robotics there and eventually; having humans colonizing Mars.

Shortly after Schiaparelli’s discovery, Percival Lowell thought he observed evidence of engineering on a global scale by an intelligent Martian population desperate to save the last vestiges of a once thriving civilization.

To Lowell, the canals first observed by Schiaparelli were designed to channel water from the polar ice caps to the desiccated equatorial plains, which is most likely what would need to happen when humans colonize Mars, if a colonization attempt is to have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the long run.

However, wanting to go to the planet Mars is a very long way removed from actually doing so, which is why the Council for the Colonization of Mars was formed by ex-NASA scientists, engineers, and administrators. The existence of the Council is not widely known or published, but a recent report and study was released by the Council dealing with the engineering and technological challenges facing such an endeavor as humans colonizing Mars.

 

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Image by NASA, https://goo.gl/VC7Zb9

 

It’s a remarkable document and although much of the content is highly technical in nature, we’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing some of the main points to make them comprehensible to readers that are interested in astronomy, likely educated, but aren’t scientists, astronomers or physicists. Without further ado, here’s the paraphrased version of the report compiled by the Council for the Colonization of Mars and what it would take for humans to colonize Mars.

Abstract – When Humans Colonize Mars:

The Council for the Colonization of Mars is engaged in finding solutions to the seemingly endless amount of challenges that face such an undertaking. While the Council admits that the proposed solutions may fall short of their envisioned goals, the Council is nevertheless of the opinion that they are worthy of consideration, if not actual execution.

 

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Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, https://flic.kr/p/79BZRA

 

The Council is well aware of the fact that there are no protocols, testing and measuring standards or statistical probability scales with which to gauge the likely success of an undertaking of this magnitude. For these reasons, the Council is fully prepared and resolved to solely depend on the ingenuity, perseverance and engineering skills of its staff and members to find appropriate technological solutions to create suitable conditions when humans colonize Mars.

Stabilizing the Planet – When Humans Colonize Mars:

While Mars’ axial tilt of 25 degrees is currently stable, the variation in the tilt over periods of about 100,000 years produces large climatic changes, which will no doubt have serious consequences for the long-term survival of a human colony.

The Council readily admits that 100,000 years might not provide sufficient time for the process of transforming the Martian atmosphere, which means that when humans colonize Mars, climatic conditions might not be conducive to the establishment or survival of a previously established colony.

At present, the seasons on Mars are quite similar to those on earth; however, while humans are hugely adaptable and might easily survive large climatic changes; food crops are usually not as adaptable. This could result in large quantities and supplies of the local food sources be at continuous risk of extinction.

To address this issue, the Council proposes stabilizing Mars’ axial tilt by means of moving a suitably massive asteroid into a stable orbit around the planet. While there is no doubt that such an object will have the same stabilizing effect on Mars as the Moon has on Earth, the execution of the idea is somewhat problematic to say the least.

 

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“Courtesy NASA/JPL-California Institute of technology.” processing 2di7 & titanio44, https://flic.kr/p/8nvnaP

 

To address this particular issue, the Council has established a sub-committee consisting of planetary scientists and engineers to find appropriate solutions to the problem of capturing and then moving a massive asteroid into a stable orbit around Mars. Without losing control of it and sending it crashing into Earth, which is a distinct possibility.

Changing the Atmosphere – When Humans Colonize Mars:

When humans colonize Mars, they will find the current atmosphere there, which is 100 times less dense that Earths’, uncomfortable. This will be the case for a number of reasons, but most concerning is the composition of Mars’ atmosphere. For a start, Mars’ atmosphere consists of 95.32% carbon dioxide, with the rest of it made up as follows:

  • Nitrogen: 2.7 %
  • Argon: 1.6 %
  • Oxygen: 0.13 %
  • Carbon monoxide: 0.08 %

The rest of the atmosphere, which clearly cannot support life as we know it, is made up of trace amounts of water, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen-deuterium-oxygen compounds, krypton and xenon.

 

when-humans-colonize-mars-atmosphere

Photo by mendhak, https://flic.kr/p/drgWYD

 

Complicating this issue is the thinness of the atmosphere – while it is dense enough to support weather such as winds and clouds, it is not dense enough and thus not massive enough to permit water to exist in a liquid state. This is a prerequisite for the establishment of a hydrological cycle, which is a problem in itself, since the water known to exist in the rocks and soil of Mars must first be brought to the surface to collect in depressions and low-lying areas.

The Council For The Colonization of Mars readily admits it has no ready solution for the problems surrounding the Martian atmosphere; however, it hopes that possible solutions might present themselves during the solving of another, equally vexatious problem, that of increasing the mean temperature of the planet, which is briefly discussed in the next section.

Increasing the Temperature – When Humans Colonize Mars:

Increasing the mean temperature is not only required to make living conditions more bearable when humans colonize Mars, but also to create a “thermal blanket”, to enable the planet to retain whatever heat is gained by whatever method.

At present, the average temperature on Mars is about -80 degrees F (-60 degrees C), with extreme lows of -195 degrees F (-125 degrees C) near the poles in winter, to –100 degrees F (-73 degrees C) in summer.

The Council hopes that by creating warmer climatic conditions, the permafrost that keeps most of Mars’ water captive will melt, thus releasing the water as liquid. However, heating the atmosphere must happen concurrently with increasing the density of the atmosphere to prevent the sublimation of liquid water. Because of this, the Council is currently engaged in genetic experiments to create fast-growing algae, whose purpose will be to covert the excess carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to oxygen.

 

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Photo by European Southern Observatory
, https://flic.kr/p/rxVksM

 

The Council argues that a similar process created the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, but readily admits that liquid water existed on Earth during this time. This is not the case on Mars and to address the finer points of this issue, another sub-committee staffed by geneticists and biologists has been established to come up with viable solutions, part of one of those solutions is as follows and directly quoted from their report:

“The sub-committee proposes that the entire Martian surface be covered by soot, or a similar dark-colored material to capture, and retain solar radiation in the form of heat. …it is shown that slightly more than a billion tons of soot would be required to attain a temperature adjustment of one degree Celsius over a period of about seven decades. Table two shows that the process might become self-sustaining after a period of 150 to 200 years, by which time significant amounts of liquid water will likely have been liberated from the sub-surface permafrost.”

The proposed solution doesn’t include the tables of calculations for “technical reasons”, but it continues to state that:

“Transporting the soot, or other dark-colored material could be achieved by means of the several thousand ICBM’s (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) that are currently in the nuclear arsenals of several superpowers. It is proposed that the missiles be deliberately crashed onto the Martian surface during normally occurring dust storms, to allow the prevailing winds to distribute the material released during the impact.” 

The proposed solution to the problem of raising the temperature on Mars goes on to say that it might be prudent to reserve several hundred ICBM’s for later use to transport large populations of algae that are hoped will find liquid water, and establish themselves to start the process of transforming the Martian atmosphere. Nonetheless, the sub-committee admits that the lack of a magnetic field might undo all other efforts to make Mars livable, especially for the newly arrived algae on which the entire terraforming process depends.

The Magnetic Field Problem – When Humans Colonize Mars:

The issue of a magnetic field, or lack of one to shield the surface of Mars from the effects of solar radiation, is a serious one. A problem that the Council for the Colonization of Mars has no ready solution for. However, the Council is nothing, if not honest about the problems facing its colonization program and fully aware of the fact that when humans colonize Mars, the Sun might fry the newly arrived colonists as if in a giant microwave oven. Particularly in the northern Martian hemisphere, where there is no magnetic field to speak of.

 

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Photo by Kevin Dooley, https://flic.kr/p/7HLWHo

 

Overall, Mars’ magnetic field is 40 times weaker than that of Earth’s. While there are many theories as to why this is, the Council for the Colonization of Mars is the first to admit that the weak magnetic field poses a grave risk to the success of its colonization program. In the conclusion of its report, the Council acknowledges this fact and states its position (as paraphrased, below) on the matter thus;

“It is entirely possible that the difference in the strength between the magnetic fields of the Southern and Northern Martian hemispheres was the direct cause of the loss of the Martian atmosphere, as the result of the normal circulation of the Martian atmosphere through and across the de-magnetized Northern hemisphere.

The solar wind would likely have stripped the atmosphere away from the planet by slow degrees as it passed over the Northern hemisphere. Having no protection from solar radiation might be circumvented by constructing human habitations beneath the surface; however, not being protected like we are on Earth will no doubt severely inhibit the range of possible activities on the surface. Since all activities and persons on the surface need to be shielded either by some form of artificial construction, or by means of personal protection in the form of radiation-resistant full body suits.

Additionally, the initial transformation of the Martian atmosphere depends on the fact that the transforming organisms must not be adversely affected by solar radiation. Genetic mutations as the result of exposure to radiation could well kill off the entire algae population. Furthermore, any gains in the density of the atmosphere need to be retained, which is only possible by preventing the atmosphere from circulating over the Northern hemisphere.

A sub-committee has been established to investigate the merits of various proposed solutions to this serious issue; however, they’re aware of the fact that it might be impossible to manipulate the manner in which the Martian atmosphere circulates.

Technology to achieve this is not yet available, but it is hoped that by stabilizing Mars’ axial tilt by introducing a suitably massive asteroid, a secondary affect might be that the tidal forces caused by the asteroid could conceivably re-activate the dynamic processes in the planet’s interior required to re-establish a magnetic field over the Northern Martian hemisphere”.

Conclusion – When Humans Colonize Mars:

In short, what the Council proposes is to restart the circular flow of molten material between the core and the mantle, which is what drives Earth’s magnetic field. However, the report fails to mention that should the introduced asteroid that is meant to stabilize the planet’s axial tilt actually produce sufficiently strong enough tidal forces to shift the planet’s crust, the results in the thin Northern hemisphere crust might exceed expectations by several orders of magnitude.

 

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Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, https://flic.kr/p/og5cYH

 

Such tidal forces could produce massive quakes and/or catastrophic, planet-wide volcanism that might alter the already unsavory atmosphere to the point where runaway processes could cause a greenhouse effect similar to that on Venus. If this happened, mankind will certainly never set foot on Mars, but given the current challenges of establishing a colony of humans on Mars the words, When humans Colonize Mars might well be nothing more than a distant dream, or perhaps a story told to children at bedtime. Regardless of what the Council for the Colonization of Mars has to say about it, in simple terms, it aint’ gonna happen any time soon!

 

 

Featured image by NASA, http://goo.gl/LUAZDr

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